Abstract number and arithmetic in preschool children

  • Barth H
  • La Mont K
  • Lipton J
 et al. 
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Educated humans use language to express abstract number, applying the same number words to seven apples, whistles, or sins. Is language or education the source of numerical abstraction? Claims to the contrary must present evidence for numerical knowledge that applies to disparate entities, in people who have received no formal mathematics instruction and cannot express such knowledge in words. Here we show that preschool children can compare and add large sets of elements without counting, both within a single visual-spatial modality (arrays of dots) and across two modalities and formats (dot arrays and tone sequences). In two experiments, children viewed animations and either compared one visible array of dots to a second array or added two successive dot arrays and compared the sum to a third array. In further experiments, a dot array was replaced by a sequence of sounds, so that participants had to integrate quantity information presented aurally and visually. Children performed all tasks successfully, without resorting to guessing strategies or responding to continuous variables. Their accuracy varied with the ratio of the two quantities: a signature of large, approximate number representations in adult humans and animals. Addition was as accurate as comparison, even though children showed no relevant knowledge when presented with symbolic versions of the addition tasks. Abstract knowledge of number and addition therefore precedes, and may guide, language-based instruction in mathematics.

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  • H. Barth

  • K. La Mont

  • J. Lipton

  • E. S. Spelke

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