Symbolic arithmetic knowledge without instruction
journal contributionposted on 26.08.2011, 13:17 by Camilla Gilmore, Shannon E. McCarthy, Elizabeth S. Spelke
Symbolic arithmetic is fundamental to science, technology and economics, but its acquisition by children typically requires years of effort, instruction and drill. When adults perform mental arithmetic, they activate nonsymbolic, approximate number representations and their performance suffers if this nonsymbolic system is impaired. Nonsymbolic number representations also allow adults, children, and even infants to add or subtract pairs of dot arrays and to compare the resulting sum or difference to a third array, provided that only approximate accuracy is required. Here we report that young children, who have mastered verbal counting and are on the threshold of arithmetic instruction, can build on their nonsymbolic number system to perform symbolic addition and subtraction. Children across a broad socio-economic spectrum solved symbolic problems involving approximate addition or subtraction of large numbers, both in a laboratory test and in a school setting. Aspects of symbolic arithmetic therefore lie within the reach of children who have learned no algorithms for manipulating numerical symbols. Our findings help to delimit the sources of children’s difficulties learning symbolic arithmetic, and they suggest ways to enhance children’s engagement with formal mathematics.
- Mathematics Education Centre