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Individual differences in children’s understanding of inversion and arithmetical skill

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posted on 26.08.2011, 13:16 by Camilla GilmoreCamilla Gilmore, Peter Bryant
Background and aims. In order to develop arithmetic expertise, children must understand arithmetic principles, such as the inverse relationship between addition and subtraction, in addition to learning calculation skills. We report two experiments that investigate children’s understanding of the principle of inversion and the relationship between their conceptual understanding and arithmetical skills. Sample. A group of 127 children from primary schools took part in the study. The children were from 2 age groups (6–7 and 8–9 years). Methods. Children’s accuracy on inverse and control problems in a variety of presentation formats and in canonical and non-canonical forms was measured. Tests of general arithmetic ability were also administered. Results. Children consistently performed better on inverse than control problems, which indicates that they could make use of the inverse principle. Presentation format affected performance: picture presentation allowed children to apply their conceptual understanding flexibly regardless of the problem type, while word problems restricted their ability to use their conceptual knowledge. Cluster analyses revealed three subgroups with different profiles of conceptual understanding and arithmetical skill. Children in the ‘high ability’ and ‘low ability’ groups showed conceptual understanding that was in-line with their arithmetical skill, whilst a 3rd group of children had more advanced conceptual understanding than arithmetical skill. Conclusions. The three subgroups may represent different points along a single developmental path or distinct developmental paths. The discovery of the existence of the three groups has important consequences for education. It demonstrates the importance of considering the pattern of individual children’s conceptual understanding and problem-solving skills.



  • Science


  • Mathematics Education Centre


GILMORE, C.K. and BRYANT, P., 2006. Individual differences in children’s understanding of inversion and arithmetical skill. The British Journal of Educational Psychology, 76 (2), pp. 309-331


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This article was published in the serial, The British Journal of Educational Psychology [© The British Psychological Society]. The definitive version is available at:





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