Symbolic arithmetic knowledge without instruction

Abstract

Symbolic arithmetic is fundamental to science, technology and economics, but its acquisition by children typically requires years of effort, instruction and drill1,2. When adults perform mental arithmetic, they activate nonsymbolic, approximate number representations3,4, and their performance suffers if this nonsymbolic system is impaired5. 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 required6–10. 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 subtraction11–15. 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. We presented children with approximate symbolic arithmetic problems in a format that parallels previous tests of non-symbolic arithmetic in preschool children8,9. In the first experiment, five- to six-year-old children were given problems such as ‘‘If you had twenty-four stickers and I gave you twenty-seven more, would you have more or less than thirty-five stickers?’’. Children performed well above chance (65.0%, t1952.77, P 5 0.012) without resorting to guessing or comparison strategies that could serve as alternatives to arithmetic. Children who have been taught no symbolic arithmetic therefore have some ability to perform symbolic addition problems. The children’s performance nevertheless fell short of performance on non-symbolic arithmetic tasks using equivalent addition problems with numbers presented as arrays of dots and with the addition operation conveyed by successive motions of the dots into a box (71.3% correct, F1,345 4.26, P 5 0.047)8..

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