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Cognition. 2014 Apr;131(1):92-107. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2013.12.007. Epub 2014 Jan 22.

Brief non-symbolic, approximate number practice enhances subsequent exact symbolic arithmetic in children.

Author information

Brain and Cognitive Development Lab, Department of Psychology, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign.
National Institute of Psychology, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad, Pakistan.
Laboratory for Developmental Studies, Department of Psychology, Harvard University.
Contributed equally


Recent research reveals a link between individual differences in mathematics achievement and performance on tasks that activate the approximate number system (ANS): a primitive cognitive system shared by diverse animal species and by humans of all ages. Here we used a brief experimental paradigm to test one causal hypothesis suggested by this relationship: activation of the ANS may enhance children's performance of symbolic arithmetic. Over 2 experiments, children who briefly practiced tasks that engaged primitive approximate numerical quantities performed better on subsequent exact, symbolic arithmetic problems than did children given other tasks involving comparison and manipulation of non-numerical magnitudes (brightness and length). The practice effect appeared specific to mathematics, as no differences between groups were observed on a comparable sentence completion task. These results move beyond correlational research and provide evidence that the exercise of non-symbolic numerical processes can enhance children's performance of symbolic mathematics.


Approximate number system; Children; Mathematics; Numerical cognition; Symbols; Training

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