Characterizing exact arithmetic abilities before formal schooling

Chi Chuan Chen, Selim Jang, Manuela Piazza, Daniel C. Hyde

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Children appear to have some arithmetic abilities before formal instruction in school, but the extent of these abilities as well as the mechanisms underlying them are poorly understood. Over two studies, an initial exploratory study of preschool children in the U.S. (N = 207; Age = 2.89–4.30 years) and a pre-registered replication of preschool children in Italy (N = 130; Age = 3–6.33 years), we documented some basic behavioral signatures of exact arithmetic using a non-symbolic subtraction task. Furthermore, we investigated the underlying mechanisms by analyzing the relationship between individual differences in exact subtraction and assessments of other numerical and non-numerical abilities. Across both studies, children performed above chance on the exact non-symbolic arithmetic task, generally showing better performance on problems involving smaller quantities compared to those involving larger quantities. Furthermore, individual differences in non-verbal approximate numerical abilities and exact cardinal number knowledge were related to different aspects of subtraction performance. Specifically, non-verbal approximate numerical abilities were related to subtraction performance in older but not younger children. Across both studies we found evidence that cardinal number knowledge was related to performance on subtraction problems where the answer was zero (i.e., subtractive negation problems). Moreover, subtractive negation problems were only solved above chance by children who had a basic understanding of cardinality. Together these finding suggest that core non-verbal numerical abilities, as well as emerging knowledge of symbolic numbers provide a basis for some, albeit limited, exact arithmetic abilities before formal schooling.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number105481
StatePublished - Sep 2023


  • Arithmetic
  • Exact subtraction
  • Nonsymbolic
  • Numeracy
  • Numerical development
  • Subtractive negation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language


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