Harvard Graduate School of Education, Cambridge, MA, USA
Learning mathematics requires fluency with symbols that convey numerical magnitude. Algebra and higher-level mathematics involve literal symbols, such as "x", that often represent numerical magnitude. Compared to other symbols, such as Arabic numerals, literal symbols may require more complex processing because they have strong pre-existing associations in literacy. The present study tested this notion using same-different tasks that produce less efficient judgments for different magnitudes that are closer together compared to farther apart (i.e., same-different distance effects). Twenty-four adolescents completed three same-different tasks using Arabic numerals, literal symbols, and artificial symbols. All three symbolic formats produced same-different distance effects, showing literal and artificial symbol processing of numerical magnitude. Importantly, judgments took longer for literal symbols than artificial symbols on average, suggesting a cost specific to literal symbol processing. Taken together, results suggest that literal symbol processing differs from processing of other symbols that represent numerical magnitude.