Can You Trust Your Number Sense: Distinct Processing of Numbers and Quantities in Elementary School Children


  • Mila Marinova Orcid
  • Bert Reynvoet Orcid


Theories of number development have traditionally argued that the acquisition and discrimination of symbolic numbers (i.e., number words and digits) are grounded in and are continuously supported by the Approximate Number System (ANS)—an evolutionarily ancient system for number. In the current study, we challenge this claim by investigating whether the ANS continues to support the symbolic number processing throughout development. To this end, we tested 87 first- (Age M = 6.54 years, SD = 0.58), third- (Age M = 8.55 years, SD = 0.60) and fifth-graders (Age M = 10.63 years, SD = 0.67) on four audio-visual comparison tasks (1) Number words–Digits, (2) Tones–Dots, (3) Number words–Dots, (4) Tones–Digits, while varying the Number Range (Small and Large), and the Numerical Ratio (Easy, Medium, and Hard). Results showed that larger and faster developmental growth in the performance was observed in the Number Words–Digits task, while the tasks containing at least one non-symbolic quantity showed smaller and slower developmental change. In addition, the Ratio effect (i.e., the signature of ANS being addressed) was present in the Tones–Dots, Tones–Digits, and Number Words–Dots tasks, but was absent in the Number Words–Digits task. These findings suggest that it is unlikely that the ANS continuously underlines the acquisition and the discrimination of the symbolic numbers. Rather, our results indicate that non-symbolic quantities and symbolic numbers follow qualitatively distinct developmental paths, and argue that the latter ones are processed in a semantic network which starts to emerge from an early age.