Acquiring the Cardinal Knowledge of Number Words: A Conceptual Replication


  • Laurence Rousselle
  • Line Vossius


Understanding the way in which counting represent numerosities was shown to be a long-lasting process. As shown in the Give-a-number task, acquiring the meanings of verbal number words goes through successive developmental stages in which children first learn the cardinal meanings of small number words one at a time before generalizing the cardinal principle they have induced from the first three number words to all number words within their counting range. This acquisition would take about a year, and would be completed by the age of 3 ½ years. The aim of the present study was to provide a conceptual replication of the developmental sequence described in Wynn’s study nearly 30 years ago using the Give-a-number task. A first cross-sectional study was conducted on 213 Belgian children aged between 39 and 74 months using the Give-a-number task to examine the developmental pattern and the influence of age on this acquisition. The time span of acquisition was examined in a second study in which 34 children were tested five times every months between the age of 36 to 52 months. Results showed that acquiring the cardinal meanings of number words spread out over a protracted period, far more extended than assumed by Wynn. Furthermore, children do not generalize all-at-once to large number words, the cardinal knowledge they learned on small number words. Rather, number words were found to be learned one at a time in a really progressive manner. Results were discussed with regard to their implications for the existing theories and in relation with other tasks assessing the acquisition of verbal number symbols.