Predictors of Middle School Students’ Growth in Symbolic Number Comparison Performance


  • Courtney Pollack Orcid
  • Eric D. Wilkey Orcid
  • Gavin R. Price Orcid


The ability to efficiently compare number symbols, such as digits, is associated with mathematics competence across the lifespan. Performance on symbolic number comparison tasks differ across age groups; young students who are developing fluency with digits improve on symbolic number comparison, and performance is better in adults than children. However, whether this improvement continues for older students who are fluent with number symbols, and what cognitive factors relate to this improvement, is unknown. This study used a longitudinal sample of U.S. middle school students (n = 394) to examine whether symbolic number comparison performance changes over middle school (i.e., students aged 11-14), whether there are individual differences in students’ rate of change, and potential predictors of that change. Students completed measures of single-digit symbolic number comparison, nonsymbolic number comparison, executive function (EF), and mathematics competence in Grade 5 (M = 11.02 years; SD = 0.32), and double-digit symbolic number comparison in Grades 6-8. Results showed that, on average, students’ symbolic number comparison performance improved from Grades 6-8. Grade 5 Symbolic number comparison performance predicted Grade 8 symbolic number comparison and rate of change over Grades 6-8. Grade 5 nonsymbolic number comparison, EF, and mathematics competence predicted Grade 8 symbolic number comparison performance. Results suggest that numerical magnitude processing, executive functions, and mathematics competence are related to symbolic number processing well into middle school, and that students continue to refine their ability to process number symbols into adolescence.