Common and distinct predictors of non-symbolic and symbolic ordinal number processing across the early primary school years

Sabrina Finke, Chiara Banfi, H Harald Freudenthaler, Anna F Steiner, Stephan E Vogel, Silke M Göbel, Karin Landerl

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What are the cognitive mechanisms supporting non-symbolic and symbolic order processing? Preliminary evidence suggests that non-symbolic and symbolic order processing are partly distinct constructs. The precise mechanisms supporting these skills, however, are still unclear. Moreover, predictive patterns may undergo dynamic developmental changes during the first years of formal schooling. This study investigates the contribution of theoretically relevant constructs (non-symbolic and symbolic magnitude comparison, counting and storage and manipulation components of verbal and visuo-spatial working memory) to performance and developmental change in non-symbolic and symbolic numerical order processing. We followed 157 children longitudinally from Grade 1 to 3. In the order judgement tasks, children decided whether or not triplets of dots or digits were arranged in numerically ascending order. Non-symbolic magnitude comparison and visuo-spatial manipulation were significant predictors of initial performance in both non-symbolic and symbolic ordering. In line with our expectations, counting skills contributed additional variance to the prediction of symbolic, but not of non-symbolic ordering. Developmental change in ordering performance from Grade 1 to 2 was predicted by symbolic comparison skills and visuo-spatial manipulation. None of the predictors explained variance in developmental change from Grade 2 to 3. Taken together, the present results provide robust evidence for a general involvement of pair-wise magnitude comparison and visuo-spatial manipulation in numerical ordering, irrespective of the number format. Importantly, counting-based mechanisms appear to be a unique predictor of symbolic ordering. We thus conclude that there is only a partial overlap of the cognitive mechanisms underlying non-symbolic and symbolic order processing.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0258847
JournalPLOS one
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - 21 Oct 2021

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© 2021 Finke et al.

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