Cognitive Science & Numeracy Lab

Can we predict which children will struggle to gain numeracy skills?

There are large individual differences in numeracy; on average, there is a seven-year span in ability within a single elementary classroom (Cockcroft, 1982). Of particular concern is the finding that children who enter school with poor numeracy skills do not catch up (Aunola et al., 2004), likely due to the lack of identification and intervention tools.

As part of our research program, we are developing tools to assess and predict children’s numeracy skills early on, in kindergarten and first grade. We have identified precursor abilities to numeracy and, using patterns of strengths and weaknesses in these abilities, we are able to predict which children will struggle to gain numeracy skills, and even which skills they will struggle with. The ultimate goal of this research is to create individualized interventions.

This line of research was funded by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) grant for the Count Me In Project (www.carleton.ca/cmi). Count Me In is a large-scale, multi-site, longitudinal research study investigating predictors of mathematical development in children from Kindergarten to Grade 5 (N = 500).

Key findings:

  • The development of number representations is facilitated by children’s ability to enumerate small sets of items without counting, or subitize, and the ability to mentally represent one’s fingers, or finger gnosis (Penner-Wilger et al., 2009, 2008, 2007). Identifying the underlying skills that facilitate the development of number representations has implications both for understanding the form of our number representations (of interest to numerical cognition) and for the development of math pedagogy.
  • Children’s performance on subitizing and finger gnosis tasks in Grade 1 can identify and differentiate children with math-specific difficultiesfffff and children with more general non-verbal learning difficulties (Penner-Wilger, 2009). Test outcomes can be used for early identification of students in need off math interventions and to more specifically guide the intervention design.
  • There are multiple pathways to math success (LeFevre et al., 2010). This is perhaps the most hopeful message to come out of the Count Me In project. Children’s linguistic, quantitative, and spatial attention skills each contribute independently to the development of mathematical skills. As a result, children can compensate for a weakness in one area with a relative strength in another. This finding of multiple pathways to success has strong implications for math education and the development of math interventions.

Find out more:

LeFevre, J., Fast, L., Skwarchuk, S. L., Smith-Chant, B. L., Bisanz, J., Kamawar, D., & Penner-Wilger, M. (2010). Pathways to mathematics: Longitudinal predictors of performance. Child Development, 81, 1753-1767.

Penner-Wilger, M., Fast, L., LeFevre, J., Smith-Chant, B. L., Skwarchuk, S., Kamawar, D., Bisanz, J., & Deslaurier, W. A. (2008). Investigating the building blocks of numerical representations: Subitizing and finger gnosia. Proceedings of the 30th Annual Cognitive Science Society. Austin, TX: Cognitive Science Society.

Penner-Wilger, M., Fast, L., LeFevre, J., Smith-Chant, B. L., Skwarchuk, S., Kamawar, D., & Bisanz, J. (2007). The foundations of numeracy: Subitizing, finger gnosia, and fine-motor ability. Proceedings of the 29th Annual Cognitive Science Society. Austin, TX: Cognitive Science Society.