Children’s Number-Line Estimation Shows Development of Measurement Skills (Not Number Representations)

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Children’s understanding of numbers is often assessed using a number-line task, where the child is shown a line labeled with 0 at one end and a higher number (e.g., 100) at the other end. The child is then asked where on the line some intermediate number (e.g., 70) should go. Performance on this task changes predictably during childhood, and this has often been interpreted as evidence of a change in the child’s psychological representation of integer quantities. The present article presents theoretical and empirical evidence that the change in number-line performance actually reflects the development of measurement skills used in the task. We compare 2 versions of the number-line task: the bounded version used in the literature and a new, unbounded version. Results indicate that it is only children’s performance on the bounded task (which requires subtraction or division) that changes markedly with age. In contrast, children’s performance on the unbounded task (which requires only addition) remains fairly constant as they get older. Thus, developmental changes in performance on the traditional bounded number-line task likely reflect the growth of task-specific measurement skills rather than changes in the child’s understanding of numerical quantities.

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