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Abstract

How do children transition from preverbal conceptions of numerical quantity to a full understanding of symbolic number (e.g. number words: one, two, three. etc.)? This is an important question in developmental psychology with serious implications for early childhood education. A surprisingly unspecified aspect of early number development is children’s use of cardinal number gestures (e.g. holding up three fingers to indicate “three”). Although it is widely assumed that number gestures play some role in children’s early number development (e.g. Gelman & Gallistel, 1978; Fuson, 1988), the specifics of this role are not well understood. In three studies, I establish the relevance of number gestures to the acquisition of number words and examine children’s knowledge of number gestures in relation to their developing understanding of number words. Study 1 examined cases in which children’s number gestures do not match their spoken number words when labeling sets of items (e.g. a child holds up three fingers and says “two” in reference to a set of three items). Not only are children’s number gestures typically more accurate than their speech during these gesture-speech mismatches, children who produced gesture-speech mismatchers are more likely to learn new number words from rich number input than children who did not produce gesture-speech mismatches. Studies 2 and 3 investigated whether children appreciate the symbolic properties of number gestures. Specifically, Study 2 found that children form precise mappings between number gestures and number words, even before demonstrating a comprehension of number words on traditional number measures. Study 3 found that children conceive of at least some number gestures as number symbols (like number words) and not merely item-based representations of number (such as arrays of dots). The results of these three studies combined with previous research suggest that number gestures could serve as a bridge between nonsymbolic and symbolic representations of number.

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