Effects of Visual Training of Approximate Number Sense on Auditory Number Sense and School Math Ability

Research with children and adults suggests that people’s math performance is predicted by individual differences in an evolutionarily ancient ability to estimate and compare numerical quantities without counting (the approximate number system or ANS). However, previous work has almost exclusively used visual stimuli to measure ANS precision, leaving open the possibility that the observed link might be driven by aspects of visuospatial competence, rather than the amodal ANS. We addressed this possibility in an ANS training study. Sixty-eight 6-year-old children participated in a 5-week study that either trained their visual ANS ability or their phonological awareness (an active control group). Immediately before and after training, we assessed children’s visual and auditory ANS precision, as well as their symbolic math ability and phonological awareness. We found that, prior to training, children’s precision in a visual ANS task related to their math performance – replicating recent studies. Importantly, precision in an auditory ANS task also related to math performance. Furthermore, we found that children who completed visual ANS training showed greater improvements in auditory ANS precision than children who completed phonological awareness training. Finally, children in the ANS training group showed significant improvements in math ability but not phonological awareness. These results suggest that the link between ANS precision and school math ability goes beyond visuospatial abilities and that the modality-independent ANS is causally linked to math ability in early childhood.

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