Preverbal and verbal counting and computation

Cognition. 1992 Aug;44(1-2):43-74. doi: 10.1016/0010-0277(92)90050-r.


We describe the preverbal system of counting and arithmetic reasoning revealed by experiments on numerical representations in animals. In this system, numerosities are represented by magnitudes, which are rapidly but inaccurately generated by the Meck and Church (1983) preverbal counting mechanism. We suggest the following. (1) The preverbal counting mechanism is the source of the implicit principles that guide the acquisition of verbal counting. (2) The preverbal system of arithmetic computation provides the framework for the assimilation of the verbal system. (3) Learning to count involves, in part, learning a mapping from the preverbal numerical magnitudes to the verbal and written number symbols and the inverse mappings from these symbols to the preverbal magnitudes. (4) Subitizing is the use of the preverbal counting process and the mapping from the resulting magnitudes to number words in order to generate rapidly the number words for small numerosities. (5) The retrieval of the number facts, which plays a central role in verbal computation, is mediated via the inverse mappings from verbal and written numbers to the preverbal magnitudes and the use of these magnitudes to find the appropriate cells in tabular arrangements of the answers. (6) This model of the fact retrieval process accounts for the salient features of the reaction time differences and error patterns revealed by experiments on mental arithmetic. (7) The application of verbal and written computational algorithms goes on in parallel with, and is to some extent guided by, preverbal computations, both in the child and in the adult.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Concept Formation*
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Language Development*
  • Mathematics*
  • Mental Recall
  • Problem Solving*
  • Reaction Time
  • Verbal Behavior*