Recent research reveals a link between individual differences in mathematics achievement and performance on tasks that activate the approximate number system (ANS): a primitive cognitive system shared by diverse animal species and by humans of all ages. Here we used a brief experimental paradigm to test one causal hypothesis suggested by this relationship: activation of the ANS may enhance children's performance of symbolic arithmetic. Over 2 experiments, children who briefly practiced tasks that engaged primitive approximate numerical quantities performed better on subsequent exact, symbolic arithmetic problems than did children given other tasks involving comparison and manipulation of non-numerical magnitudes (brightness and length). The practice effect appeared specific to mathematics, as no differences between groups were observed on a comparable sentence completion task. These results move beyond correlational research and provide evidence that the exercise of non-symbolic numerical processes can enhance children's performance of symbolic mathematics.
Keywords: Approximate number system; Children; Mathematics; Numerical cognition; Symbols; Training.
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