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Inference and Association in Children's Early Numerical Estimation


  • Thanks to members of the LAD Lab for comments on earlier versions of this manuscript and to Karen Bejar, Amanda Chamberlain, Michael Sim, and Shirlene Wade for substantial help in gathering and coding these data. This work was supported by a Jacobs Graduate Fellowship and an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship to J.S., and by a grant to D.B. from the James S. McDonnell Foundation.


How do children map number words to the numerical magnitudes they represent? Recent work in adults has shown that two distinct mechanisms—structure mapping and associative mapping—connect number words to nonlinguistic numerical representations (Sullivan & Barner, 2012). This study investigated the development of number word mappings, and the roles of inference and association in children's estimation. Fifty-eight 5- to 7-year-olds participated, and results showed that at both ages, children possess strong item-based associative mappings for numbers up to around six, but rely primarily on structure mapping—an inferential process—for larger quantities. These findings suggest that children rely primarily on an inferential mechanism to construct and deploy mappings between number words and large approximate magnitudes.