Individual differences in numerical abilities in preschoolers


Address for correspondence: Ann Dowker, Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford, South Parks Road, Oxford OX1 3UD, UK; e-mail:


This study investigated individual differences in different aspects of early number concepts in preschoolers. Eighty 4-year-olds from Oxford nursery classes took part. They were tested on accuracy of counting sets of objects; the cardinal word principle; the order irrelevance principle; and predicting the results of repeated addition and subtraction by 1 from a set of objects. There were marked individual differences for most tasks. Most children were reasonably proficient at counting and 70% understood the cardinal word principle. Based on the results of a repeated addition and subtraction by 1 task, the children were divided into three approximately equal groups: those who were already able to use an internalized counting sequence for the simplest forms of addition and subtraction; those who relied on a repeated ‘counting-all’ procedure for such tasks; and those who were as yet unable to cope with such tasks. In each group, significant relationships between some, but not all, of the numerical tasks were found. However, for almost any two tasks, it was possible to find individuals who could carry out either one of the tasks but not the other. Thus, even before formal instruction, arithmetical cognition is not unitary but is made up of many components.