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Preschool Children's Mapping of Number Words to Nonsymbolic Numerosities


  • We thank Stanislas Dehaene, Susan Carey, and members of Harvard's Laboratory for Developmental Studies for advice and assistance. This research was supported by a Harvard University Fellowship to JSL and NSF grant REC-0087721 to ESS.

concerning this article should be addressed to Elizabeth Spelke, Department of Psychology, Harvard University, 1120, William James Hall, 33 Kirkland Street, Cambridge, MA 02138. Electronic mail may be sent to


Five-year-old children categorized as skilled versus unskilled counters were given verbal estimation and number word comprehension tasks with numerosities 20–120. Skilled counters showed a linear relation between number words and nonsymbolic numerosities. Unskilled counters showed the same linear relation for smaller numbers to which they could count, but not for larger number words. Further tasks indicated that unskilled counters failed even to correctly order large number words differing by a 2 : 1 ratio, whereas they performed well on this task with smaller numbers, and performed well on a nonsymbolic ordering task with the same numerosities. These findings provide evidence that large, approximate numerosity representations become linked to number words around the time that children learn to count to those words reliably.