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Preschoolers' Understanding of Quantity Linked to Math Ability

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NIH funded study suggests innate ability to estimate amounts may underlie math skill

Monday, August 22, 2011

Preschoolers with a strong ability to estimate quantities are more likely to score higher on tests of basic number skills than are their peers with less ability to estimate quantities, according to a study supported by the National Institutes of Health.

The findings show the earliest link between the ability to roughly estimate amounts and skill at such conventional mathematics tasks as counting, addition, and subtraction. Previous research has shown that this same link between an inherent grasp of quantities and math skill is also present in adolescents. The finding in adolescents, however, left open whether proficiency at estimating quantities predisposed someone to skill at math, or whether the benefit of good teaching increased a person’s skills in both estimating quantities and in solving math problems.

Because the current study tested children before they were exposed to classroom instruction, it provides the strongest evidence to date that the inborn ability for estimating quantities is related to later math skills.

Are people born good at math?

“Much of math ability is learned, but it’s quite possible that an inborn factor influences both the understanding of quantities as well as makes learning math easier for some people. This study doesn’t imply or prove that math abilities aren’t learned,” said Kathy Mann Koepke, Ph.D, of the NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), which funded the study. “It does, however, move us closer to identifying those factors that underlie the development of mathematics ability. Once we identify those factors, the hope is that we can modify them, through appropriate instruction, to help people who have trouble learning math.”

Dr. Mann Koepke directs the NICHD’s program, Mathematics and Science Cognition and Learning: Development and Disorders. The program supports research into how individuals learn—or why they may have difficulty learning—math and science.

“Children who fall behind in math early usually don’t catch up to their peers,” Dr. Mann Koepke said. “Math skill is important for entry into higher education and for entry into many higher paying technical fields. It’s also important for daily life. For example, many American adults lack even the basic math skills necessary to estimate calories in their diets, or to calculate the time intervals at which to take their medications.”

The study was conducted by Melissa E. Libertus, Ph.D., Lisa Feigenson, Ph.D., and Justin Halberda, Ph.D, at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md. It was published online in Developmental Science.

Dr. Libertus, the study’s lead author, explained that earlier studies have shown that infants, as well as many animal species, have a basic nonverbal ability to estimate or distinguish quantities. Researchers refer to this ability as an “Approximate Number System,” or ANS. Animals, for example, might use the ANS to distinguish a scarce from an abundant food source, such as judging which bush might have the most berries. Similarly, people rely on the ANS when they quickly scan the checkout lanes at the supermarket, and choose the one with the fewest customers.

How the study was conducted

In their study, Dr. Libertus and her collaborators measured the ANS ability of 200 preschool children aged 3 to 5. The researchers also tested the children’s ability to do basic math, through such tasks as counting, comparing numbers, and adding, subtracting and multiplying.

For the ANS task, the children viewed groups of blue and yellow dots on a computer monitor. The dots were visible for two seconds—too briefly to count—before the screen went dark. The children then were asked to say whether there were more blue dots or yellow dots before being shown another screen with more dots.

Tests of math ability were:

  • verbally counting items on a page
  • determining which of two spoken numbers was greater or lesser
  • reading printed numerals
  • solving simple written addition and subtraction problems
  • responding to questions about number concepts, such as indicating how many groups of 10 are in 100
  • stating number facts, such as “three plus six equals nine” and “three times six equals eighteen”

The researchers found that the children who chose the screens with the most dots faster and more accurately than their peers were more likely to score well on the mathematics tasks.

The researchers noted that future studies are needed to determine whether strong ANS ability predisposes children to skill at math, or whether both ANS ability and math skill are dependent on a third, as yet unidentified, factor. Similarly, if strong ANS ability is a forerunner of math achievement, additional studies will be needed to find out if it is possible to boost ANS ability, in order to help children understand math concepts more easily.


About the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD)

The NICHD sponsors research on development, before and after birth; maternal, child, and family health; reproductive biology and population issues; and medical rehabilitation. For more information, visit the Institute’s Web site at

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