The foundations of numerical and mathematical abilities: A literature review

The processing of numerical information is a dominant feature of everyday life. Whether it is in the context of financial transactions, such as shopping for groceries or in gauging how many people are in a room, we are constantly using numerical information to guide our behavior and make decisions. While there has been much more attention placed on literacy and its importance for life success, there is clear evidence to suggest that basic numerical and mathematical skills play a critical role in determining an individual's life success. Furthermore, there is abundant evidence that low numeracy skills are associated with substantial costs to society at large (Butterworth, Varma, and Laurillard; Bynner and Parsons, 1997; Duncan et al., 2007). In view of this, a better understanding of how the ability to process numerical information develops could lead to improvements in how these skills are taught and used by individuals to improve their lives across the globe. As an extension of this, improving numerical skills among individuals will have benefits for society at large as it will lead to a stronger working force and thus measurable economic improvements. The focus of the review will be on the foundations of number processing abilities upon which higher-level abilities, such as mental arithmetic are built. In this way, the literature review does not provide a comprehensive overview of the development of numerical and mathematical skills, but rather explore the foundational systems underlying numerical and mathematical abilities. By doing so the review aims to identify key variables that characterize foundational competencies of numerical abilities that can be used in the context of educational assessments and become targets for educational interventions. It is a central contention of the present review that in order to improve the early acquisition of numerical competencies, a focus on foundational systems is necessary. If the foundations are well set then the system can develop optimally.

Ansari, Daniel
GPE Working Paper Series on Learning
Series volume
Global Partnership for Education
World Bank
46 p.
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Cognitive development
Mathematics and science education
Educational research
Early childhood education

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