Talking about proportion: Fraction labels impact numerical interference in non‐symbolic proportional reasoning


Across two experiments, we investigated how verbal labels impact the way young children attend to proportional information, well before the introduction of formal fraction education. Five‐ to seven‐year‐old children were introduced to equivalent non‐symbolic proportions labeled in one of three ways: (a) a single, categorical label for multiple fractions (both 3/4 and 6/8 referred to as “blick”), (b) labels that focused on the numerator [e.g., 3/4 labeled as “three blicks” (Experiment 1) or “three‐fourths” (Experiment 2)], or (c) labels that had a complete part‐whole structure (“three‐out‐of‐four”). Children then completed measures of non‐symbolic proportional reasoning that pitted whole‐number information against proportional information for novel proportions. Across both experiments, children who heard the categorical labels were more likely to match non‐symbolic displays based on proportion than children in any of the other conditions, who demonstrated higher levels of numerical interference. These findings suggest that fraction labels have the potential to shape children’s attention to proportional information even in the context of non‐symbolic part‐whole displays and for children who are not familiar with formal fraction symbols. We discuss these findings in terms of children’s developing understanding of proportional reasoning and its implications for fraction education.

Developmental Science
Michelle Hurst
Michelle Hurst
Assistant Professor

My research interests include mathematical development and variations in performance across contexts.