David H. Uttal, Northwestern University
Loren Marulis, Northwestern University
Judy DeLoache, Northwestern University
Abstract: Within a few short years, children must master a variety of symbol systems, including letters, numbers, and mathematical symbols. Early understanding of these systems is a harbinger of high levels of achievement, not only in elementary school but in high school and beyond.
To facilitate the acquisition of symbolic knowledge, teachers and parents use a variety of concrete objects, or manipulatives, to help children learn. For example, many American parents purchase magnetic letters and numbers, and teachers use a variety of both informal and formal manipulatives (e.g., Dienes Blocks, Cuisenaire Rods). The theoretical basis for the use of these objects is that young children's thinking is inherently concrete; consequently, the use of concrete objects allows children to acquire the concepts of print, number, or mathematics without having to understand, at least initially, the more abstract symbolic representations of these concepts.
Our research tests the assumption that concrete objects facilitate children's learning of symbolic relations. We have assigned children to work with manipulatives or with control materials-objects that encourage a similar type of play as manipulatives but don't have symbolic properties. Our results show that playing with concrete objects is not a panacea for young children's understanding of the symbolic properties of letters, numbers, and mathematical symbols and can sometimes be counterproductive. At the same time, these results point to ways in which concrete symbolic objects can facilitate understanding. For example, using magnets to represent words may facilitate understanding of the relation between spoken and written language.