Skip Navigation
Funding Opportunities | Search Funded Research Grants and Contracts

IES Grant

Title: Understanding and Facilitating Symbolic Learning
Center: NCER Year: 2005
Principal Investigator: Uttal, David Awardee: Northwestern University
Program: Cognition and Student Learning      [Program Details]
Award Period: 3 years Award Amount: $958,346
Type: Development and Innovation Award Number: R305H050059
Description:

Co-Principal Investigator: Judy DeLoache (University of Virginia)

The ability to understand letters, numbers, and mathematical symbols is critically important to learning in school. To facilitate the learning of educational symbol systems, teachers and parents often encourage children to play with a variety of concrete symbolic objects. For example, teachers often use such objects, commonly called manipulatives, to facilitate children's learning of mathematics. It is generally assumed that these objects facilitate learning by helping children to understand concepts before they can understand abstract, symbolic representations. However, this assumption has never been adequately tested, and there are theoretical reasons to believe that merely interacting with an object that is intended to be a symbol may actually be counterproductive. This research team will develop and test interventions designed to help parents and teachers use symbolic objects, such as manipulatives, more effectively.

Purpose: The ability to understand letters, numbers, and mathematical symbols is critically important to learning in school. To facilitate the learning of educational symbol systems, teachers and parents often encourage children to play with a variety of concrete symbolic objects. For example, teachers often use such object, commonly called manipulatives, to facilitate children's learning of mathematics. It is generally assumed that these objects facilitate learning by helping children to understand concepts before they can understand abstract, symbolic representations. However, this assumption has never been adequately tested, and there are theoretical reasons to believe that merely interacting with an object that is intended to be a symbol may actually be counterproductive.

This research team will develop and test interventions designed to help parents and teachers use symbolic objects, such as manipulatives, more effectively.

Setting: Three elementary schools in the Chicago area are participating. Participating preschool children also live in the greater Chicago area.

Population: The participants include 4-year-olds, second-graders, and fourth-graders. Participating children are diverse in terms of ethnicity and SES. The second and fourth grade students attend one of three elementary schools. One school serves a population that is 97% African-American. A second school serves a population that is very diverse with approximately equal numbers of White, Hispanic, and Asian-American children. The third school serves a population that is approximately 85% White.

Intervention: Two types of interventions are being developed. The first is designed to facilitate four-year-olds' understanding of the symbolic properties of letters and numbers through simple games using magnetic letters and numbers that parents can play with their child. The second intervention takes place in elementary schools. Teachers will implement instructional methods designed to help children link what they learn with mathematics manipulatives to written versions of the same kind of problems.

Research Design and Methods: The research team is conducting experiments that focus on children's understanding of letters, numbers, and mathematical symbols and the influences of interacting with concrete symbolic objects on this understanding. The researchers use pre-test, post-test designs, and include control groups to ensure that observed improvements are attributable to the newly developed interventions.

Control Condition: Some of the studies rely on a within-subject design, and in those cases, children serve as their own control. In other experiments, children are randomly assigned to control conditions where they complete the same tasks as the experimental children but without the use of concrete symbolic objects.

Key Measures: A variety of assessments of number and letter knowledge are being used. They include standardized tests such as the Test of Early Mathematics Ability (TEMA 3), relevant subscales of the Woodcock-Johnson tests, and simple experimenter-developed measures, such as tests of letter and number recognition and counting.

Data Analytic Strategy: Differences between experimental and control groups are being evaluated using analysis of variance techniques.

Related IES Projects: Learning From Symbolic Objects (R305H020088)

Publications

Book chapter

Deloache, J.S. (2005). The Pygmalion Problem in Early Symbol Use. In L. Namy (Ed.), Symbol Use and Symbolic Representation: Developmental and Comparative Perspectives (pp. 47–67). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Deloache, J.S., and Bloom, M.E. (2010). Of Chimps and Children: Use of Spatial Symbols by Two Species. In F. Dolins, and R. Mitchell (Eds.), Spatial Perception, Spatial Cognition (pp. 486–501). New York: Cambridge University Press.

DeLoache, J.S., and Ganea, P.A. (2007). The Early Growth of Symbolic Understanding and Use: A Tribute to Ann Brown. In J.C. Campione, K.E. Metz, and A.S. Palincsar (Eds.), Children's Learning in the Laboratory and Classroom Contexts: Essays in Honor of Ann Brown (pp. 39–54). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum and Associates.

DeLoache, J.S., Ganea, P.A., and Jaswal, V.K. (2009). Early Learning Through Language. In J. Colombo, P. McArdle, and L. Freund (Eds.), Infant Pathways to Language: Methods, Models, and Research Directions (pp. 119–140). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Uttal, D.H., and O'Doherty, K. (2008). Comprehending and Learning From Visual Representations: A Developmental Approach. In J. Gilbert, M. Reiner, and M. Nakhleh (Eds.), Visualization: Theory and Practice in Science Education (pp. 53–72). New York: Springer.

Uttal, D.H., and O'Doherty, K. (2008). Comprehending and Learning From Visualizations: A Developmental Perspective. In J. Gilbert, M. Reiner, and M. Nakhleh (Eds.), Visualization: Theory and Practice in Science Education (pp. 53–72). New York: Springer.

Uttal, D.H., Liu, L.S., and Deloache, J.S. (2005). Concreteness and Symbolic Development. In L. Balter, and C.S. Tamis-Lemonda (Eds.), Child Psychology: A Handbook of Contemporary Issues (2nd ed., pp. 167–184). New York: Psychology Press.

Journal article, monograph, or newsletter

Deloache, J.S. (2006). Mindful of Symbols. Scientific American Mind, 17(1): 71–75.

DeLoache, J.S., and Chiong, C. (2009). Babies and Baby Media. American Behavioral Scientist, 52(8): 1115–1135.

McNeil, N., Uttal, D.H., Jarvin, L., and Sternberg, R.J. (2009). Should You Show Me the Money? Concrete Objects Both Hurt and Help Performance on Mathematics Problems. Learning and Instruction, 19(2): 171–184.

Simcock, G., and DeLoache, J.S. (2006). Get the Picture? The Effects of Iconicity on Toddlers' Reenactment From Picture Books. Developmental Psychology, 42(6): 1352–1357.

Sternberg, R. (2008). Applying Psychological Theories to Educational Practice. American Educational Research Journal, 45(1): 150–165.

Uttal, D.H., and Deloache, J.S. (2006). Learning From Symbolic Objects. APS Observer, 19(5).

Uttal, D.H., Gentner, D., Liu, L.L., and Lewis, A.R. (2008). Developmental Changes in Children's Understanding of the Similarity Between Photographs and Their Referents. Developmental Science, 11(1): 156–170.

Uttal, D.H., O'Doherty, K.D., and DeLoache, J.S. (2009). Rethinking the Concrete-Abstract Distinction: The Case of Mathematics Manipulatives. Child Development Perspectives.

Ware, E., Uttal, D.H., Wetter, E.K., and DeLoache, J.S. (2006). Young Children Make Scale Errors When Playing With Dolls. Developmental Science, 9(1): 40–45.


Back