WWC review of this study

Instructional Guidance and Realism of Manipulatives Influence Preschool Children's Mathematics Learning [“Realistic” manipulatives vs. “bland” manipulatives]

Carbonneau, Kira J.; Marley, Scott C. (2015). Journal of Experimental Education, v83 n4 p495-513. Retrieved from: https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1071109

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
    , grade

Reviewed: February 2022

No statistically significant positive
Meets WWC standards without reservations
Mathematics outcomes—Statistically significant negative effect found for the domain
Comparison Period Sample Intervention
Significant? Improvement

Procedural knowledge measure

“Realistic” manipulatives vs. Intervention

0 Days

Full sample (realistic v. bland manipulatives);
72 students





Conceptual knowledge

“Realistic” manipulatives vs. Intervention

0 Days

Full sample (realistic v. bland manipulatives);
72 students





Evidence Tier rating based solely on this study. This intervention may achieve a higher tier when combined with the full body of evidence.

Characteristics of study sample as reported by study author.

  • Female: 50%
    Male: 50%

  • Suburban, Urban
    • B
    • A
    • C
    • D
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    • F
    • G
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    • h
    • i
    • b
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    • e
    • f
    • c
    • g
    • j
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    • l
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    • s
    • t
    • u
    • x
    • w
    • y

  • Race
    Native American
    Other or unknown
  • Ethnicity
    Not Hispanic or Latino    


The study took place in a daycare center on a university campus in a western state. In order to enroll, the students had to be the child of a student, staff member, or faculty member.

Study sample

Demographics were collected on all 72 participants. The sample included an even number of boys and girls. In addition, 48% of the students were White, 43% were Hispanic, 6% were Native American and 3% of parents did not report their child's ethnicity. The mean age of the students was 4.17 years.

Intervention Group

The intervention included a learning game that varied the instructions given to students (high vs. low guidance) and varied the type of manipulatives given to students (realistic vs. bland). For students in the high guidance condition, after having their crocodile ‘eat’ the set of objects in higher quantity, the researcher translated the scenario into mathematics terms (e.g., ‘This makes an inequality that reads three is more than two.’). Bland manipulatives were green circles (as opposed to green frogs). The entire session, which included both the intervention and the assessment of outcomes, lasted 30-minutes and was delivered one-on-one by the researchers. The learning game included a paper crocodile that was assigned the task of eating the larger of two piles of objects. In the intervention condition, the "realistic manipulatives" used as the pile of objects to be eaten by the crocodile were frogs. Only the realism of manipulatives variable was of interest for this practice guide.

Comparison Group

Students in the comparison group received the same general training as the intervention group but interacted with bland manipulatives. The low guidance condition involved having another student present with no translation of the game into terms of inequality. Because the review is focused on the realism of the manipulatives, the two groups of students with the bland manipulatives represent the comparison condition for the review.

Support for implementation

No support was provided for implementation since the intervention lasted less than 30 minutes.


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