The cognitive underpinnings of emerging mathematical skills: executive functioning, patterns, numeracy, and arithmetic

Kerry Lee*, Swee Fong Ng, Madeline Lee Pe, Su Yin Ang, Muhammad Nabil Azhar Mohd Hasshim, Rebecca Bull

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

85 Citations (Scopus)


Background: Exposure to mathematical pattern tasks is often deemed important for developing children's algebraic thinking skills. Yet, there is a dearth of evidence on the cognitive underpinnings of pattern tasks and how early competencies on these tasks are related to later development. Aims:We examined the domain-specific and domain-general determinants of performances on pattern tasks by using (a) a standardized test of numerical and arithmetic proficiency and (b) measures of executive functioning, respectively. Sample:Participants were 163 6-year-olds enrolled in primary schools that typically serve families from low to middle socioeconomic backgrounds. Method:Children were administered a battery of executive functioning (inhibitory, switching, updating), numerical and arithmetic proficiency (the Numerical Operations task from the Wechsler Individual Achievement Test-II), and three types of pattern tasks. Results:Contrary to findings from the adult literature, we found all the executive functioning measures coalesced into two factors: updating and an inhibition/switch factor. Only the updating factor predicted performances on the pattern tasks. Although performance on the pattern tasks were correlated with numerical and arithmetic proficiency, findings from structural equation modelling showed that there were no direct or independent relationships between them. Conclusions:The findings suggest that the bivariate relationships between pattern, numeracy, and arithmetic tasks are likely due to their shared demands on updating resources. Unlike older children, these findings suggest that for 6-year-olds, better numerical and arithmetic proficiency, without accompanying advantages in updating capacities, will no more likely lead to better performance on the pattern tasks.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)82-99
Number of pages18
JournalBritish Journal of Educational Psychology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2012
Externally publishedYes


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