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Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 103 (2009) 503515

Contents lists available at ScienceDirect

Journal of Experimental Child


Psychology
journal homepage: www.elsevier.com/locate/jecp

Childrens early mental number line: Logarithmic or


decomposed linear?
Korbinian Moeller a,b,*,1, Silvia Pixner b,c,1, Liane Kaufmann d,
Hans-Christoph Nuerk a,b
a

Department of Psychology, Eberhard Karls University, 72072 Tuebingen, Germany


Department of Psychology, ParisLodron University Salzburg, 5020 Salzburg, Austria
Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, University of Ulm, 89075 Ulm, Germany
d
Department of Pediatrics IV, Division of Neuropediatrics, Innsbruck Medical University, 6020 Innsbruck, Austria
b
c

a r t i c l e

i n f o

Article history:
Received 31 July 2008
Revised 23 January 2009
Available online 27 March 2009

Keywords:
Mental number line
Logarithmic coding
Linear coding
Number line task
Numerical development
Number magnitude

a b s t r a c t
Recently, the nature of childrens mental number line has received
much investigation. In the number line task, children are required
to mark a presented number on a physical number line with xed
endpoints. Typically, it was observed that the estimations of younger/inexperienced children were accounted for best by a logarithmic function, whereas those of older/more experienced children
were reected best by a linear function. This led to the conclusion
that childrens mental number line transforms from logarithmic to
linear with age and experience. In this study, we outline an alternative interpretation of childrens performance in a number line
task. We suggest that two separate linear representations for
one- and two-digit numbers may exist in young children and that
initially the integration of these two representations into the place
value structure of the Arabic number system is not fully mastered.
When testing this assumption in a sample of more than 120 rst
graders, we observed that the two-linear model consistently provided better t indexes. We conclude that instead of assuming a
transition from logarithmic to linear coding, performance differences could also be accounted for by an improvement in integrating tens and units into the Arabic place value system.
2009 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

* Corresponding author.
E-mail address: korbinian.moeller@uni-tuebingen.de (K. Moeller).
1
These authors contributed equally to the article and should be considered as shared rst authors.
0022-0965/$ - see front matter 2009 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
doi:10.1016/j.jecp.2009.02.006

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K. Moeller et al. / Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 103 (2009) 503515

Introduction
Accumulating evidence from psychophysical and neuropsychological studies supports the notion
that numerosities (e.g., denoting the number of objects in a set) are mentally represented along an
internal mental number line (e.g., Dehaene, Dupoux, & Mehler, 1990; Gallistel & Gelman, 1992; Restle,
1970). However, knowledge regarding the characteristics and developmental trajectories of (spatial)
mental number representation is rather patchy. In particular, an important but to date not entirely answered question is how numerical magnitude is mapped onto the mental number line. Some researchers argue that this mapping is best conceptualized as being logarithmically coded (i.e., perceived
distances between adjacent numbers on the mental number line decrease as their magnitudes increase) (e.g., Dehaene, 1992, 2001), whereas others suggest linear coding mechanisms (i.e., distances
between adjacent numbers are invariant to increasing magnitude) (e.g., Brannon, Wusthoff, Gallistel,
& Gibbon, 2001; Gibbon & Church, 1981). Furthermore, the debate outlined above was driven mainly
by results observed in adult participants and, thus, largely disregarded developmental questions concerning the formation and establishment of (spatial) number magnitude representation through
childhood.
Recently, Siegler and colleagues pursued these developmental aspects of logarithmic versus linear
coding of number magnitude on the mental number line in some inuential studies (e.g., Booth &
Siegler, 2006; Siegler & Booth, 2004; Siegler & Opfer, 2003). In particular, they investigated the nature
of mental number representation in elementary school children by asking them to determine the spatial position of a specic number on a hypothetical number line. Siegler and colleagues ndings suggest that childrens coding of number magnitude changes gradually from logarithmic to linear as a
function of age. Furthermore, this representational change was found to be positively correlated with
childrens arithmetic skills. This indicates that the nature of magnitude coding not only is crucial for
basic numerical tasks such as magnitude comparison but also may inuence the development of calculation capabilities (Siegler & Booth, 2004).
To date, the literature is controversial with regard to the particular mode of this conceptual change
in magnitude coding properties. Some researchers suggest the development to be strictly stepwise
(i.e., changing qualitatively from logarithmic to linear rather stage-like) (Case & Okamoto, 1996),
whereas others propose change to take place in overlapping waves, meaning that both kinds of magnitude coding could exist in parallel for a certain time (Siegler, 1996; Shager & Siegler, 1998). Although
this controversy is not the main focus of the current study, it is important to emphasize that both the
overlapping waves model suggested by Siegler (1996) and the stepwise model of strategy change postulated by Case and Okamoto (1996) are based on the assumption of two-digit numberssimilar to
single-digit numbersbeing processed holistically as one integrated entity. This assumption has been
questioned recently by a series of studies reporting evidence for decomposed representations of tens
and units in two-digit number processing (Nuerk, Weger, & Willmes, 2001; Wood, Nuerk, & Willmes,
2006; see Nuerk & Willmes, 2005, for a review; see Nuerk, Kaufmann, Zoppoth, & Willmes, 2004a, for
children data). In the following, the major arguments for decomposed processing are reviewed, and
subsequently we outline how the notion of decomposed processing may alter the conclusions to be
drawn from the results of the above-described number line task.
Holistic versus decomposed processing of two-digit numbers
In a series of studies, Nuerk and colleagues observed that in two-digit number magnitude comparison the single digits magnitudes of tens and units are processed separately and in parallel (see
Moeller, Fischer, Nuerk, & Willmes, 2009; Moeller, Nuerk, & Willmes, in press; Nuerk, Weger, & Willmes, 2002a, 2004b, 2005; Nuerk et al., 2001; Ratinckx, Nuerk, van Dijck, & Willmes, 2006). In their
experiments, Nuerk and colleagues asked participants to indicate the larger number of a pair of
two-digit numbers. Each pair was either unitdecade compatible (i.e., separate comparisons of tens
and units resulted in congruent decision biases, e.g., 42_57: 4 < 5 and 2 < 7) or unitdecade incompatible (i.e., separate comparisons of tens and units yielded incongruent decision biases, e.g., 47_62: 6 > 4
but 2 < 7). Their results indicate that, independent of display layout and notation format, participants

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were slower and more error prone on incompatible number pairs relative to compatible ones even
though overall distance was matched between the respective item groups. In the meantime, these
ndings have been replicated and extended by other authors (Korvorst & Damian, 2008; Verguts &
de Moor, 2005; Zhang & Wang, 2005). In addition, evidence for decomposed processing of tens and
units was also observed in other tasks: carryover effects in addition (e.g., Deschuyteneer, De Rammelaere, & Fias, 2005; Kong et al., 2005), borrowing effects in subtraction (e.g., Kong et al., 2005), and effects of decade crossing in a number bisection task (Hoeckner et al., 2008; Nuerk, Geppert, van Herten,
& Willmes, 2002b; Wood et al., 2008).
In summary, there is ample evidence supporting the notion that multidigit numbers are processed
in a decomposed fashion across different tasks. Most important for the current study, indications of
decomposed processing of tens and units were already observed for elementary school children from
second grade onwards (Nuerk et al., 2004a). Hence, it might be benecial to revisit previous ndings
on the number line task by taking into account the decomposed processing mode of two-digit
numbers.
An alternative account for the transition from logarithmic to linear representation in the number line task
In a recent study, Ebersbach and colleagues (Ebersbach, Luwel, Frick, Onghena, & Verschaffel, 2008)
reported evidence against the notion of young childrens estimation performance arguing for a logarithmic representation of number magnitude. By using a number line task comparable to that used by
Siegler and colleagues (e.g., Booth & Siegler, 2006; Siegler & Booth, 2004), the authors showed that a
segmented linear regression model outperformed the logarithmic model with respect to explained
variance even when adjusting for the higher number of degrees of freedom. Segmented regression describes a method in regression analysis where the independent variable is partitioned into intervals
and a distinct line segment is tted to each interval. The intervals are separated by a breakpoint at
which the response function changes abruptly. According to Ebersbach et al. (2008), the breakpoint
between the two linear segments of the model was associated with childrens familiarity with numbers as assessed by a counting task. This implies that children successfully discriminated between
numbers within their counting range (as reected by a rather steep linear slope). On the other hand,
a atter linear slope indicated that their discrimination ability decreased when processing less familiar numbers. Thus, these authors were the rst to question the assumption of the logarithmic model
being the most adequate to account for the data pattern usually observed. Thereby, their study allowed for the possibility of discussing controversial interpretations of the number line data. The current article follows up on Ebersbach and colleagues study and adds to that discussion as it extends
previous results by incorporating and integrating data and theoretical accounts from other tasks.
Based on the above ndings on decomposed processing of tens and units, we previously suggested
that difculties of young and/or dyscalculic children may also be due to decient integration of tens
and units into a coherent two-digit number representation (Kaufmann & Nuerk, 2005; Nuerk et al.,
2004a). The latter postulate is consistent with the proposition of Siegler and Opfer (2003), who argued
that childrens estimation difculties on their number line task may be accounted for by a awed
understanding of the decimal system (p. 237).
In the number line task, the behavior of older children and adults is best described by a linear model (Siegler & Opfer, 2003). For one- and two-digit numbers, a linear model means that adults consider
the distance between 0 and 60 to be 10 times as large as the distance between 0 and 6 because this is
an attribute of the base-10 structure of the Arabic number system. Understanding and successful
application of the Arabic number system is necessary to correctly estimate the magnitude of a given
number in the number line task because the intervals on the number line are supposed to be linearly
equidistant; for example, the interval between 0 and 60 must be 10 times as large as the interval between 0 and 6.
However, when older children and/or adults may have learned to apply this linear decimal relation,
does this necessarily mean that they represent number magnitude in such a way? Perhaps not. In
regression analyses of two-digit number comparison data, we usually do not observe the beta weight
of linear decade distance to be 10 times as large as the beta weight of linear unit distance (see Nuerk &
Willmes, 2005, for a review). In fact, when reanalyzing the original data of Nuerk et al. (2001) by

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incorporating only the predictors linear decade and unit distance, the beta weight for linear decade
distance was only 4.39 times larger than that for linear unit distance. At the least, these results open
the possibility that even in adults tens might not be represented as being 10 times as large as units.
Nevertheless, adults may have learned to overcome this representational bias when they solve numerical tasks that require processing of place value information. But how would children, who have not
yet learned to overcome this representational bias, perform in the number line task?
As a consequence of their representational bias, children may overestimate numerical intervals
within the range of single-digit numbers on the number line (e.g., between 0 and 6) relative to the
numerically 10 times larger intervals between corresponding two-digit numbers (e.g., between 0
and 60). Thus, when the relative size of single-digit intervals is relatively overestimated compared
with that of two-digit number intervals, the perceived location of a single-digit number on the number
line may be overestimated (i.e., shifted to the right as well). This would result in a steeper slope of the
function tting actual and estimated values for single-digit numbers. The reverse would be true for
two-digit numbers. When the relative size of two-digit number intervals is underestimated, the distance would be underestimated; thus, the slope of the tting function for two-digit numbers in the
number line task would be rather at.
But what does this have to do with Siegler and colleagues claim of young and untrained children
relying on a logarithmic number magnitude representation? Taken together, a relatively steep linear
slope for single-digit numbers (because single-digit intervals may be overestimated) and a relatively
at linear slope for two-digit numbers would be expected (because two-digit intervals may be underestimated) would be expected. However, such a data pattern originating from two linear segments can
be tted very well by a logarithmic curve as well. Let us elaborate this central point by considering the
following simulation. As depicted in Fig. 1, it can be assumed that a child represents single- and twodigit numbers separately and in a linear fashion (henceforth referred to as the two-linear model). When
further assuming that the child is able to mark the numbers in the number line task perfectly, a logarithmic tting function would account for 97% of the variance, although the model assumptions in
this theoretical example are exclusively linear. Thus, even a very good logarithmic t does not necessarily imply that the underlying representation is logarithmic as well; in fact, such a good logarithmic
t could also be produced by two linear representations (see Fig. 1). Interestingly, the estimated logarithmic t of our working model and the R2 value reported in the latest study of Opfer and Siegler
(2007) are nearly identical (R2 = .95).
As outlined above, there are two possible underlying models that can account for the data pattern
usually observed in the number line task. The objective of this study is then straightforward: Which

100
logarithmic: y = 21.14ln(x) - 15.76
2

R = 0.97

Estimated
value

80

60

40

two-linear
yone-digit= 3.84x - 3.42
ytw o-digit= 0.57x + 33.13

20

R =1

0
0

10

20

30

40

50

60

70

80

90

100

Actual value
Fig. 1. Schematic illustration depicting a two-linear model involving two separate linear representations of one- and two-digit
numbers (solid line). The simulated data points are determined by the two-linear model without any noise in the data. Although
these data were simulated by a two-linear model, a holistic logarithmic model (dashed line) ts the data nearly perfectly
(R2 = .97). This suggests that a good logarithmic t does not necessarily imply that the underlying representation is also
logarithmic; instead, it could also be two-linear as in the current example.

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model, logarithmic or two-linear, is to be preferred when assuming the breakpoint of the two-linear
model being determined by the representational distinction between single- and two-digit numbers?
The current study
The current study was part of a large-scale project investigating the early development of numeracy. Children were tested in a variety of tasks such as transcoding, two-digit number comparison, and
the number line task. Moreover, visuospatial (Corsi block tapping task) and verbal (letter repetition
task) working memory and math anxiety were assessed. For the sake of brevity, this article focuses
on the results of the number line task.
Method
Participants
A total of 130 rst graders (63 girls and 67 boys), recruited from ve Austrian elementary schools,
were tested. All children were Austrian citizens who spoke German as their native language and had
normal or corrected-to-normal vision. Because children were assessed by the end of Grade 1, the mean
age was 7 years 4 months (SD = 7.1 months, range = 6 years 5 months to 8 years 7 months). In Austria,
children should master the numbers up to 20 by the end of Grade 1.
Children with an IQ (as assessed by the CFT 1 [Catell, Weiss, & Osterland, 1997]) falling below the
test norms average by more than 1 standard deviation were excluded from the initial sample. This
affected 2 children.
Stimuli and design
In the current study, a paper-and-pencil version of the number-to-position version of the number
line task, which requires children to estimate the position of a given number on an empty number line,
was used. The to-be-estimated number always appeared centrally above the line. Two different scales
were used in this experiment. Each trial involved a 10-cm line where the left end was labeled 0 and
the right end was labeled either 10 or 100. In the rst condition (010 scale), the spatial position of the
numbers 6, 0, 7, 2, 8, 1, 4, 9, and 3 needed to be indicated in the respective order. In the second condition (0100 scale), the numbers 27, 2, 64, 35, 7, 13, 99, 75, 47, 3, 11, 82, 95, 9, 17, 6, 18, and 53
needed to be localized in the given order.2 Numbers were chosen with the only constraint being to provide enough data points around the hypothesized breakpoint of 10 to make the estimation of the breakpoint as reliable as possible. Trials were presented in sets of ve lines per page, with the location of the
lines midpoints on the page alternating between 5 cm to the left and 5 cm to the right of the vertical
midline of the page. The 0-to-10 scale was presented rst to every child.
Procedure
Participants were tested in a single session. Trials were presented sequentially one by one as a
blank sheet of paper was moved down each page comprising ve trials. Children were instructed to
estimate the position of the presented number on the line. They were told to neither count nor use
any other strategy except estimating the position of the presented number on the line. Comparable
to other studies, children were asked to identify the middle number of each scale as a practice trial
before the critical trials were administered. No feedback was given on these trials.

2
Note that there was no indication of the order of presentation to bias the current results: Presentation order was not correlated
either with problem size (r = .00, p = .99) or with average deviation of childrens estimation from the actual number (r = .25,
p = .33). Moreover, a Wilcoxons rank sum test indicated that the mean ranks of one- and two-digit numbers did not differ reliably
(W = 47, Z = .05, p = .96). The latter was of particular importance because distinguishing the processing of one-digit numbers from
that of two-digit numbers was our major interest. These analyses indicate that the results of the current study should not be driven
by the order in which the respective numbers needed to be located on the number line.

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Analysis
The numerical distance between the correct and estimated locations of the indexed numbers was
measured automatically to the nearest millimeter. Subsequently, the adjusted R2 value as a measure of
goodness-of-t independent of inuences of model proximity (e.g., Kyllonen, Lohman, & Woltz, 1984)
was computed for a linear tting function as well as for a logarithmic one for both scales (010 and 0
100) and for each child individually. In addition, for the 0-to-100 scale, adjusted R2 for a segmented
regression with the xed breakpoint at 10 was computed for each child individually. Such a segmented linear regression, in which the independent variable is partitioned into intervals, provides a
tting of data by two linear segments with different slopes separated by a breakpoint (cf. Sprent,
1961). Segmented regression is useful when the independent variables, clustered into different intervals (one- and two-digit stimuli in the current case), exhibit different relationships with the dependent variable within these intervals. Mean adjusted R2 values for the different tting models were
compared by paired-samples t test. Moreover, logarithmic and simple linear ttings were also contrasted separately for single- and two-digit numbers. Because adjusted R2 values cannot be assumed
to be Gaussian, an arcsine transformation was applied to approximate normal distribution prior to the
analyses.
Results
The 0-to-10 scale
For the 0-to-10 scale, the t of the linear function was better than the t of the logarithmic function, t(127) = 31.69, p < .001, d = .53. When averaging across all children, the R2 value for the linear tting was .87 (range = .06.99), whereas the average R2 for the logarithmic tting was .74 (range = .02
.95).3
The 0-to-100 scale
In line with previous results (e.g., Booth & Siegler, 2006), the logarithmic regression provided a better t, tlog vs. simple lin(127) = 7.56, p < .001, d = .15, than the simple linear one when tting the childrens
estimates for the 0-to-100 scale. Logarithmic tting resulted in an average adjusted R2 value of .70
(range = .01.97), whereas mean adjusted R2 was .61 (range = .01.97) for the simple linear tting.
However, the more important comparison was the one contrasting the logarithmic model with the
two-linear model resting on the assumption that there is separate processing of single- and two-digit
numbers. In this two-linear model, the breakpoint of the two linear slopes is theoretically xed on the
point that separates single- and two-digit numbers: the number 10 (note that there is no such xed
point in the familiarity model of Ebersbach et al., 2008). The t test revealed that the two-linear model
with the breakpoint at 10 accounted for a reliably larger part of the variance than did the logarithmic
model, tlog vs. two-lin(127) = 11.37, p < .001, d = .21. The average adjusted R2 value was .81 (range = .11
.99) for the two-linear model as compared with .70 (range = .01.97) for the logarithmic model.4
To further substantiate the hypothesis of separate linear internal representations for single- and
two-digit numbers, the adjusted R2 value was computed separately for one- and two-digit stimuli.
No difference was observed between the logarithmic and simple linear models for single-digit stimuli,
t(127) = 0.19, p = .85, d = .03, whereas contrasting the logarithmic and simple linear models for twodigit stimuli revealed a highly signicant difference favoring the simple linear model, t(127) = 6.77,
p < .001, d = .24. The average adjusted R2 was .45 for the logarithmic model as compared with .49

3
Note that we are not aware of any study investigating whether the development from logarithmic to linear number magnitude
representation proposed for the 0-to-100 range (e.g., Booth & Siegler, 2006) also applies to the 0-to-10 range. However, evaluation
of this unanswered question seems to be a critical test of our claim of a two-linear representation for one- and two-digit numbers.
4
Note that although the age range was quite large, neither the correlation between the age of the children in months and the t
of the two-linear model (r = .03, p = .75) nor that between the childrens age and the t of the log model (r = .05, p = .56) was
reliable, suggesting no changes in the t of either model within this age range.

K. Moeller et al. / Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 103 (2009) 503515

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A
100
logarithmic y = 16.91ln(x) - 2.27
R2 = 0.93

Estimated
value

80
60

linear y = 0.57x + 28.62


R2 = 0.80

40
20
0
0

10

20

30

40

50

60

70

80

90

100

Actual value

100
logarithmic y = 16.91ln(x) - 2.27
R2 = 0.93

Estimated
value

80
60

two-linear
yone-digit = 3.73x + 2.70
ytwo-digit = 0.40x + 40.47

40
20

R2 = 0.96

0
0

10

20

30

40

50

60

70

80

90

100

Actual value
Fig. 2. Regression models based on the averaged estimates of all children per data point. (A) Differences between overall
logarithmic (dashed line) and simple linear tting (solid line) for the 0-to-100 scale. (B) Overall logarithmic (dashed line) versus
two-linear tting (solid line) of the 0-to-100 scale.

for the linear model. The better linear tting for two-digit numbers again corroborated the notion of
one- and two-digit numbers being represented separately.
In summary, these data indicated that childrens estimations in a number line task are best accounted for by assuming two separate but linear representations for either one- or two-digit numbers
(see Fig. 2 for an illustration of regression models on the averaged estimations of all children).
Discussion
This study set out to test different assumptions about the development of the mental number line
in children. In the Introduction, we outlined two possible model assumptions. The rst assumption,
suggested by Siegler and Opfer (2003), is that the mental number line of children develops from logarithmic to linear scaling with age and experience. Siegler and colleagues (e.g., Siegler & Opfer, 2003)
have shown repeatedly that in the number line task a logarithmic tting function serves best for
young and inexperienced children, whereas a linear function provides a better t for older and more
experienced children. Alternatively, we proposed that this developmental change might not necessarily be due to a transition from logarithmic to linear scaling; rather, it might be due to an initially less
elaborate integration of two-digit numbers into the place value structure of the Arabic number system. Based on recent research (Nuerk et al., 2001; Nuerk & Willmes, 2005; see also Ebersbach et al.,
2008), we suggested a two-linear model reecting decomposed processing of tens and units already
in young children. Consequently, this would mean two separate linear number lines with differing
slopes for one- and two-digit numbers (see also Ebersbach et al., 2008, for a segmented model that
is, however, based on childrens familiarity with numbers rather than on decomposed processing).

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100
80
60
N

40
20
0
<5

6 - 15

16 25

26 35

36 45

46 55

56 65

66 75

76 85

86 95

>95

Breakpoint (rounded)
Fig. 3. Distribution of individual breakpoints (rounded to the nearest integer) and clustered around the multiples of 10.

It was observed that the two-linear model provided better tting adequacy than the logarithmic
model.
Because both models, logarithmic and two-linear, provide very good ts for the current data, some
words on tting criteria are necessary (see Myung & Pitt, 1997, for details; see Nuerk & Willmes, 2005,
for a discussion concerning two-digit number processing). The tting criterion we referred to for discussing our data is the criterion of descriptive adequacy (as can be formalized by R2); a tting model
needs to be descriptively adequate to serve as a proper explanation of the data. However, it is important to note that descriptive adequacy is a necessary, but not sufcient, criterion of model t. It must
be noted that for a denite number of data points, an indenite number of models providing good t
exist. Consequently, the fact that a given function ts a data pattern well does not mean that this function reects the correct underlying representation given that there is an indenite number of well-tting functions for a given data set. Therefore, the fact that a logarithmic function ts the data does not
necessarily mean that the underlying representation is logarithmic, as suggested by Siegler and Opfer
(2003). Instead, the current data indicate that two separate linear functions (for one- and two-digit
numbers each) t the empirical data even better. Thus, it is plausible to suggest that the underlying
representation may also involve two separate linear representations. This notion is further corroborated by the current results for the 0-to-10 scale indexing the representation of one-digit numbers
to be linear rather than logarithmic. As far as we know, no study has reported a logarithmic representation of symbolic number magnitudes up to 10. In addition, we are not aware of any model postulating that the representation of single-digit numbers is logarithmic for a 0-to-100 scale (as it should be
when assuming a holistic analogue representation of number magnitude) but that the representation
of the very same numbers is linear in the same children for the 0-to-10 scale.
Finally, further evidence for a representational change at the transition from one- to two-digit
numbers is provided when evaluating the position of the average breakpoint as well as the distribution of optimal individual breakpoints.5 In accordance with Ebersbach et al. (2008), the average breakpoint was computed by averaging the optimal breakpoint for each individual (maximizing R2 values
individually) over all participating children. At rst view, the mean of the individual breakpoints
(M = 25.70, SD = 126.07) seemed to corroborate the notion of a breakpoint at or around 20, with this possibly being related to childrens familiarity with numbers (cf. Ebersbach et al., 2008) given that in Austria
children should master numbers up to 20 and their interrelations by the end of Grade 1. However, plotting the distribution of the individual breakpoints (see Fig. 3) revealed that the mean is highly misleading
because only for very few children was the optimal breakpoint around 20, whereas the vast majority of
children (95 of 128) exhibited an optimal breakpoint of around 10. Thus, the mean was driven mainly by
the breakpoints of children with an already one-linear representation of numbers up to 100. For such
children, the model suggested an individual breakpoint of around 100. (It is important to note that in
some instances the model even proposed a breakpoint larger than 100, e.g., 101, 1400.) However, these
estimated breakpoints are statistical tting artifacts given that the model produced a breakpoint even

We wish to thank an anonymous reviewer for suggesting this analysis.

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when there was none within the assessed range (because the representation is already one-linear). For
this reason, the mean of the individual breakpoints might not be an adequate parameter. To overcome
this, the median (Mdn = 11.77), which is less affected by outliers, may provide a better estimation of
the average breakpoint.
Eliminating from the analysis all participants whose breakpoints indicated a more or less linear
representation of numbers up to 100 (i.e., a breakpoint of 75 or higher, affecting 5 children) indicated
that the difference between the mean and the median was indeed determined by these outliers associated with a one-linear representation. After excluding these children, the mean of the individual
breakpoints (M = 11.74, SD = 8.76) came very close to the median of the distribution (Mdn = 11.50).
Moreover, an average breakpoint of 11.74 was also very close to the estimated breakpoint in an item
analysis (M = 11.33) where the localizations of all children are averaged for each of the presented
stimuli. In particular, it is important to note that 11 was the rst two-digit number to be localized
by the children in the current study; therefore, an average breakpoint of around 11 (even though it
does not correspond perfectly to the proposed breakpoint at 10) corresponds very well to the rst
two-digit number actually used in this study.
Taken together, the joint consideration of the results for both scales (010 and 0100) and the distribution of individual breakpoints clearly argues for our theoretical account suggesting that these separate
representations reect the structure of the representation of the Arabic place value base-10 system and,
thus, the different representations of single- and two-digit numbers. In the remainder of the Discussion,
we outline the theoretical consequences, as well as possible limitations, of these ndings.
What is the development of the mental number line for multidigit numbers?
Most researchers agree that mental number representations are spatially oriented from left to right
on a kind of number line. However, it is still unclear which ordering rules numbers are obeyed along
this mental number line. Siegler and colleagues work has suggested a gradual change from logarithmic to linear representations accompanied by increasing arithmetic capabilities (e.g., Booth & Siegler,
2006). However, this interpretation emanates from a holistic conceptualization of both one- and twodigit numbers that is challenged by recent ndings demonstrating that two-digit numbers are processed in a decomposed fashion as well (Ratinckx et al., 2006; Verguts & De Moor, 2005; Wood
et al., 2006).
The main aim of the current study was to elucidate whether rst graders performance on a number
line task corroborated the notion of either a logarithmically or linearly coded number magnitude representation. Our results indicated that for the 0-to-10 scale, a linear function yielded a better t than a
logarithmic function, which was also true for the 0-to-100 scale when assuming two separate linear
representations of one- and two-digit number magnitudes (even when considering the higher number
of free parameters).
At this point, it is important to note that our results with regard to the logarithmic tting did not
differ substantially from the data obtained by Siegler and colleagues when applying similar analyses
(Siegler, 1996; Siegler & Booth, 2004). However, when testing the hypothesis of two separate linear
representations of one- and two-digit numbers, we observed even better adequacy for the two-linear
model. Therefore, the two-linear model qualies as a reasonable alternative account for childrens
number line development.
But what is the essence of the development in childrens magnitude representation if it does not
develop from logarithmic to linear? In line with previous suggestions (Kaufmann & Nuerk, 2005;
Nuerk et al., 2004b), we propose that it is the integration of decomposed representations of tens
and units complying with the place value structure of the Arabic number system that develops with
age and experience. Although children might know that the difference between 0 and 60 is somehow
larger than the distance between 0 and 6, they might not be aware that the distance between 0 and 60
is 10 times as large as the difference between 0 and 6. Instead, the represented distance between 0 and
60 may be only 3 or 4 times larger than the distance between 0 and 6. As outlined in the Introduction,
this would be reected by a atter slope of the tting function for two-digit numbers as compared
with one-digit numbers. Indeed, the correlation of the slopes for one- and two-digit numbers was signicantly smaller than 0 (r = .27, p < .01), indicating that a steeper slope for one-digit numbers was

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associated with a atter slope for two-digit numbers and vice versa. This is in line with the proposed
two-linear model given that children do (on average with some noise) adhere to the ordinal attributes
of the to-be-marked numbers within the range from 0 to 100. Thus, when the slope for the one-digit
numbers is very steep (e.g., a slope of 5 so that 10 is marked at 50), there is not much number line left
for the remaining numbers from 10 to 100 to be located. Because this large range of numbers (i.e., 10
100, depicted on the x axis) needs to be marked on a rather small section of the number line (50100,
depicted on the y axis), the consequence is a relatively at slope for two-digit numbers. Note that this
negative relation of the slopes for one- and two-digit numbers is consistent with a two-linear model
but is inconsistent with the logarithmic model. For the latter, a steeper logarithmic function should be
steeper for the whole range. Thus, according to any logarithmic model, the slopes for one- and twodigit numbers should be positively correlated. However, the correlation observed was negative, conicting with the logarithmic model but further strengthening the proposed two-linear model.
In this vein, the developmental endpoint of a single linear representation of all one- and twodigit numbers in older children/adults might rather indicate that they have learned that the distance between 0 and 60 (and other corresponding decade numbers) is indeed 10 times as large
as the distance between 0 and 6 (and other corresponding unit numbers). Note that this does
not preclude performance in the number line task to be aided by an additional overall (logarithmic) representation. The better t of the two-linear model as compared with the logarithmic representation, however, seems to suggest that one single logarithmic representation might not be the
only model, and not the descriptively most adequate model, to explain the data in the number line
task.
One could object that the transition from a two-linear model to an overall linear representation
as observed in older children and adults could also be interpreted as a transition from decomposed
processing in younger children to more analogue but holistic processing in older children and
adults. When considering exclusively results obtained in the number line task, the answer could
still be yes. However, we showed previously that in two-digit number magnitude comparison,
there is no development toward a more holistic representation of two-digit numbers. Instead, there
seems to be a development toward a better (i.e., faster and in particular more parallel) integration
of tens and units (cf. Nuerk et al., 2004a). In our view, it is improbable that there is a development
toward an analogue holistic representation in one task but no such development in another task.
Therefore, we suggest that the developmental change in both tasks may be due to the same underlying mechanism: a better integration of decade and unit digits magnitudes in compliance with
the place value structure of the Arabic number system. When extending the scope to the issue
of arithmetic development, the tting function for two-digit numbers, and in particular its deviation from the diagonal, may even serve as a predictor of later arithmetic achievement. Because
most arithmetic problems later in school and other encounters with numbers in everyday life
(e.g., prices, time) are probably packed with multidigit numbers, successful (linear) representation
is most feasible.
Finally, note that this interpretation of decomposed representations of tens and units in the
symbolic Arabic number system cannot simply be generalized to the representation of nonsymbolic quantities. Instead, the assumption that a representation decomposed into tens and units
makes sense only in a number system organized according to strict place value principles such
as the Arabic number system. For nonsymbolic quantities (e.g., dot patterns), where there is usually no such organization at all, recent evidence suggests that the representation might indeed be
analogue holistic (Chohen-Kadosh, Cohen-Kadosh, Kaas, Henik, & Goebel, 2007; Feigenson, Dehaene, & Spelke, 2004; Piazza, Pinel, Le Bihan, & Dehaene, 2007). In line with this, Dehaene and colleagues (Dehaene, Izard, Spelke, & Pica, 2008) cogently demonstrated the nature of the
representation of (non)symbolic quantities to be logarithmically compressed by evaluating the performance of Mundurucu participants (members of an indigene Amazonian culture with a very limited numerical lexicon) in a variant of the number line task (see also Beran, Johnson-Pynn, &
Ready, 2008, for similar results in 4- and 5-year-olds and monkeys). Interestingly, Dehaene et al.
(2008) did not nd a two-linear model to account for their data reliably better than the logarithmic model they proposed. However, these results are not transferable to the current study for two
reasons. First, the symbolic condition of the experiment reported by Dehaene and colleagues did

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513

involve verbal number words rather than digital symbolic input. Second, the range for which the
spatial mapping of symbolic (verbal) number magnitude was assessed covered only the numbers 1
to 10. Taken together, Dehaene and colleagues results refuted the notion of a two-linear representation for a numerical notation (i.e., verbal number words) and for a number range (i.e., 110),
both of which we would not suggest our two-linear model to be valid for given that it applies
exclusively to the decomposed representation multidigit numbers complying with the place value
structure of the symbolic Arabic number system.
Furthermore, we do not claim that there is no representation of a numbers overall analogue magnitude at all (but see Verguts & De Moor, 2005, for such a proposition). Instead, and as formalized in
the hybrid model of two-digit number representation (Nuerk et al., 2001; Nuerk & Willmes, 2005),
tens and units may be represented in a decomposed manner in addition to a holistic representation
of symbolic number magnitude. This means that the overall magnitude of a given two-digit number
might not be represented exclusively by processing the individual digits magnitudes of tens and units
in accordance with the place value structure of the Arabic number system. The hybrid characteristic of
the model postulated by Nuerk and colleagues (Nuerk et al., 2001; Nuerk & Willmes, 2005) also implies that the numerical magnitude of a two-digit number is represented as one integrated entity possibly colocated along a mental number line.
In summary, two things should be kept in mind when interpreting the current results. First, the
assumption of decomposed processing of multidigit number magnitude is warranted only for the digital symbolic notation given that only this notation is organized complying with the strict place value
principle of the Arabic number system. Second, the current observation does not obviate multidigit
number magnitude to be represented as an integrated entity as well.
Alternative accounts for different interpretations of childrens performance on the number line task
There are a couple of objections that could be raised against these results and our interpretation.
First, one could ask whether the current results are reliable. We stress that our ndings are based
on data collected from 128 children, which is much larger than the sample size of most other studies
(e.g., Siegler & Opfer, 2003). Thus, we are quite sure in assuming that the results are stable and reliable.
Second, one could object that our results might not be valid for other ranges such as the range from 0
to 1000. This is indeed possible, and future research is needed to distinguish between the logarithmic
model and possibly a multilinear model. If children had not learned the distance between 0 and 600 to
be 10 times as large as the distance between 0 and 60 in the number line task, the slope for three-digit
numbers should be even atter than that for two-digit numbers. However, according to our interpretation, and in line with our results for two-digit numbers, a linear function should t childrens estimations of (exclusively) three-digit numbers better than a logarithmic one. If, in contrast, the
logarithmic tting for three-digit numbers is better than the linear tting, this would corroborate
the notion of an overall logarithmic representation. Because both models have straightforward but differing predictions, this can easily be tested in the future.
Finally, it must be noted that the children in our study, having German as their native language,
use a number word system different from that of the children in Siegler and colleagues studies
(English native speakers). Number words in German (as well as in other languages such as Dutch,
Czech, and Maltese) are characterized by an inversion of tens and units affecting all two-digit
numbers from 21 to 99 (e.g., 21 einundzwanzig [one-and-twenty]). Usually, it is assumed that
the representation of number magnitude is independent of language (Dehaene & Cohen, 1995;
Dehaene, Piazza, Pinel, & Cohen, 2003). However, Nuerk and colleagues recently observed small
language effects in a nonverbal number magnitude comparison task for adults (Nuerk, Weger, &
Willmes, 2005). This could possibly lead to differences in the number line task examining magnitude representations as well. However, recent data seem to suggest that such differences exist but
are rather small. In particular, evidence for decomposed processing of tens and units in a magnitude comparison task was observed in different languages such as German (Nuerk et al., 2001,
2004b), Dutch (Verguts & De Moor, 2005), and English (Moeller et al., 2009). Hence, although theoretically possible, logarithmic (holistic) processing in the number line task as a specicity of the
English number word system is rather unlikely.

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Summary and conclusions


It has been proposed that childrens number magnitude representation changes from logarithmic
to linear coding with age and experience. In the current study, an alternative account was suggested.
We proposed separate representations for magnitudes of one- and two-digit numbers rather than a
single holistic representation with the consequence that the magnitude representations of one- and
two-digit numbers may differ. From this, we postulate that with age and experience, number magnitude representation may develop from two separate linear representations for one- and two-digit
numbers (i.e., indicating poor integration of tens and units) to a single-linear magnitude representation comprising both one- and two-digit numbers, also reecting elaborate integration of tens and
units. When contrasting these two accounts, the two-linear model provided a consistently better t
than the logarithmic model even when considering the larger number of free parameters.
Our general account that the data in the number line task are best described by a two-linear model
rather than a logarithmic one is corroborated by recent ndings of Ebersbach et al. (2008). However,
the proposed nature of these linear representations differs slightly between the two studies. Ebersbach and colleagues proposed two linear representations based on different familiarities, with numbers resulting in a variable breakpoint of the representations. In contrast, we suggest that the
underlying theoretical assumption is decomposed processing in the place value structure of the Arabic
number system and, as a consequence, separate linear representations of one- and two-digit numbers
with a xed breakpoint at the number 10.
Therefore, we conclude that, rather than representing a change from logarithmic to linear coding of
number magnitude, the performance change due to age and experience as observed in the number line
task may also be interpreted as an improvement in integrating the single digits magnitudes of tens
and units in compliance with the place value structure of the Arabic number system. The generality
of this alternative account with regard to numerical range and language still needs to be tested in
the future. However, the account of better place value integration opens the possibility that developmental changes in different tasks, such as the number line task, multidigit number comparison tasks,
transcoding, and other numerical tasks, could be traced back to a common underlying cognitive development: improving integration of the decomposed representations of multidigit numbers in the Arabic place value structure with age, training, and experience.
Acknowledgments
The current research was funded by the Austrian Science Fondation (T286-B05) and the Tyrolean
Science Fund (UNI-0404/523) supporting Liane Kaufmann and the Aktion sterreich Tchechien (45
P13) supporting Hans-Christoph Nuerk, Vladislava Hermanova, and Silvia Pixner. We thank Diana
Raysz for her help with the English language.
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