Age group differences in SFON tendency and arithmetical skills of four to seven year olds in four countries with different school starting ages

Minna Hannula-Sormunen, Sophie Batchelor, Joke Torbeyns, Victoria Simms, Cristina Nanu, Eero Laakkonen, Bert De Smedt

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This study investigated age group differences in Spontaneous Focusing on Numerosity (SFON) tendency and arithmetical skills across age groups with differing starting ages of formal mathematics instruction. Children (N = 685) aged 4–7 years participated from four countries, i.e., Northern Ireland, England, Belgium and Finland, where children start formal school at 4, 5, 6, and 7 years respectively. Children completed measures of SFON tendency, Arabic number naming, verbal arithmetic and written arithmetic. Results revealed strong age group effects for all measures and some developmental differences between SFON tendency and arithmetical skills. Whether children were, or were not, in school had a strong effect on SFON tendency but not on arithmetical skills. In the 5 and 6 years old age group, children already in school had significantly lower SFON tendency compared to those not yet in school. Within each country, when comparing consecutive age groups situated near school starting age, SFON tendency scores were similar in three out of the four countries. Results suggest both informal and formal mathematical skills need to be considered when assessing young children’s mathematical competence.
Original languageEnglish
Article number101296
JournalCognitive Development
Early online date26 Jan 2023
Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - 30 Jun 2023

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The authors would like to thank the participating schools, preschools, kindergartens and day care centers, and the families of children who took part in the project. They would also like to thank Jake McMullen for his help with designing the Memory Card Game, and all the research assistants who collected data for the project (Anna Alanen, Paula Alpimaa, Stacey Austin, Sarah Bamforth, Eva Brouwers, Esra Cockx, Lies De Smedt, Jennifer Finlay and Jayne Pickering). The research was supported by funding from the Economic and Social Research Council , awarded to SB ( ES/L010089/1 ), the Academy of Finland , awarded to MH-S ( 278579 ) and ( 336068 ), and the Research Fund KU Leuven ( 3H160242 ) awarded to BDS.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2023 The Authors


  • Age group differences
  • Arithmetical skills
  • Early education
  • Formal instruction
  • SFON
  • School starting age
  • Young children


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