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Child Development Research
Volume 2013, Article ID 216367, 13 pages
Research Article

It Works Both Ways: Transfer Difficulties between Manipulatives and Written Subtraction Solutions

1Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, IL 60208, USA
2University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa, IA 52242, USA
3Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee, TN 37240, USA
4University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia, VA 22904, USA

Received 31 March 2013; Accepted 22 August 2013

Academic Editor: Jeffrey W. Fagen

Copyright © 2013 David H. Uttal et al. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


Three experiments compared performance and transfer among children aged 83–94 months after written or manipulatives instruction on two-digit subtraction. In Experiment 1a, children learned with manipulatives or with traditional written numerals. All children then completed a written posttest. Experiment 1b investigated whether salient or perceptually attractive manipulatives affected transfer. Experiment 2 investigated whether instruction with writing would transfer to a manipulatives-based posttest. Children demonstrated performance gains when the posttest format was identical to the instructed format but failed to demonstrate transfer from the instructed format to an incongruent posttest. The results indicate that the problem in transferring from manipulatives instruction to written assessments stems from a general difficulty in using knowledge gained in one format (e.g., manipulatives) in another format (e.g., writing). Taken together, the results have important implications for research and teaching in early mathematics. Teachers should consider making specific links and alignments between written and manipulatives-based representations of the same problems.