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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Zero in on This: Children are Exposed to Various Concepts of “Zero” Prior to Age Six


Math talk has implications for the development of numerical concepts. Research suggests that when caregivers talk about natural numbers (1, 2, 3…), it may enhance children’s later math knowledge. Natural numbers have physical quantities that children can observe, yet abstract numerical concepts do not have such observable quantities. In this analysis, we examined how zero occurs in math talk. Using the CHILDES American English corpora (MacWhinney, 2000), we examined the frequency and nature of math talk about zero in naturalistic interactions between 2- to 6-year-olds and other speakers. Input from other speakers increased in frequency and complexity across development. Input with zero in symbolic sentential contexts (e.g., “one and zero make ten”) and cardinal sentential contexts (e.g., “zero means nothing”) increased with development. Children’s production of zero did not change in frequency or context. These results have implications for the concepts about zero children may bring to formal education.

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