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Masters in Educational Practice: Numeracy learning pack


Numeracy and inclusive practice


Barriers to numeracy learning: poverty and social factors

Social model of dyscalculia

Cooper (2009) highlights the move away from a deficit model of disability where the responsibility is on the individual learner and their deficits, to a social model of disability (Oliver, 1990), which acknowledges our responsibility to provide a barrier-free learning environment. Cooper outlines the social model of Dyslexia (external link) and an example of such an initiative is the British Dyslexia Association’s (BDA) ‘Dyslexia Friendly Schools’ (external link).

Inclusive practice in education reflects the social model of disability (external link).

Recent legislation, the Equality Act 2010 and the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, also reflects a greater focus on the social model of disability in the workplace (external link). Dyscalculia is considered a disability within the law.

Another development of the social model is highlighting the strengths of the learner.

As well as having difficulties, dyscalculic people often have strengths, such as:

  • creativity
  • strategic thinking
  • practical ability
  • love of words
  • intuitive thinking
  • problem-solving.


Other social factors and poverty

There is a strong association between what children achieve in mathematics both early on in school and later, and their social background (Nunes et al., 2009). As has been found in many areas of schooling, children from more prosperous families perform better in the mathematics classroom and in examination conditions. Despite the widespread effect of social background very little is known about how this effect is caused. Multiple hypotheses have been proposed to explain this social influence on numerical learning.

  • Ginsburg and Russell (1981) found that pre-school children with different social economic status (SES) backgrounds performed differently in various mathematical problems, showing an effect of the home environment before any formal schooling takes effect. It is possible the home environment experienced by the children affects mathematical learning opportunities. A child living with access to a computer or surrounded by clocks may have more opportunity to explore mathematics, learning to tell the time or being able to practise concepts online or with computer games. Siegler and Ramani (2009) studied the effect playing board games can have on young children. Participating in a game with an experimenter, such as Snakes and Ladders, was found to improve the child’s performance on subsequent numerical tasks. Therefore, a child will stand to gain in their schooling from living in a home with board games available.
  • It is also proposed that the school curriculum has two aspects, the explicit and implicit. Children from higher SES homes could benefit from the choices made in the curriculum, with their strengths being exaggerated by the mathematical skills being tested in schools. Children of lower SES families could be skilled in mathematical areas that are not tested by the schools examination curriculum, getting results that put their intelligence below its true level (Apple, 1979). It is also possible these children have less knowledge of the implicit curriculum than those in higher SES families so get left behind when this isn’t taught in their lessons.
  • It is possible the children of higher SES backgrounds have parents/carers with higher education and more tendencies to discuss mathematical concepts with their child, encouraging them to think and analyse mathematics when away from school. These children are not necessarily more skilled in mathematics but the chance to explore and practise gives them an advantage when being tested later in school (Nunes et al., 2009).

These hypotheses could all be working in conjunction, all adding to any differences between mathematical ability of children from different SES backgrounds. Social effects will also stretch to the school itself. The SES backgrounds of classmates can have an effect on a child’s achievement, no matter what their own SES level (Opdenakker and Van Damme, 2007).

Ethnicity also seems to have an effect on general educational and specific mathematical achievement. Green, Dugoni, Ingels and Cambum (1995) found an effect of ethnicity on mathematical achievement while controlling for SES levels.

Concerning adults, research indicates that entry level numeracy for adults is insufficient for success in employment and the subsequent consequences in later life such as the cycle of poverty (Parsons and Bynner, 2007). Recommendations are made to ensure that numeracy teaching to adults is available wherever adults are, e.g. community, classroom, workplace and through initiatives such as parent numeracy groups within schools (National Literacy and Numeracy Framework, Wales), and that it is made relevant to their lives.


Apple, M. W. (1979) Ideology and Curriculum. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Cooper, R. (2006) A Social Model of Dyslexia. London South Bank University.

Ginsburg, H. P. and Russell, R. L. (1981) ‘Social class and racial influences on early mathematical thinking’. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 46 (6) pp1–69.

Green, P. J., Dugoni, B. L., Ingels, S. J. and Cambum, E. (1995) A Profile of the American High School Senior in 1992. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

Nunes et al. (2009) ‘Development of Maths Capabilities and Confidence in Primary School’ (2009) DCSF–RR118.

Oliver, M (1990) The Politics of Disablement. Palgrave Macmillan.  

Opdenakker, M. and Van Damme, J. (2007) ‘Do school context, student composition and school leadership affect school practice and outcomes in secondary education?’ British Educational Research Journal, 33(2), 179–206.

Parsons, S. and Bynner, B. (2007) ’Illuminating disadvantage: Profiling the experiences of adults with Entry level literacy or numeracy over the lifecourse’.

Siegler, R. S. and Ramani, G. B. (2009) Playing linear number board games – but not circular ones – improves low-income preschoolers’ numerical understanding. Journal of Educational Psychology,101 (3) pp 545–560.

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