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Masters in Educational Practice: Numeracy learning pack


Numeracy and society



Research literature contains no universally accepted definition of numeracy. Indeed in some non-English speaking countries there is no corresponding term for numeracy or what it means and discussions about related issues take place under mathematics or mathematics education.

The term ‘numeracy’ originated in the UK, in the Crowther Report on the education of children aged 15 to 18 and was described as ‘the mirror image of literacy’ (HMSO, 1959, par. 389). At the time, a more sophisticated level of ‘scientific literacy’ was deemed necessary to support young people to stay on in school and bridge the perceived gap between literary and scientific cultures (Coben, 2003).

O’Donoghue (2002, p.480) argues that literacy and numeracy have subsequently remained locked together in public consciousness as overlapping and complementary personal attributes with numeracy issues often subsumed under literacy. He suggests that the concept of numeracy has evolved accordingly.

  • Mirror image of literacy.
  • Literacy (no explicit concern for numeracy).
  • Literacy (concern for ‘3 Rs’ and basic mathematical skills).
  • Functional numeracy (detached from literacy).
  • Literacy (numeracy is recognised as an aspect, e.g. quantitative literacy).
  • Types of literacy (e.g. mathematical literacy, scientific literacy).
  • Numeracy (independent life skill detached from literacy and equally important).

Indeed, virtually all definitions of literacy found in UN documents over the last 60 years include calculating or mathematics (Gal, 2000). According to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA, 2007), two key characteristics of a numerate individual are:

  • the ability to use mathematics in everyday life
  • the ability to understand and appreciate information presented in mathematical terms.

The Welsh Government’s National Numeracy Programme (2012) describes numeracy as:

. . . the application of mathematical understanding in daily activities at school, at home, at work and in the community.

This will be further discussed in Topic 2: Understanding numeracy.


Central Advisory Council for Education (England) (1959), A report of the Central Advisory Council for Education (England), The Crowther Report. London: HMSO.

Coben, D., Colwell, D., Macrae, S., Boaler, J. Brown, M, Rhodes, V. (2003), Adult numeracy: review of research and related literature. London: NRDC.

Gal, I. (2000), The numeracy challenge. In Gal, I. (Ed.), ‘Adult Numeracy Development; Theory, research, and practice’ (pp. 9-31). Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

Maguire, T., and O'Donoghue, J. (2002), A grounded approach to practitioners training in Ireland: Some findings from a National survey of practitioners in Adult Basic Education. Paper presented at the 8th International conference of Adults Learning Mathematics (ALM8).

OECD (2007), Programme for International Student Assessment. (Accessed 31 October 2013).

Welsh Government (2012), National Numeracy Programme. Cardiff: Welsh Government. (Accessed 31 October 2013).

Useful links

Cline Cohen, Patricia (2001), The Emergence of Numeracy. In: Steen, L.A. (Ed.) Mathematics and Democracy, The case for Quantitative Literacy. USA: NCED, The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. (Accessed 31 October 2013).

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