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Masters in Educational Practice: Numeracy learning pack


Understanding numeracy


Numeracy and mathematics

‘Numeracy’ does not have a universally accepted definition,nor is there agreement about how it differs from ‘mathematics’ (Gal et al, 2005).

Activity 2.02

Take a few moments to think about how you would describe the relationship between numeracy and mathematics? Where do they overlap – or don’t they? What does numeracy include that mathematics doesn’t and/or vice versa?

Most definitions recognise that mathematics and numeracy are related, though not synonymous. Pure mathematics is often regarded as abstract and context-free, whereas, according to Orrill (2001, pxviii):

Unlike mathematics, numeracy does not so much lead upward in an ascending pursuit of abstraction as it moves outward toward an even richer engagement with life’s diverse contexts and situations.

In Wales, the National Numeracy Programme (NNP) (2012) describes numeracy as the application of mathematical understanding in daily activities at school, at home, at work and in the community and suggests that:

Mathematics is a part of numeracy, but to be numerate means you are able to apply some of these mathematical skills in many more contexts than in mathematics lessons and across several subject areas.

Ginsburg et al (2006) suggest that most definitions of numeracy refer to this richer engagement by including a connection to ‘context’, ‘purpose’, or ‘use’. For example, in some cases the focus is on the needs of the workplace and competition in the global economy, or on critical numeracy needed for active participation in the democratic process, or access to other learning. Numeracy often involves mathematical topics woven into the context of work/study, community and personal life. So unlike pure mathematics, numeracy can involve a distinctive personal element that requires individuals to have the ability and inclination to explore situational mathematical content within their diverse personal contexts.

Activity 2.03

Watch this short clip on ‘What is numeracy?’ (external link) from Australia. How does this fit with your own evolving ideas and experiences of numeracy in the world, personally and professionally?

Coben (2000, p.10) emphasises the individual’s judgement about the use (or not) of mathematics in a given situation:

To be numerate means to be competent, confident, and comfortable with one’s judgement on whether to use mathematics in a particular situation and if so, what mathematics to use, how to do it, what degree of accuracy is appropriate, and what the answer means in relation to the context.

In an attempt to better understand what might be required for learners to be numerate, to act numerately, and to acquire numeracy skills, Ginsburg et al (2006, p.3) looked at almost 30 international numeracy and mathematics curriculum, assessment and standards frameworks targeted at teenagers and adults and suggested three major interactive and intertwined components of numeracy.

  • Context – the use and purpose for which a learner takes on a task with mathematical demands.
  • Content – the mathematical knowledge that is necessary for the tasks confronted.
  • Cognitive and affective – the processes that enable an individual to solve problems, linking the content and context.

Activity 2.04

Think of a scenario within your teaching which requires learners to be numerate, act numerately or acquire numeracy skills in order to achieve a task.

  1. What is the use and purpose of the task for your learners? 
  2. Can you identify the specific mathematical knowledge and skills learners will need to access the task?
  3. What cognitive and affective processes will help individuals and groups to problem solve?

Now reflect on how context, content, and cognitive and affective processes are evidenced within:

  • the numeracy component of the National Literacy and Numeracy Framework (LNF)
  • the Essential Skills Wales Application of Number standards
  • the GCSE Mathematics curriculum
  • the adult numeracy core curriculum.


Coben, D. (2000) Numeracy, mathematics, and adult learning in Ido Gal (Ed.) Adult numeracy development: Theory, research, practice (pp. 33–50). Cresskill, N.J.: Hampton Press.

Kaye, D. (2013) ‘Mathematics and Numeracy’ in Griffiths, G. and Stone, R. (Eds) Teaching Adult Numeracy Principles and practice. OUP: McGraw Hill.

Gal, I., van Groenestijn, M., Manly, M., Schmitt, M. J., and Tout, D. (2005) Adult numeracy and its assessment in the ALL survey: A conceptual framework and pilot results in Murray, T. S,, Clermont, Y. and Binkley, M. (Eds.), Measuring Adult Literacy and Life Skills: New frameworks for assessment (pp.137–191). Ottawa: Statistics Canada. (online)

Ginsburg, L., Manly, M. and Schmitt, M.J. (2006) The Components of Numeracy. Cambridge MA: NCASALL. (online)

O’Donoghue, J. (2002) Numeracy and Mathematics, Irish math. Soc Bulletin, 48 pp 47–55. (online)

Orrill, R. (2001) Mathematics, numeracy, and democracy in Steen, L.A. (Ed.) Mathematics and democracy (pp.xiii–xix). Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. (online)

Useful links

A summary of Definitions of Numeracy (external link) over the years by members and researchers in the Adults Learning Maths Research Forum (ALM), an international organisation of adult numeracy practitioners.

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