Literacy Improvement – Can It Be Modified for Numeracy?

Can we apply the tactics of literacy improvement campaigns to numeracy improvement?

It sure would be nice!

Last week at the Western Social Science Association conference, I presented this question along with some possible answers.

This is the first in a series explaining how that may work. Here is the proposed series:

  • Introduction and Definitions (this one)
  • How Numeracy & Literacy are Similar
  • How Numeracy & Literacy are Different
  • Tactics of Literacy Improvement Models
  • Modification Ideas & Needs for Numeracy Improvement

The first step to formulating a plan to apply literacy improvement models to numeracy improvement is to define them.

The Definition of Literacy

James Paul Gee spent some considerable time, in a paper titled What is Literacy?, discussing and formulating a definition of literacy.

Many definitions include reading and writing. Some definitions include thinking critically.

Various definitions extend the definition to include cultural norms, technology and interpreting various multimedia forms of communication.

Under these extremely expanded definitions of literacy there is a much greater number of “illiterate” people that those normally labeled (either self-labeled or otherwise) as illiterate.

Because of this, I will keep my definition of literacy tightly defined as:

Literacy is the ability to decode written text and verbal statements, comprehend the literal meaning of them and speculate on the writer’s or speaker’s meaning.

Speculating on the writer’s or speaker’s meaning includes the comprehension of various forms of metaphorical devices. I have included this in my definition since metaphorical devices are ubiquitous.

Note that literacy, in this definition, much be of a certain language.

The Definition of Numeracy

Numeracy is a much less familiar word, but has no less variation in definition. Definitions can encompass: number sense, arithmetic, mathematical manipulation techniques, data analysis, measurement, geometry, probability, statistics, the ability to solve spacial and quantitative problems and the ability to interpret and understand  graphs, diagrams, charts and tables.

Because of this seemingly exhaustive list, I will keep my definition to this:

Numeracy is the ability to collect, organize and interpret information and arrive at numerical or numerically supported conclusions.

This definition, because of the numerical requirement of conclusions, assumes the information being collected, organized and interpreted is of a numerical nature.

Thus the definition includes the requirement of a person to be able to “read math.”

A slight clarification of the definitions.

Both of my definitions include the assumption that the abilities don’t have to be demonstrated “out loud.” A person can have a “gut feeling” of the content of a written metaphor without the ability to articulate it.

Likewise, a person can, within moments, collect, organize and interpret the information of a pack of hungry lions rushing toward him and come to the conclusion of “RUN!” – a decision numerically supported by the number of attackers and the probability that he’s not going to win that fight.


Share your thoughts and your definitions in the comments. And shout it out on twitter.

Oh – and stay tuned for the next in the series, How Numeracy & Literacy are Similar.

Disclaimer – this was originally drafted as a Paper (capital P) so that’s why some parts might look a whole lot less like my normal writing. Please excuse this.

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