Numeracy Compared to Literacy

I’m doing research for a paper that I’ll be presenting in two days at the Western Social Science Association conference. Here’s the outline:

  1. What is literacy?
  2. What is numeracy?
  3. The Similarities between Numeracy and Literacy
  4. The Differences between Numeracy and Literacy
  5. Some Models for Literacy Improvement
  6. How These Literacy Improvement Models Might be Modified for Numeracy Improvement

In attacking the first two questions, I’ve come across a paper titled What is Literacy? by James Paul Gee. Amazingly, the definitions he gives to primary discourse (or use of language), secondary discourse and meta-discourse are all applicable to math literacy/numeracy.

Primary use of language is “casual” discourse.

Primary use of language is the acquired communication tools we use among our “intimates.” This means it’s the way we talk, write or otherwise communicate with family members, close friends or others who are part of our personally identified social group.

Secondary use of language is more formal and used with anyone.

Secondary discourse is the acquired communication tools we use with anyone. This includes our close friends or family – sometimes.

But mostly this is the way we talk in (or write for) “polite company,” as my mother would say.

Meta-discourse is the study of the discourses.

Freaky, I know. But meta-anything is freaky once you think about it.

In particular, meta-discourse is the study of grammar and syntax as well as literary analysis and other English-class-goodies like that.

Where you put the commas and if you use “I” or “me,” are both bits that you’d find in meta-discourse.

How does this compare to numeracy?

Consider what primary, secondary and meta uses of mathematics might look like.

Primary use of math is the stuff you do everyday. The subtraction that you do without thought in order to know what time to set your alarm clock.

A secondary, or more formal used of math might be borrowing money from a bank. It could also look like the calculation of gas mileage.

Secondary use of math involves a more conscious effort to do “math things” – like annual percentage rate for a loan or division of miles driven by gallons used.

And meta-math is the formal stuff.

So then math that is taught (like in school) is the equivalent of meta-discourse. It is the study of the formalizations of arithmetic and logic that we use.

Often people term primary and secondary uses of math as “mathematics” while labeling meta-discourse in math as “Mathematics” – with the capital M.

You say tomato and I say, well… you know.

Literacy is acquired, not taught.

Yup – here’s the quote (and I love this):

Literacy is mastered through acquisition, not learning…  it requires exposure to models in natural meaningful, and functional settings…

So we “teach” reading, but it’s really a matter of hurrying along the process of acquisition.

It’s likely that children are already well on their way to acquisition of language (or literacy) by the time they’re in school. Many parents read to their children very early – and continue to do so well into school aged years.

This is a display of discourse or use of the language. And it supports the child’s acquisition of the language.

Isn’t numeracy also acquired?

I certainly didn’t teach K8 perpendicular distance at 2 years old, and yet she knows enough about it to apply it at an Easter egg hunt!

Through experience, she’s acquired that primary use of math.

And just watch when a toddler does “division” using a box of three dolls when she sees four kids. You don’t want to be in that room!

This is also a “skill” acquired through experience and observation.

So why isn’t the acquisition of numeracy encouraged?

Math learning – at least in the primary and secondary uses – is happening automatically. But why don’t we notice and celebrate it?

Sure, we teach our kids to count and make sure they know their shapes. But then we stop.

We wait to start math-talk until children are sitting in their chairs, hair combed, hands washed, ready for class. We send the message that math isn’t done unless you’re in math class or at the kitchen table with pencil, paper and book.

We shove meta-math at them after making them think that they’ve never experienced the primary or secondary use of math.

We should be ashamed of ourselves!

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