Why Numeracy Counts and What Parents Can Do to Foster It

by Pam Moore August 09, 2017

little girl sitting on father's stomach and learning maths

I’m sweaty and thirsty, trying to make sense of the numbers I’ve jotted down on a dry erase board. I’ve noted how many repetitions of each exercise I did in the minute we were allowed for each one, and now I have to add them up. There were five exercises per round and I completed three rounds. I remind myself that I have a Master's degree as I struggle to add 46 to 17. For years I told myself I’m not a “numbers person,” but in fact, I love numbers. I’m dying to know the total reps I completed during this workout. My favorite distraction during a 10k is to calculate what pace I need to hold in order to finish at a certain time. The truth is my numeracy needs work.

I’m not alone. Experts say one in five Americans are functionally innumerate. They lack the math skills needed for many modern jobs, including those that do not require a college degree.

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, numeracy is:

The ability to access, use, interpret, and communicate mathematical information and ideas, to engage in and manage mathematical demands of a range of situations in adult life.

Though we hear a lot about the importance of literacy as the foundation for success, numeracy may be just as important. According to Myra Manley, long-time mathematics educator and founding member of the Adult Numeracy Network, not only are stronger math skills among a national population associated with that country’s economic growth, but they also give individuals a better chance of enjoying financial stability, health, and wellness. A National Research and Development Centre for Adult Numeracy and Literacy study found that, regardless of subjects’ literacy skills, poor numeracy contributed to poorer quality of life in a number of areas. Interestingly, low numeracy scores affected men and women differently.

Regardless of how well they scored on literacy measures, women with poor numeracy were:

  • less likely to be in full-time work (regardless of how many children they had)
  • more likely to be in semi-skilled or unskilled jobs
  • more likely to be engaged in home care
  • less likely to have interest in politics, or to vote
  • more likely to report poor physical health in the last 12 months
  • more likely to be in a non-working household
  • more likely to have low self-esteem
  • more likely to feel they lacked control over their lives

Men with poor numeracy, no matter how high their standard of literacy:

  • had less chance of being in a company pension scheme
  • were more at risk of depression
  • have little interest in politics
  • were more likely to have been suspended from school, or arrested and cautioned by the police

Even in the age of the smart phone, no app can replace sharp numeracy skills. Says Sanam Kittikulsingh, who teaches math at the American School of Doha in Qatar, while your smart phone is useful tool for performing calculations, nothing can replace the human brain.

Kittikulsingh notes, “Math is not just about computation and getting the right answer. It is a way of thinking that requires flexibility, efficiency, creativity, elegance, problem-solving, and trial and error.”

Amanda Rothman, who has taught elementary-grade math for over 15 years both in mainstream and special education classes, gives the example of having to figure out the price of an item that’s on sale for 25 percent off the marked price. While your phone is certainly capable of calculating the numbers, it’s useless if you have yet to understand the concept.

As with literacy, early numeracy skills pay dividends over time. A 2010 longitudinal study found that, after controlling for demographics including parents’ level of education, kindergarteners who had a basic grasp of counting and relational skills demonstrated stronger math skills in the first grade.

A 2013 study had similar findings. Researchers found that kindergartners who demonstrated an understanding of number systems had higher functional numeracy more than six years later than their peers who lacked that early understanding. Researchers controlled for factors including intelligence, working memory, in-class attentive behavior, mathematical achievement, and demographics.

Also, like literacy, the roots of numeracy take hold well before formal academics begin. A large 2012 study of German preschoolers found that a strong home-learning environment was highly associated with numeracy skills during the first year of preschool.

Similarly, a 2008 study found that effects of the home-learning environment and certain preschools had a marked effect on children’s math skills, both when they started school and at the end of their third year of school.

Rothman explains, “If children are taught numeracy skills at home, they can relate what they learned in their home environment when they are solving problems in a math book or on a computer program.”

Opportunities to relate textbook problems to real life create connections in the brain that reinforce the lesson. Educators refer to this phenomenon as “text to self” or “text to world.” Though more frequently associated with literacy skills, Rothman says the concept is applicable to math skills as well.

Instilling numeracy skills in our kids doesn’t have to be complicated or intimidating, even for those (like myself) who don’t consider themselves “numbers people.” A good starting point is, in fact, avoiding statements like, “I’ve just never been good at math,” particularly in front of our kids.

As Kittikulsingh points out, “You don’t hear grown-ups say ‘I’ve never been into that reading thing.’ or ‘Gosh! I am a terrible reader.’ I believe your child’s identity as a mathematician can significantly influence their success. Help them out by keeping your own attitude in check.”

Another big “Don’t,” says Kittikulsingh, is forcing rote math skills onto your kids too early. “Just because you have told your two-year-old that three times six is 18 and they know this because they’ve heard it a hundred times, does not mean they have the experience with which to anchor this knowledge. At that point, it is essentially useless trivia.”

Put your flash cards away and focus instead on using math in context.Here are some ideas for using math in context:

  • Counting with your kids
Rothman recommends counting out cookies as you put them on your kids’ plates and pointing out numbers in the environment (e.g., “There are three different traffic lights”). If the child is able, Kittikulsingh recommends having her keep track of points in a game.
  • Comparing relative size

Kittikulsingh gives this example: “You drank more milk than your sister.” You might also ask your child a question like, “Which building is taller?” or “Which pillow is bigger?” Rothman suggests parents involve children in cooking activities which can give them another way to contextualize relative size (e.g., “We’re using more flour than sugar”).

  • Reinforcing the concept of time

Kittikulsingh offers the example of saying something like, “You took a longer bath today than yesterday.” You could also say something like, “It takes longer to drive to Grandma’s than it does to drive to school,” or “Walking to the library takes longer than driving.”

  • Giving kids time for unstructured play

Play is how children explore their world and how they advance their social, emotional, cognitive, and physical skills. According to the American Occupational Therapy Association, play is (or should be) a child’s primary job, or occupation.

When it comes to early numeracy, play should not be left out of the equation. Says Kittikulsingh, “I cannot overemphasize the importance of play in the early years (and beyond). Through play and exploration, children learn about a lot of things, math included; they develop experiences and make connections. They seek answers to their own curiosities and make observations.”

We are at the grocery store, perusing the produce when I see an opportunity to teach my daughter something.

“We have four apples in our bag. We want ten. How many more do we need?”

I look at my daughter expectantly. She is about to start kindergarten and I know she knows the answer.

“Mom,” she says, stretching the word “mom” into three syllables. “I don’t feel like doing math.”

I let it go and add the apples myself, knowing that passers-by will overhear our conversation and assume I am a tiger mother. (I’m not.) Maybe they think I am going to whip out the math flash cards as soon as I unload the groceries, but I don’t even have math flash cards. I just want my daughter to be comfortable with numbers in a way I've never been.

Pam Moore


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