A Review of the Literature in Adult Numeracy: Research and Conceptual Issues


Larry Condelli
Kathy Safford-Ramus
Renee Sherman
Diana Coben
Iddo Gal
Anestine Hector-Mason
Author(s) Organizational Affiliation
The American Institutes for Research
Prepared for Office of Vocational and Adult Education, Division of Adult Education and Literacy, U.S. Department of Education
Publication Year
Resource Type
Number of Pages

This review is the first major product of the Adult Numeracy Initiative, a two-year project funded by the Office of Vocational and Adult Education, U.S. Department of Education, and conducted by the American Institute for Research. The report provides a synthesis of research on several facets of adult numeracy, including instructional approaches, interventions, and assessment.

The review was developed to answer the following research questions:

  1. How does adult numeracy develop and how does it differ from the development of quantitative literacy in children?
  2. What are the social variables that affect quantitative skill acquisition in adults? How should programs address these social variables to enhance skill acquisition?
  3. What instructional practices exist in mathematics education for adult learners that are worthy of replication?
  4. What outcomes are most important to address in the evaluation of adult education programs in mathematics? What are the best tools or assessments for evaluating these outcomes?
  5. What practices exist in professional development and certification requirements for teachers of adult mathematics education that are worthy of replication?

The review summarizes the definitions, theories, and research around adult numeracy to organize what is known and to point the way for future research and development. The literature review was organized into five parts:

  • Issues in Conceptualizing Adult Numeracy addresses the first and second research questions and presents an overview of the competing approaches to defining adult numeracy. The section then reviews the main theoretical approaches toward teaching and learning mathematics for adults that reflect these definitions. The concepts and theories in this section provide a background and context for the research in instruction and assessment presented in subsequent sections.
  • Adult Numeracy and Mathematics Instructional Approaches and Interventions reviews the small number of studies done on ABE students, supplemented with an also small number of studies on adults in community college developmental education programs, on the effects of different types of instructional approaches on mathematics learning among adults. In response to the third research question, this section presents the instructional approaches, findings, and methodologies of these studies.
  • Assessment Issues in Adult Numeracy endeavors to respond to the fourth research question as it summarizes the existing knowledge base regarding assessment in adult numeracy, reviews the uses of assessment, analyzes the nature of assessment and how it can be improved, and summarizes the principles for designing effective assessments for adult numeracy.
  • Professional Development in Adult Numeracy deals with the fifth research question and discusses the state of professional development in ABE around numeracy. The section notes the low-level background of ABE teachers to teach mathematics, presents professional development approaches, and briefly discusses research on the characteristics of effective professional development.

(Abstract adapted from Section 1: Introduction of the publication.)

What the experts say

This is the first intensive look at the state of numeracy teaching and professional development in the United States. One of the strengths of this review for the practitioner or stakeholders in the field, is the extensive gathering of research and practices collated in a cohesive readable text. The organization of the review around the focus questions also helped with the cohesiveness of the study. While the overall conclusion was that there was very little definitive results that could be reported without further research, the individual case studies were fascinating and would provide interesting topics of discussion for practitioners in their adult education sites. Also of interest was the information gathered internationally. The appendix provides a wealth of resources for readers interested in pursuing a topic more deeply. The discussion of pertinent K-12 math research in the field such as the NCTM standards and work by the National Research Council is valuable information for practitioners not familiar with K-12 research. Lastly, college transitions is becoming a pertinent topic in adult education. The references to two year colleges and the research around teaching developmental algebra would be important for practitioners preparing students for math beyond ASE level.

The document offers a holistic view that links one’s conception of numeracy and theory of learning to instructional practices, assessment, and professional development; its logic exposes the conspicuous lack of alignment that exists among these features in adult education in the U.S. today. It offers specific guidelines for improving professional development opportunities and designing better assessments so that they reflect what is valued in instructional frameworks.

While this document identified very few research studies with adult learners that studied the effects of using constructivist approaches to teaching and learning, it found promising directions to pursue. By emphasizing the paucity of research on effects of numeracy instruction in adult education and suggesting a possible research agenda, this document serves as an incentive to the community to fund, design and carry out valuable studies in the future.

Methods the resource used to collect and analyze the data for the research: 


The review summarizes the definitions, theories, and research around adult numeracy to organize what is known and to point the way for future research and development.. Within these topics, the authors’ attempted to identify the areas of greatest interest to furthering research and practice of adult numeracy instruction and professional development within the U.S. adult education system.

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