More Complicated Than It Seems: A Review of Literature About Adult Numeracy Instruction

This review of literature about adult numeracy instruction was prepared by a Canadian basic skills math instructor in her own search for the answer to the question of how ABE instructors can apply research findings to their practice.

K. Nonesuch
Author(s) Organizational Affiliation
Malaspina University-College, Cowichan Campus
Publication Year
Resource Type
Informational Material
Number of Pages
Product Type

This review of literature about adult numeracy instruction was prepared by a Canadian basic skills math instructor in her own search for the answer to the question of how ABE instructors can apply research findings to their practice. The review is targeted to adult numeracy practitioners and concentrates on topics related to instructional method and does not cover general educational policy, program administration, frameworks, or curriculum.

The author concluded after talking with 100 math practitioners in British Columbia that nearly all had knowledge of the principles and strategies supported by the literature, but did not incorporate them into their numeracy instruction. The bulk of this review contains the answers the author found by searching the literature for the reasons it is so difficult to apply the principles and strategies.

The author used the twelve principles identified in Adult Numeracy Instruction: A New Approach (Gal, Ginsburg, Stoudt, Rethemeyer & Ebby, 1994) as effective ways to teach math and develop numeracy skills. She explored the literature in each of these twelve areas and presented the barriers to implementation of effective practice.

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What the experts say

The author uses as her organizing structure the twelve principles of effective numeracy instruction identified in Adult Numeracy Instruction: A New Approach  (Gal, Ginsburg, Stoudt, Rethemeyer & Ebby, 1994).   The exploration of these principles makes this (Nonesuch) resource invaluable, in that it highlights this seminal publication (Gal,, worthy of use by all numeracy instructors and program administrators.  It is to Adult Numeracy Instruction: A New Approachthat the author ties her literature review of more recent research.  This structure allows for a re-reading of the former publication and gives a useful context to this literature review.

In addition, the author nicely summarizes her philosophy of teaching numeracy and literacy skills to adult learners.  This summary is an excellent description of the ways in which an instructor can be an agent for change in the on-going effort to improve and make meaningful numeracy instruction for adult learners:

"As an instructor of both numeracy and literacy, I believe that a mindfulness about the power relationship between teacher and student, a willingness to share power, and a sense that the locus of control of learning is best situated with the student, all combine to make a fruitful learning experience and a teaching experience that has more joy than frustration, and where both teaching and learning result in more satisfaction than guilt or resentment. (pg.2)"

Although this resource is rather long, there are many benefits that can come from reading it, such as:

  • Effective classroom practices – acknowledging that good instruction in an adult education classroom deals with more than learning; in many ways it is a form of therapy for learners who are emotionally connect to mathematics.
  • Classroom/Learner motivation – understanding that motivation for adults comes from a sense of practicality.  Adults need to know that what they are learning isn't just busy work but that what they are learning will change their life for the better.
  • Barriers – understanding why we continue to fall back into old habits and how an instruction’s attitude and confidence does impact how confident a learner feels in understanding mathematical concepts.

This resource led to another more extensive work by Nonesuch,  Changing the Way We Teach Math: A Manual for Teaching Basic Math to Adults. One reviewer felt that the introduction to the later work presents a much more concise and direct summary of her process and findings. This reviewer also noted that More Complicated Than It Seems was completed at the same time as another publication that provides different information on the subject. The Components of Numeracy by Lynda Ginsburg, Myrna Manly, and Mary Jane Schmitt,  an NCSALL Occasional Paper, was published, December, 2006.

Another concern of this resource is that Nonesuch’s definition of numeracy instruction ("the math needed for daily life as a consumer or worker: operations with whole numbers, fractions, decimals and percents; measurement of time, length, area and volume; and reading charts and graphs.") (Pg. 2) limits the validity of her considerations for higher-level math that is currently the focus of many adult numeracy teachers preparing our students for college and beyond.

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