The Inclusion of Numeracy in Adult Education


Dave Tout
Mary Jane Schmitt
Author(s) Organizational Affiliation
Dave Tout - Research Fellow, Adult Numeracy, Australian Council for Educational Research
Mary Jane Schmitt - Co-Principal Investigator for the Extending Mathematical Power (EMPower) project at TERC, a Cambridge, Massachusetts
Publication Year
Resource Type
Informational Material
Number of Pages
Product Type

Chapter 5 of NCSALL’s 2002 Review of Adult Learning and Literacy, “The Inclusion of Numeracy in Adult Basic Education,” provides a comprehensive view of the state of numeracy instruction in the United States and other English speaking nations. The authors examine a variety of numeracy topics:

  1. the meaning and history of numeracy
  2. professional development for ABE math teachers
  3. models of progress in teaching adults math
  4. numeracy assessments and instructional materials
  5. the state of numeracy in policy documents
  6. current numeracy instructional techniques

The chapter provides an excellent overview of the state of adult numeracy in 2002; however, updating should occur.

What the experts say

This resource is written by two well established adult numeracy leaders in the field. It is a balanced overview of the state of adult numeracy education in the U.S. The chapter was written in 2002 and, although there have been some additional initiatives, the observations and conclusions would not be very different today. One important area that would need to be included in an update would be the recent attention to “transition” to further education.

This review offers an orientation to the field of adult numeracy education by looking at three fronts: research, practice, and policy. They are approached from the perspectives of US Adult Basic Education, US K-12, and from abroad. They also discuss the implications of their review on these three fronts.

The authors note that while numeracy instruction appears in virtually all adult education classrooms, it has been virtually ignored by the research and policy communities. This very readable resource is thought provoking, and challenges common ABE practice.

The chapter includes an informative discussion of the term “numeracy,” providing a history of the word’s usage and clarification of how it is somewhat different from “mathematics.” The authors make a good case that the terminology is aligned with the goals and models of instruction that are particularly relevant to adults.

The authors state that numeracy is a core essential skill that includes the use of mathematical ideas for real-world purposes. Thus it demands corresponding instructional practice that is grounded in contexts adults recognize and assessments that go beyond arithmetic skills. They describe models of progress toward that goal already in place in The Netherlands and Australia that can be informative to policy makers and teachers in the US in our own efforts to establish a coherent system of adult numeracy instruction.

I found the sections on initiatives and practices being implemented in the U.K., the Netherlands, and Australia to be particularly useful and compelling. Attention to numeracy has been supported and institutionalized for some time overseas. The descriptions of thoughtful formative and summative assessment models and practices being used in Australia will challenge U.S. readers to reconsider our rather limited established practices.

Descriptions of the mathematics reforms initiated in the K-12 system may be informative to many readers who may not be familiar with them. These reforms, based in cognitive research, have been influencing groups of ABE educators who are taking on leadership in improving numeracy instruction.

Their call to action challenges all of us with the statement, “those in the best position to improve numeracy education in ABE are practitioners, especially experienced practitioners.” (p.191)

One central theme - that numeracy has not been included in many US policy statements - has been ameliorated to some degree since the publication of the review. This is due in no small part to the extraordinary efforts (writing curriculum, creating staff development opportunities, advocating for the needs of the learners) done by the authors themselves during the intervening years. Yet, their point retains some validity today, when most of the public discussion still seems to be focused solely on literacy.

The review provides a marker of “where we were” in 2002. We can use it to gauge the progress that has been made to date and will be made by today’s initiatives that are making changes both in policy and practice.

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