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What To Do When You’re Struggling With Numeracy Skills


By Margaret Paton

One in Ten

Almost one in 10 adults in the US struggle with basic math beyond third grade – that’s 36 million people – according to ProLiteracy, the world’s largest adult literacy and basic education membership advocacy organization.

Those one in 10 people struggle to read a train or bus timetable, create and follow a budget, or manage their credit card and much, much more. At work, they’ll be lost filling in their time sheets, number crunching with spreadsheets or understanding graphs.

A Canadian study identified the myriad of ways math skills are used for calculations in everyday life. From their sample of 160 adult participants, most of their calculations were related to time, money or financial issues. They were broadly grouped as number or measurement calculations.

So, while those with low numeracy skills may have harnessed some adaptive strategies over the years to keep their secret with them, consider how stressful that would be. This is a key life skill that they’re struggling with possibly every day.

The Key Numbers

The most recent OECD survey of 16 to 24 year olds placed the US 24 out of 24 countries for numeracy skills. As for Canada, its residents rank below the OECD average in numeracy, says this report. In other words, that country gets a ‘C’ grade for math, says the Conference Board of Canada. It’s 2014 study found that 55% of Canadian adults had “inadequate numeracy skills”, which was significantly more than the decade prior.

“Numeracy skills affect an individual’s economic and social well-being. Inadequate numeracy skills can negatively impact an individual’s ability to get a job and feel engaged and valued in society. Inadequate numeracy skills, when possessed by larger groups, can “hurt the economy through missed opportunities for innovation and productivity,” says the board’s report.

Lowest Common Denominator

So, poor mastery of numeracy skills negatively affects not just the person, but potentially the economy and therefore society. That sounds serious, and it is. It’s been said numeracy for math is the same as literacy in learning. Numeracy is the foundation skill on which to build an understanding of mathematical concepts and processes. It’s a key focus for the first five years of school. That’s ample time, you might think, but some learners need more. As well, mathematical concepts are taught sequentially, so miss a chunk of instruction and that gap in your learning could set you back well into adulthood.

What Numeracy Skills Are We Talking About?

But let’s shift from a deficit model and look at achievements. Here’s a simple overview of what children should grasp by the end of elementary school when it comes to numeracy and math. Some of these concepts won’t sound familiar to the average person, but to teachers, they will. These are part of a learning continuum or standards and couched in the phrasing ‘I can’.

  • I can count forward, backward, name numbers and count by 5 and 10.
  • I can solve counting problems using known facts to solve addition and subtraction problems using one or two digit numbers.
  • And I can use number patterns to regroup when using number operations to solve problems.
  • I can use place value to understand the system extends indefinitely to the left or right of the decimal point. And I can see the relationship between the values of adjacent places in a numeral. I can work with and from decimal numbers and fractions.
  • I can multiply and divide using times tables and inverse operations.
  • And I can use fraction units to make whole lines or shapes and remainders when the answer is more than 1, 2, 3 etc. I can also find the common denominator to solve fractions.
  • I can use measurement units including a grid to find the area as well as a layered grid to find the volume

Interventions and New Approached Are Needed

Teachers aim to identify at what stage are their learners on the continuum – roughly the emergent, perceptual, figurative, and working-on stages in that order. I’ve seen a grade 8 student stuck at the perceptual stage. She was unable to count on, so had to draw small circles on a scrap sheet of paper to represent the first number, then draw the number of circles to add the next number. Next, she counted them by pointing at them one by one to find the total. This approach needed much effort and most of the lesson, but what was more amazing was that she wasn’t disengaged, though easily could have been. She needed a concrete representation of the numbers.

Consider how a learner like that will progress through their schooling unless their gaps in understanding are identified and addressed at their pace and teaching matches the student’s learning style. It’s not her fault. It’s just where she’s at.

Interventions and new approaches are needed. For example, she could be assessed for the math-related learning disability called dyscalculia. Find out more from one of our other blogs, Progress is Possible, where the case of Caroline is explored.

Teaching Math With More Rigor

The US Core Standards – for all states – introduce ‘rigor’ as a guide for teachers to help students “pursue conceptual understanding, procedural skills and fluency and application with equal intensity”. Note that we’re not seeing ‘processes’, ‘steps’ or ‘formula’ trumpeted here. The standards want students to be able to approach concepts from several perspectives so they don’t see math as just “a set of mnemonics or discrete procedures”. Meanwhile, the procedural skills and fluency element of the standards focus on the results – speedy and accurate calculations. As well, the standards ask students to use math where that knowledge is needed. To do this they require the first two – a solid conceptual understanding and procedural fluency.

Math Anxiety Is Real and All Around You

But even teachers have math anxiety, research shows, and this can affect their learners’ attitudes toward the subject. Another study found that math anxiety in pre-service teachers affected their performance across all math tasks. Perhaps that confirmed their anxiety, but which came first – low math skills or the anxiety?

Dismissing poor numeracy skills with a flippant ‘I don’t have a math brain’ does you and those who hear that utterance a dis-service. We rarely hear that for other fields such as sports or music. For some people, schooling may not be the same as learning. If anxiety about math – and learning in general – is affecting you or your child, consider signing up for an upcoming Gemm Learning webinar. They’re free. You’ll learn how to increase focus and reduce anxiety in one to three minutes. It’s part 2 of our popular series. You can find a recording of the first one here.

As with all learning struggles, it is never too late to seek a learning intervention.


Common Core State Standards Initiative


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