What Are Adult Numeracy Theories? Here Are 3 Notable Ones You Need To Know Now

What are adult numeracy theories? Here are 3 you need to know

Adult Numeracy Theories

Adult numeracy theories are simply ideas about how adults learn maths and numerical concepts.

To some extent, these mirror some of the content we’ve already covered regarding adult education in general and adult literacy in particular.

Three key theories of adult numeracy include behaviourist, constructivist and sociocultural. I unpack these three below.


For behaviourists, if you can observe a change in your learner’s behaviour due to some stimulus that you have provided as educator.

The behaviourist approach promotes the idea that the teacher should provide mathematical knowledge perhaps in the form of a problem (the stimulus), which the learner absorbs and then produces a solution for (the response).

Following the rules correctly results in the correct answer which educators can measure easily with tests.

So in other words, If you adopt the behaviourist approach to adult numeracy, your focus will be on observable and measurable changes in your learners’ behaviour that result from specific stimuli.

According to behaviourist theories, you should present mathematical concepts in a way that is easily understood by your learners. The emphasis is on memorisation and practice, with the aim of developing automaticity and accuracy in mathematical skills. This is achieved through a series of repetitive exercises or drills that reinforce mathematical concepts.

In the behaviourist approach, your role as a teacher is to provide the stimulus or the problem, while your learners’ role is to respond with the correct solution. Feedback and reinforcement play an important role in the behaviourist approach.

Correct responses should be reinforced, while incorrect responses should be corrected and redirected. The emphasis is on achieving the correct answer through the application of rules, formulas and algorithms.


As with ideas about literacy, numeracy has shifted towards a constructivist approach in recent years.

In the constructivist point of view, learners actively construct mathematical knowledge as they bring what they already know together with new information and experiences.

Constructivist theories of adult numeracy often follow the ideas of Piaget, who believed that learners make sense of mathematics through their own exploration and experimentation. According to Piaget, learners progress through a series of developmental stages that are characterised by increasing levels of complexity and abstraction.

In the constructivist approach, learners are encouraged to make connections between their own experiences and mathematical concepts, and to explore the relationships between different mathematical ideas.

Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory of learning has also influenced the constructivist approach to adult numeracy. Vygotsky believed that learning is a social activity, and that learners can benefit from the support and guidance of more experienced others.

In the constructivist approach, teachers act as guides, providing scaffolding to help learners move to higher levels of development. Scaffolding involves providing support and assistance to learners as they explore and experiment with mathematical concepts, gradually withdrawing support as learners become more competent and confident.


The sociocultural approach to adult numeracy builds on Vygotsky’s ideas of learning as a social activity. In this approach, learning and teaching are seen as being influenced by social and cultural factors. The sociocultural approach recognises that different cultures and communities have different ways of thinking about and using mathematical concepts.

A good illustration of this is the kind of “hands on” numeracy knowledge that a trades person would use to estimate or measure area in a real life work situation as compared to a textbook area calculation that you would find in a school setting.

Textbook mathematics problems do not usually prepare apprentice farmers, gardeners, or horticulturalists for the kinds of issues associated with area, ratios, and measurement that they experience in the reality of their daily work.

Furthermore, in some cultures, mathematical concepts may be embedded in everyday activities such as cooking, sewing or building. In other cultures, mathematical concepts may be taught in a more formal way, using textbooks and classroom instruction.

The sociocultural approach recognises that learners bring their own cultural and linguistic backgrounds to the learning process, and that this can influence how they approach and make sense of mathematical concepts.

The sociocultural approach emphasises the importance of context in the learning process. Teachers need to create learning environments that are relevant and meaningful to the learners, and that take into account their cultural and linguistic backgrounds.

The sociocultural approach encourages teachers to use a variety of teaching strategies, including hands-on activities, group work, and problem-solving tasks, to engage learners and help them develop a deep understanding of mathematical concepts.

Professional Reading on Adult Numeracy Theories

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Photo by Ketut Subiyanto on Pexels.com

Review the questions below then read the article

  1. What theories underpin the approach to numeracy taken by the adult numeracy progressions that we use in Aotearoa New Zealand?

What is numeracy?

The term numeracy is relatively new. It was first used in 1959 in the UK Crowther Report, where it was characterised as the mirror image of literacy. Since then, numeracy has been interpreted in different ways internationally, mostly because of the very different needs of the users of the term.

The view of numeracy that underpins the numeracy learning progressions is about knowing and understanding: it is therefore both broad and contextualised. The following definitions most closely represent the view taken here.

To be numerate is to have the ability and inclination to use mathematics effectively in our lives – at home, at work and in the community.
Ministry of Education, 2001, page 1

To be numerate means to be competent, confident and comfortable with one’s judgements on whether to use mathematics in a particular situation and if so, what mathematics to use, how to do it, what degree of accuracy is appropriate and what the answer means in relation to the context.
Coben, 2000, cited in Coben, 2003, page 10

We believe that numeracy is about making meaning in mathematics and being critical about maths. This view of numeracy is very different from numeracy just being about numbers and it is a big step from numeracy or everyday maths that meant doing some functional maths.

It is about using mathematics in all its guises – space and shape, measurement, data and statistics, algebra and of course, number – to make sense of the real world and using maths critically and being critical of maths itself. It acknowledges that numeracy is a social activity.
Tout, 1997, cited in Coben, 2003, page 11

The view of numeracy that underpins the numeracy learning progressions places an emphasis on the need for learners to gain:

  • a conceptual understanding of mathematical knowledge, and
  • the ability to use mathematical knowledge to meet the varied demands of their personal, study and work lives.

The numeracy learning progressions are based on the belief that in order to meet the demands of being a worker, a learner and a family and community member, adults need to use mathematics to solve problems.

Key concepts

Several key concepts can be identified as central to the understandings about numeracy and about adult learners that have informed the development of the numeracy learning progressions. These concepts are covered below, under the following headings:

  • Meaningful contexts and representations
  • Understanding and reasoning
  • Degree of precision
  • Algorithms.

Meaningful contexts and representations

In 1992, the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS) was redesigned to include a numeracy survey that assessed the distribution of basic numeracy skills in adult populations.

The concepts underlying the assessment included the recognition that mathematical ideas are embedded within meaningful contexts and may be represented in a range of ways, for example, by objects and pictures, numbers and symbols, formulas, diagrams and maps, graphs and tables, and texts.

The importance of teaching mathematics in meaningful contexts was also emphasised in the SCANS report (1991) and is an integral part of national adult education standards in Australia and the United Kingdom.

When adult learners need to know and use mathematics, the need always arises within a particular context. Numeracy is the bridge between mathematics and the diverse contexts that exist in the real world.

In this sense … [there] is no particular ‘level’ of Mathematics associated with it: it is as important for an engineer to be numerate as it is for a primary school child, a parent, a car driver or a gardener. The different contexts will require different Mathematics to be activated and engaged in.
Johnston, 1995, page 54

Many adults are unaware of the ways in which they use mathematics in the course of their everyday lives. For example, measurement is used in a great many routine activities.

All in all, measurement is revealed as a complex and somewhat contradictory area for teaching and learning: at once at the heart of mathematics and surprisingly absent, for some people, from activities which are commonly assumed to involve a lot of measurement, such as cooking, shopping and merchant banking.
Baxter et al., 2006, page 52

By grounding learning within authentic contexts, the numeracy learning progressions can raise learners’ awareness of the mathematics all around them – and of the mathematical knowledge, skills and strategies they already possess.

Understanding and reasoning

The demands for adult numeracy arise from three main sources: community and family, the workplace and further learning. While each of these sources is likely to require different mathematical skills at varying achievement levels, all mathematics needs to be learnt with understanding so that it can be generalised and adapted by the learner for a variety of situations.

Knowing certain mathematical facts or routines is not enough to enable learners to use that knowledge flexibly in a wide range of contexts. Being able to do mathematics does not necessarily mean being able to use mathematics in effective ways. Knowledge of procedural operations and facts is essential to reasoned mathematical activity, but is of little value in itself.

A learner who counts decimal places to determine the number of decimal places in an answer without understanding the number operation involved may get 0.7 x 0.5 correct, but 0.7 + 0.5 incorrect. The learner’s lack of understanding of the mathematical process means that they have no way of knowing why some of their answers are correct and others incorrect, because they are unable to use reasoning.

… the notion of understanding mathematics is meaningless without a serious emphasis on reasoning.
Ball and Bass, 2003, page 28

Degree of precision

In real-life problems that require adults to use mathematics for a solution, there is generally a certain amount of flexibility around the degree of precision necessary. When students in schools solve mathematics problems, the problems are often purely theoretical, but adult learners need to make decisions about how to manage problems in real-life situations.

In order to choose the best approach to solving a problem, an adult needs to begin by making a decision about the degree of precision required. For example, a practical problem may involve working out how much carpet is needed to cover the floor of a room. As a classroom exercise in school, the purpose of setting the problem may be to have the students learn and practise measuring skills.

The task would probably involve scaled drawings with precise measurements. The students might be expected to use calculators or to apply what they have learnt about formulas and multiplying numbers to arrive at a solution. As a real problem for an adult, solving this problem may involve first asking and answering practical questions, for example:

  • “How accurate do I need to be?”
  • “What tools (such as a calculator, a measuring tape, or pen and paper) should I use?”

Depending on their specific purpose in this situation, the adult judges the degree of precision that would be reasonable. This could vary from very precise (for ordering and cutting the carpet) to a rough estimate (for thinking about whether or not to re-carpet). The degree of precision required dictates the measurement units and tools to be used, for example:

  • “Will I use hand spans, strides, or a tape?”
  • “Should I measure in metres, centimetres, or millimetres?”

Journal Task

Write at least 250 words on how adult numeracy theories underpin your approach to teaching and training.

If you need to, use the prompt to get yourself started:

  • How much of your approach to teaching adult numeracy is underpinned by behaviourism?
  • How much of your approach to teaching adult numeracy is supported by a constructivism?
  • What about sociocultural theory? Do you think your approach is underpinned by any aspects of this approach to teaching adult numeracy?

Literacy & Numeracy – It’s Not Rocket Science

GRAEME SMITH thisisgraeme

Literacy and Numeracy: It's Not Rocket Science BY 


Learn the fundamentals of literacy and numeracy with Graeme Smith

Discover how to be more successful in your teaching journey. I’ll introduce and explain some of the fundamentals of adult literacy and numeracy.

Once you’ve finished reading, you will have a better understanding of the basics including how to integrate or embed literacy and numeracy into your teaching. This includes with technical and vocational education. You can read more here.

Now bundled wth two free printable resources – a place value chart and hundreds grid.


Click the link below to find out more about Literacy and Numeracy: It’s Not Rocket Science.


Author: Graeme Smith

Education, technology, design. Also making cool stuff...

3 thoughts

  1. Really great stuff Graeme. This course looks fantastic. This is a far better fit for literacy tutors and enthusiasts than the NCALNE. I can imagine the conversations now, Freire versus Piaget, should numeracy include language, should we teach phonics or jump to whole word recognition??!!! It’s gonna be great!

    1. Thanks Sittingbull…! We just need a way to make those conversations happen between people in a way that leverages the technology but is still human friendly

    2. The trick will be to make it relevant to our graduates from trades and vocational training, i.e. the NCALNE (Voc) audience who want to go further… has to retain practical nature as well… that’s my current conundrum… hopefully the outcome of the TROQ review will clear this up for me

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