Literacy and Numeracy: It’s Not Rocket Science – 3 Things You’ll Be Thankful to Learn if You Work in Education

Literacy and Numeracy

literacy numeracy

It's not rocket science by Graeme Smith

This is the plain-English guide and introduction that will help you understand what everyone else is talking about

A plain-English introduction and guide to literacy and numeracy

This is the plain-English introduction to literacy and numeracy (LN) that you’ve been looking for to help you understand what everyone else Is talking about.

The purpose of this short ebook is to help you be more successful in your teaching journey by introducing and explaining some of the fundamentals of adult literacy and numeracy education

Once you’ve finished reading, you will have a better understanding of basics including how all this relates to technical and vocational education and training.


What are you going to get out of this?

There are three major takeaways. You’ll learn that:

  1. Literacy and numeracy AREN’T rocket science.
  2. If you understand what literacy and numeracy are and how they work, they can help you teach better.
  3. If you teach better, you’re more likely to see better results with your learners.

There are three short sections. Here’s what’s involved:

What do people mean when they talk about literacy and numeracy?

Even the words “literacy” and “numeracy” sound kind of intimidating. But the reality is that you deal with them every day. As a teacher or a trainer, you might do this automatically. That’s ok, but it’s not enough.

literacy and numeracy definitions

We’ll take a look at what people mean when they talk about adult literacy and numeracy. And we’ll dig into some of the different kinds of “literacies” that people talk about, including in the context of adult education and vocational education and training (VET).

What’s under the hood?

A surface-level treatment of literacy and numeracy is not enough. If you are in the business of education – and this includes many more people than those just involved in traditional approaches to training – then you need to know more about how to integrate the kinds of literacy and numeracy that your people need.

built in or bolted on

embedded embedding literacy and numeracy

They won’t succeed if you don’t make a start on integrating or embedding LN. So, we’ll also look at some of the frameworks that can guide us to a better understanding of learning and teaching. Some of these frameworks are there to guide your approach to teaching. Others are to help you see your learners through new eyes.

Included are specific frameworks you need to understand when you’re designing teaching and learning, but we also look at two case studies from recent work in Aotearoa New Zealand that might be relevant to your learners.

  • New Zealand Case Study 1: A NZ Māori framework
  • New Zealand Case Study 2: Pacific Literacy

These are still relevant even if you’re not from New Zealand because they illustrate how you can work with learners from different cultural perspectives and backgrounds that leverages their strengths.

te whare tapa whā tapawha

literacy and numeracy

Māori literacy

What’s causing the problem of low adult literacy and numeracy?

Lastly, we’ll look at some of the factors that cause low levels of literacy and numeracy in your learners.

This is not designed to be an exhaustive empirical study. Rather, it’s a snapshot of the main factors likely influencing your learners.

Clearly, not all learners are the same. And your students are going to be different to mine. But many of the issues that cause them difficulty in learning are similar. We’ll dig into that.

What else is in the book?

Here’s exactly what we’ll cover:

  1. What do we mean?
    • Introducing literacy and numeracy
    • Embedded literacy and numeracy
    • ESOL
    • New Zealand Case Study: Māori literacy and numeracy
    • New Zealand Case Study: Pasifika Literacy
  2. What’s under the hood?
    • Frameworks that can help when you’re working with literacy and numeracy learners
    • Learning Progressions for Adult Literacy
    • Read with understanding
    • Write to communicate
    • New Zealand Case Study: The Literacy and Numeracy for Adults Assessment Tool (LNAAT)
    • Learning Progressions for Adult Numeracy
    • Make Sense of Number
    • Measurement
    • Te Whare Tapa Whā
    • Fonofale Pasifika
    • ESOL Starting Points
  3. Why do we have low adult literacy and numeracy?
    • The impact of colonisation
    • Socio-economic factors
    • Cycles of poverty
    • Poor teaching
    • Technology

Get Literacy & Numeracy – It’s Not Rocket Science now before the price goes up


Here’s the first couple of chapters below

What do we mean?

Introducing literacy and numeracy

The idea behind this book is that if you integrate literacy and numeracy into your teaching then you can do the following:

  • Increase learner understanding
  • Improve learner outcomes overall
  • Become a more successful teacher, tutor, trainer or learning support person   

There are different ways to achieve this. You might hear people talk about contextualising literacy and numeracy, or as is the case with vocational education, you might hear talk of embedding literacy and numeracy. 

But something that you need to know before you start splitting hairs about the finer points of contextualising or embedding are some plain-English definitions for words like literacy and numeracy. 

So, let’s look at some definitions. There’s at least six we need to cover. The first three are words that I’ve used already They are:

  • Literacy
  • Numeracy
  • Embedded literacy and numeracy

But I also want to add these three:

  • English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) 
  • Māori literacy and numeracy
  • Pacific literacy and numeracy

ESOL is a bit different because we’re concerned with second language learning, whereas literacy is usually associated with first language learning. 

However, it’s useful to include in this short discussion because some of our adult learners struggling with literacy in English are actually ESOL learners. 

And it’s also useful to look at what literacy and numeracy mean from different perspectives and worldviews. Looking specifically at Māori and Pacific literacy allows us to take a look at lessons learned from work in New Zealand since 2007 including drawing on indigenous knowledge and working with different communities. 

Let’s make a start.


What is it?

We need to define literacy for a couple of reasons. One is that you’ll hear it in the news media from time to time. 

Most governments participate in research that looks at the literacy and numeracy levels of their populations and this includes comparisons and ranking against other countries.  

This, and other reasons, means that talking about literacy is often political. Sometimes “literacy” is a useful trigger word for media talking heads, especially in the context of research that shows declining literacy levels. 

So, one thing to remember is that when people in the media talk about literacy, and this is usually politicians or government bureaucrats being interviewed, even if they don’t mention it by name, they are likely to be thinking about some research that happened recently. 

If you’re interested, you might want to find out what research they’re referring to and do your own reading.

Another reason that we need to define our terms here is that these days there are lots of different ideas about what a word like “literacy” means. And, to make matters more interesting, there are many different kinds of “literacies”. 

Some obvious ones that you’ve probably heard might include:

  • Financial literacy
  • Digital literacy
  • Health literacy
  • Media literacy

Mostly, these newer literacies are beyond our scope here. If you’re interested, there are lots of resources available online if you want to have a look. 

What we want to do is start with some definitions that are a bit more pedestrian.

If you look online, you’ll see that there are lots of definitions. For our purposes, though, this is quite a good places to start:

Literacy is the ability to understand, evaluate, use and engage with written texts to get everyday things done.

This usually implies:

  • Understanding written words and sentences
  • Making sense of text in charts and diagrams
  • Comprehending, interpreting and evaluating more complex texts.
  • More of a focus on reading rather than writing

There is, of course, more to literacy than just reading. However, let’s stay with this for a moment.

How is literacy relevant to me?

This definition of literacy allows us to talk about the “state of the nation” when it comes to literacy. We need to be critical and aware of how the term is being used, especially in the media. 

Also, as we’ll see later, while a definition like the one above is a useful starting point, it’s not the full picture when it comes to understanding literacy and teaching success.  

But, research based on definitions like the one above does allow us to compare ourselves with other countries or our own past performance.

This won’t help you in the classroom or improve your teaching directly, but it might help you feel better to know a couple of things. 

One is that most countries, and I’m referring to most Western democracies, have a similar problem when it comes to literacy. This is that large chunks of the adult population don’t have the literacy skills they need to succeed.

And these chunks of the adult population may include students in your course or programme. 

So, in terms of being a more successful teacher, you can think about the ability of your learners in the same way that the researchers did when they surveyed thousands of people.

And this is where it starts to get real. Literacy has a practical focus. In other words, it’s about using language “to get everyday things done.” This should help you focus your teaching. 

  • Literacy is about doing stuff in the context of everyday life and work. 

That means that if your approach to literacy is more academic, then you should consider adopting an approach like this encourages people to use language to get things done.

The definition for literacy mentioned above doesn’t explicitly include writing, listening or speaking. 

It also doesn’t include any aspects of digital literacy, critical thinking or cultural competency. But it probably should. 

Or at least, we need to be thinking about more than just working with written texts if we’re going to see our learners succeed.

So let’s make the case that a more comprehensive adult literacy framework includes a wider range of skills. We’ll talk about this some more shortly. 

And don’t forget: 

  • Population research on literacy levels gets quoted by political and educational leaders at times like elections. So it’s good to reflect on whether what you’re hearing lines up with the realities of your own classroom.

If you’ve read this far, click here and get Literacy & Numeracy – It’s Not Rocket Science now before the price goes up


Author: Graeme Smith

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

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