5 Reasons Why Maths Illiteracy is NOT OK

“Math illiteracy is okay, yet let someone pronounce or misspell a word and noses are tooted in the air…”


Innumeracy at the sales

One of my favourite times of year is sales time! Of course I love grabbing a great bargain, but the arithmetician within me loves working out the sale prices and trying to find that elusive item that is actually 70% off. I also get a bit smug when my friends say,” it’s an extra 20% off 50%, that means it’s 70%” – No it’s not it’s 60% (20% of 50 is 10.)


Apart from sales shopping, here are 4 more reasons, based on research published on the ScienceDaily website, why being innumerate can cause problems for you and your family.

Innumeracy can make you poorer

The headline:

Couple’s numeracy skills linked to greater family wealth, study finds

ScienceDaily (2010-11-10)

Creative Commons License photo credit: Tracy O

The summary:

Couples who score well on a simple test of numeracy ability accumulate more wealth by middle age than couples who score poorly on such a test, according to a new study of married couples in the United States.

My take:

Numeracy is needed in choosing everything from credit cards to mortgage payments, from shopping bargains to saving options, and of course the hardest one –  choosing a mobile phone plan. It’s not just about knowledge of fractions, decimals and percentages from when you were at school, it’s having had enough practise and exposure to numbers to feel comfortable to “take them on” when you need to make those all important financial decisions.

Innumeracy can make you unhealthier

The headline:

Understanding Food Nutrition Labels Challenging For Many People

ScienceDaily (2006-09-26)


Creative Commons License photo credit: Darwin Bell

The summary:

In one of the most rigorous studies ever conducted to determine how well people comprehend the information provided on food nutrition labels, researchers have found that the reading and math skills of a significant number of people may not be sufficient to extract the needed information, according to an article published in the November issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

My take:

You all know you should be reading and comparing food labels, especially when products labelled as low fat are instead high in sugar, and when a cereal bar can claim to be “90% fat free”.  With fast food restaurants also publishing nutritional information in their stores and online, solid numeracy skills could help you make the right food  choices.

Innumeracy can make you misunderstand important information

The headline:

Numbers Are Just Numbers, But How You Grasp Them Fills In Details

ScienceDaily (2007-02-19)

3D Bar Graph Meeting
Creative Commons License photo credit: lumaxart

The summary:

Quickly now, which is a higher risk that you will get a disease: 1 in 100; 1 in 1,000, or 1 in 10? Choosing the correct answer depends on a person’s numeracy — the ability to grasp and use math and probability concepts, according to a presentation at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

My take:

The media loves bombarding you with statistics, especially ones that appear to prove their chosen headlines.  Your whole perception of the world around you changes if you can’t understand those statistics and what they really mean. A high level of numeracy will help with forming opinions and making decisions big and small.

Innumeracy can be passed down through the generations

The headline:

Parents should talk about math early and often with their children — even before preschool, report finds

ScienceDaily (2010-11-09)

Perfect Gift
Creative Commons License photo credit: John & Rochelle

The summary:

The amount of time parents spend talking about numbers has a much bigger impact on how young children learn mathematics than was previously known. For example, children whose parents talked more about numbers were much more likely to understand the number principle that states that the size of a set of objects is determined by the last number reached when counting the set.

My take:

You all know that you should be talking to your children, even before they’re born, but talking to them about maths – even I was surprised at that one! Of course it makes sense,  many nursery rhymes are number based (Baa baa black Sheep, Ten in a Bed, One, Two, Buckle My Shoe). Try talking about sizes, shapes and numbers as well as sharing preschool maths activities with your little ones.

Do you think society ignores innumeracy? Tell me in the comments below!

Caroline Mukisa
About The Author: Caroline Mukisa is the founder of Maths Insider. A Cambridge University educated math teacher, she's been involved in math education for over 20 years as a teacher, tutor, Kumon instructor, Thinkster Math instructor and math ed blogger. She is the author of the insanely helpful ebook "The Ultimate Kumon Review" and insanely useful website "31 Days to Faster Times Tables" You can follow her math tips on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @mathsinsider

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

8 thoughts on “5 Reasons Why Maths Illiteracy is NOT OK

  1. Great post! Kids used to ask me in class about Science: ‘Why am I learning this, anyway?’ especially for chemistry and physics, despite my setting up the work in useful and relevant contexts. Whenever a topic seems challenging the easy way out for children is to say, ‘Who needs it?’ than to have to deal with and overcome it. This post (and your earlier post re: really cool careers that needs maths) answers that question very well.

    • Hi, Merry,
      You’re right in saying that it’s often an easy way out for children to just say “I don’t need this” when it comes to “difficult” subjects like maths and science. I suppose we as adults can be guilty of this too at times, “I don’t need to learn how to fix that tap”, “I don’t need to check my bank balance” or “I don’t need to know how many calories are in that cake!” We don’t need it but we’d have more knowledge our lives would be easier if we did. Thanks for sharing your perspective!

  2. Caroline, thanks for sharing all of this recent research. It is strange, at least in the US, it’s perfectly socially acceptable to tell people at a dinner party that you can’t do long division, but no one would ever feel that way about publicly declaring that they can’t read.

    I think part of the problem is that a lot of people learn math as a procedure without learning why it works or the concept behind the procedure — so if they forget the procedure, there’s no way to reconstruct it or work around it.

  3. I just went back to college after 30 years of being out of school…I just have a basic problem solving class. If I’m luck I will get out of that class with a c. I feel I have to go back to the beginning to be able to do this. I’ve always wanted to be good at math, but could never grasp the concepts beyond basic math. I feel I missed something, but was never encouraged at the time to follow up or explore it forward. Girls shouldn’t care about such things just memorize and do it. Will this book help me to understand the concept? Can I tutor myself? I have a lot of math a head of me as I picked a computer science major and would like to be able to work in the field once a graduate.

  4. I love the tread here. You are doing a great job of helping us each wonder what happens after math class is over. Now we know. Many of the vital topics of today rely on a literate populous. We fall short far more often than we should today. Thank you for making me more aware of the need we have to teach math more fully in our society.


  5. Hey, Caroline.

    I’m looking into starting a numeracy program with a local literacy program. Do you know of any numeracy programs that I can read about or study?

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