Literacy vs. numeracy: Is one more important than the other?

May 03, 2012, 11:04 AM GMT+0

Could you imagine not being able to read or write? What about not being able to do basic maths?

A lot of people needn’t imagine, because knowledge of basic literacy and/or numeracy is something they simply don’t possess. But which would be worse, and is one more acceptable than the other?

We wanted to know how our participants might (or do) feel about being illiterate or innumerate; which of the two they would consider more embarrassing to admit to, and why

Sheffield University researchers in 2010 undertook a Government funded study which revealed that around a fifth of pupils leave school functionally illiterate and functionally innumerate, despite average achievement in the three Rs improving over the past decade.

Which would you be more embarrassed to admit: being unable to read, or being unable to do simple maths?

A very large majority of respondents said that to them, being unable to read would be the more embarrassing of the two, regardless of medical conditions like dyslexia being quite common, as it is more obvious, more disabling and less socially acceptable. Respondents also reinforce that basic maths skills can be helped by using calculators.

Numeracy was seen as important by many too, who feel that the value of such skills is underrated. As a result, rather than finding innumeracy more embarrassing than illiteracy, many found the two to be equally embarrassing.

What would you say is more debilitating, or embarrassing to admit to - illiteracy or innumeracy?

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1. Illiteracy - more embarrassing than innumeracy?

Here's what our poll participants had to say...

Argument 1: Illiteracy is less socially acceptable

“Lots of people struggle with maths - inability to do maths is worn rather like a badge of honour. Even to the extent that people who can do maths are treated slightly like freaks! It is much more likely that admitting to this would find you a sympathetic hearing with others” Elizabeth, Oxford

“It is lauded by some people who think being able to do maths would contradict their identities as creative, reflective, imaginative people. Being unable to read has connotations of someone who has never been to school, i.e. a gypsy or a truant from a socially disadvantaged background, and this is still a social taboo in the middle classes” Amy, Hackney

“There is a higher cultural stigma attached to being illiterate - not being able to read is being 'uneducated', not being able to do basic maths is 'normal'” Anon

“Not being able to read would be socially excluding as well as career limiting. So many types of social activity and keeping touch now require reading, text, internet, twitter etc.” Anon, Sheffield

Argument 2: Illiteracy would have a greater impact on life

You can get a tutor to teach you maths properly if you don't understand it. To get into sixth forms and college you need at least a C in GCSE Maths, and for that you only need to get about half of it right, if that, so it isn't difficult” Anon

If you can read you can educate yourselfAnon

“An inability to work out if you are being short changed will not stop you shopping. Being unable to read packets if you are allergic could be life threatening, for example” Anon

If you cannot read, not only will you not be able to perform basic maths tasks but you would probably be unable to participate in society in any meaningful way” Nick, Andover

“Because people communicate via the spoken and written language and I like to be clear and to have the vocabulary and grasp of grammar which enables me to achieve this” Cody, West London

“It seems to be more evident because there are more tasks involved with being able to read than in being able to do basic maths, for example, take appropriate action on signs, notes etc.” Gwen, Shrewsbury

You could read how to do basic maths, but not do basic maths to learn how to readAnon

Argument 3: Illiteracy would be more difficult to hide

“Adding something up incorrectly or taking it away can easily be passed off as a mistakeAnon

“I think it would be more obvious if I couldn't read. Also poor maths can be laughed off more easily” Anon

“Because reading is part of daily life, whether it be newspaper, food menu, labels in supermarket, instructions at work... It would be harder to pass offBecks, Manchester

“The need to read is more prevalent and would be more difficult to mask than numeracy which doesn't place the same demands on us” Elizabeth, Somerset

“Well, I think it would be more difficult to conceal and, therefore, more embarrassing” Anon

Argument 4: You could never be independent

You need to read for everyday functions in ordinary life. If you were unable to do this you would wholly reliant on other peopleAnon

“I think being unable to read suggests a lack of intelligence or of having had a very unusual, difficult upbringing. I would feel totally reliant on other peopleDan, London

“I would feel ashamed that I was uneducated. Ability to read is an essential part of modern day life. One would constantly have to seek assistanceMargaret, Fylde

Well the written word is everywhere and it is essential to be able to read, I would feel isolated from everyday life and ashamed to say I couldn't read and have people to do that for meAnon

2. Illiteracy and innumeracy - equally embarrassing?

Argument 1: Both reflect on upbringing and education

The inability to read or do basic maths reflects very badly on one's upbringing and educationAnon

“Literacy and numeracy are the basic skills needed to cope with everyday tasks. Both are equally necessary... and education has been freely available to all for so long, it would be shameful to leave school without these basic tools for survivalBeverley, Staffordshire Moorlands

“Simple maths and reading abilities should be taught at home as well as school as my parents did with me and I have done with my children - any decent parent should do thisRichard, Sheffield

“A lot of people struggle with basic maths and it can be from when you were in school, where teachers did not bother with struggling pupils, as they wanted good results so just worked with pupils who did not challenge them” Anon, Swansea Turk

“I don't see the difference; everybody should be able to read, write, and do basic arithmetic… These are basic skills and knowledge and a lack of them shows either a failure to learn or a failure of teachingRichard, Darlington

Argument 2: It displays a lack of intelligence and motivation

Both show that you do not have basic education. It also shows that you have no wish to better yourselfAnon

You cannot exist effectively in today's society without basic numeracy and language skills. Initially it may be the failing of schools that people leave the education system without a full education, but it is the failing of those individuals who have not obtained these skills off their own back since so much time and money is put into adult education” Kate, Lancashire

“Both are seen as something that you learn at an early age meaning that children can/should be able to do them, as an adult not being able means you are no better than a childPyp, Somerset

“Both are absolutely vital skills and indicate that a person struggled with basic education. Without these vital skills, it's unlikely that a person would be able to achieve very highly at any level of education or at most careers” Anon

“Reading gives me such joy and is such a fundamental aspect of daily life, as is basic arithmetic, that not being able to do so would show a fundamental educational failure on my part, and would suggest further problems, whether that be true or not” Anon

“The lack of these skills is an indication of lazy minds who often spend more time trying to convince themselves and others that their failings are someone else’s fault rather than self-correction” Alan Heaver Kent

Argument 3: Maths is just as important as reading

Being able to do basic maths is as important as reading for fully functioning participation in today's society” Anon

“Every job I have worked at has needed both skills to some extentAlan, King's Lynn

“Although many math situations require reading skills, the ability to do basic math allows a person to function, budget and shop. I work in a bank and see how debt is caused by a lack of understandingAnon

“Reading a recipe, and calculating quantities; planning a journey; reading information, calculating distances, costs and time. I don't do higher mathematics, but I can think of many examples where the ability to read and calculate have been fundamentalJenny P, London

“They are equally important; being able to handle money etc. is as important as being able to read. We need to get rid of the idea that it’s OK to say ‘I can't do Maths’ with a laugh!” Annette, Nottingham

“Being unable to do maths means you could be duped in many ways and wouldn't know any different. You wouldn't know if you had been given wrong change or if your wages were wrong. Both, in my opinion, are equally importantM. Marsden, South Ribble

Apart from poor schooling, what is to blame for illiteracy or innumeracy?

While panellists did acknowledge that illiteracy or innumeracy would be painful to admit, several argued that in some instances it cannot be helped - suggesting that many individuals suffered conditions that were wrongly dismissed - or it could be attributed to cultural change, stemming from learning a new language or the use and dominance of personal computers and mobile phones.

1. Illiteracy can be put down to: medical conditions and/or language barriers

“Illiteracy is associated with lack of education - unfairly - what about dyslexics and new arrivals from foreign countries?Linda, West Dorset

I'm moderately dyspraxic. It made a higher level maths a misery for me until I got a diagnosis, which gave me the mental liberty to find my own way of doing things. Now, I'm a fine surveyor” Anon

“You need to be able to read to do basic things, more people struggle with maths therefore it's more acceptable - I have dyslexia and dyscalculia and therefore can read but find it hard to spell - being a good reader hides the fact I can't write very well” Micheal Gove, Camberley

“I think because it is more 'socially acceptable' if you are unable to read as you may speak another language or have a disability (such as dyslexia) which could impair your reading ability” Miss, London

“Even at the age I have now reached I am still unable to do basic maths. I am dyslexic, but unaware of this until a couple of years ago. My mind just goes blank however hard I tryAnon

2. Innumeracy can be blamed on: advances in technology

An inability to do maths is more accepted and more easily covered up by electronic measuresAnon

“Because there are plenty of jobs available for people who aren't very good at maths due to there being calculators (i.e. tills) where any calculations are done for you Anne-Marie, Swindon

With the increase of calculators, the need to be numerate on a daily basis is less important and one is less likely to be 'caught' out if not numerate” Charlotte, Cambridge

“Usually with the advances in technology mathematical skills are not needed as much” Juwon, London

“I struggle to do basic maths already and can rely on internet searches/colleagues to assist me with math calculations” Sarah, Edinburgh

There is more technology to enable people to do maths so they won't need to know how to do itAnon

“Although still embarrassing i.e. knowing what the correct change should be, calculators are everywhere, and there is very little that I personally come across in day to day life that is not calculated by a machineAnon

“I think basic maths is mostly done on calculators so most people have become lazy with maths in generalIan, Yorkshire

What’s more embarrassing: Illiteracy or innumeracy?

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