What is mathematical literacy?

Mathematical literacy involves more than executing mathematical procedures and possessions of basic knowledge that would allow a citizen to get by. Mathematical literacy is mathematical knowledge, methods, and processes applied in various contexts in insightful and reflective ways (de Lange). According to de Lange, mathematical literacy is the overarching literacy that includes numeracy, quantitative literacy and spatial literacy. Each of these type of literacy empowers the individual in making sense of and understanding aspects of the world and his/her experiences.


De Lange’s tree structure of mathematical literacy.

Spatial literacy empowers an individual to understand the three-dimensional world in which he/she lives and move. This necessitates understanding of properties of objects, the relative positions of objects and its effect on one’s visual perception, the creation of all kinds of three-dimensional paths and routes, navigational practices, etc. Numeracy is the ability to handle numbers and data in order to evaluate statements regarding problems and situations that needs mental processing and estimating real-world context. Quantitative literacy expands numeracy to include use of mathematics in dealing with change, quantitative relationships and uncertainties. Click here for deLange’s paper on this topic.

The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) of the OECD describes mathematical literacy as:

“an individual’s capacity to identify and understand the role that mathematics plays in the world, to make well-founded judgments and to use and engage with mathematics in ways that meet the needs of that individual’s life as a constructive, concerned and reflective citizen” (OECD,1999).

What are the implications of this definition to curriculum and instruction?

To identify and understand the role that mathematics plays in the world is to be literate about mathematics and its applications. This means that individuals need to have an understanding of its core concepts, tools of inquiry, methods and structure.

To be able use mathematics in ways that meet the needs of one’s life as a constructive, concerned, and reflective citizen necessitates learning mathematics that is not isolated from the students’ experiences.

To be able to use mathematics to make well-founded judgment demands learning experiences that would engage students in problem solving and investigation as these would equip them to use mathematics to represent, communicate, and reason, to make decisions and to participate creatively and productively in the functioning of society.

These show that mathematical literacy requires learning mathematical concepts and principles that would be applicable to the individual and society’s life and activities; equip individuals the necessary skills in using mathematics to reason and make decisions; enable individuals to get a sense of the nature and power of the discipline in order to understand its role in the world.

To teach mathematical literacy, curriculum and instruction should therefore include these 3 R’s:

  • Relevant mathematical concepts, principles and procedures
  • Real-life context which can be investigated and modeled mathematically
  • Rich mathematical tasks that fosters conceptual understanding and development of skills and habits of mind
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