Linguistic difficulties adult ESL users encounter in numeracy and mathematics

An outcomes-oriented focus on the themes from the research literature July 2006-July 2016

Research Paper (postgraduate), 2016

27 Pages, Grade: Pass



Linguistic difficulties adult ESL users encounter in numeracy and mathematics: An outcomes-oriented focus on the themes from the research literature

July 2006- July 2016.

This literature review undertook a purposeful sample of outcomes based research literature from the preceding decade that highlighted the language difficulties adult ESL users experienced while learning numeracy and mathematics. The most identifiable areas of research to emerge are policies and frameworks, pedagogy, educational programmes and educational resources. Whilst the request from the American Institute for Research to explore the linguistic challenges adult ESL users encounter in numeracy remains relatively unexplored; there is a growing collection of research papers emerging that contemplate linguistic difficulties in this area as a peripheral issue not a central one.

According to Randolph (2009, p.2) “Without establishing the state of the previous research, it is impossible to establish how the new research advances the previous research.” This statement is indicative as to why a literature review on the previous research relating to the language difficulties adults ESL users experience in numeracy plays such an important role in the future of research in this field. It is an opportunity for the research literature in this field to undergo a symphysis, as to date, there is no published research that has undertaken a systemic review of the research literature regarding the language difficulties adults from non- English speaking backgrounds experience in numeracy, since the American Institute of Research called for researchers in 2006 to investigate this phenomenon when it found:

Two completely neglected areas of research in adult mathematics have been instruction for adult ESL learners and instruction for students with learning disabilities. We found no research on how to provide instruction to these learners, on how they learn, or on how to address the challenges these learners face in learning mathematics.

According to Jacobson (1975, p. 8) “The acquisition of mathematical ability is a subtle process, but dialogue between the learner and teacher is imperative, and this depends on effective communication.” In fact, the scope of the dialogue has rapidly been extended in the last decade thanks to advances in technology including but not limited to, the availability of freely available online material, e­books, and MOOC’s (Mass Online Open Courses), which allow multiple educational pathways for learners. Many more adults globally can now access this information from their mobile devices at a relative low cost and with greater study flexibility than at any other point in history.

Research Prior to 2006

As Wickert et al.,(2005) note, “ The trajectory of adult literacy and numeracy’s development has been uneven, reflecting changes in government priorities, the varying beliefs and commitments of practitioners, external influences, and the complexity of how this area of work is organized and experienced. As the priorities and influences shifted, so did the nature of adult literacy and numeracy provision.”

The difference between numeracy and mathematics is defined in the following way by the New Zealand Tertiary Education Commission:

Numeracy is the bridge between mathematics and real life. A person’s numeracy refers to their knowledge and understanding of mathematical concepts and their ability to use their mathematical knowledge to meet the varied demands of their personal, study and work lives. (2009, p.59)

However, Evans, Wedge and Yasukawa (2013) critically examine how there are ‘multiple and contested meanings of key terms like numeracy, and how definitions vary depending on whether they seek to foreground the individual learners’ needs or particular economic imperatives (for example, labour market needs) (p. 203) in their article Critical Perspectives on Adults’ Mathematics Education. They argue that there is a greater need to clarify these terms and definitions as the OECD’s funded new international survey on adult’s skills, the Programme for International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) which measures adults reading, mathematics and science skills and competencies is poised to be as much as a global measuring tool for shaping policies and national frameworks as what the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is today.

From as early as 1984 Cuevas has been proclaiming, “More research is needed into the relationship between second-language learning and mathematics learning” Whilst it is true that when the American Institute of Research ‘found no research’ as to the challenges adult ESL learners faced prior to the publication of its report, as a literature search does confirm, it does in fact ignore the existing research that had been undertaken prior to this time relating to how adult bilingual students learn numeracy and mathematics (Secada & De La Cruz, 1996; Qi, 1998; Gelman & Butterworth, 2005). It also failed to recognize the research that had been undertaken in the United Kingdom in the 1970’s on literacy and numeracy, which is considered a distinctive field from ESOL.

Key overarching research developments that led to the 1991 Australian Language and Literacy Policy were also not acknowledged by the American Institute of Research in their 2006 publication.

The Bilingual Education Act of 1968 in America was the initial piece of legislation in the United States of America that specifically recognized the ‘uniqueness’ of the bilingual student and their educational needs. However by 1998 the state of California became the first state in the USA to abolish bilingual education. This was a result of an anti-immigrant wave that had created a great deal of political tension. Policies switched to English as a Second Language approach, which reflected and sat more comfortably with the voters’ preference, at that time in history, for the cultural assimilation of immigrants.

In the United Kingdom a research project titled Changing Faces monitored adult literacy, numeracy and ESOL from the 1970’s through to the early 2000’s. This project bought to light the fact that bilingual students have in fact been ‘silent’ and ‘invisible’ in the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS). “The results of the IALS have been justification for subsequent basic skills policies in a number of OECD countries” (Hamilton & Hillier, 2009). Basic skills include literacy and numeracy skills. A report by the New Zealand Territory Education Commission in 2009 emphasised clearly the indirect relationship between basic skills and the workforce on page 240 of their report, “Literacy and numeracy alone rarely deliver the skills needed for the workplace, but without literacy and numeracy skills people are unable to do the kind of mainstream education and training courses which do enhance employability.”

In the Australian context in the 1970’s - the mid 1980’s was in fact a reflection of what was happening globally. “Social movements demanded a better situation for many previously marginalized citizens “ (Wicket, Searle, Marr, & Johnston, 2005). Further education centres such as TAFE, were funded by the Whitlam Labor government to included sectors of Australian society, which had previously been marginalized. Affirmative policies helped many people gain a ‘second-chance’ at developing their basic skills. Though, as Wicket et ak, (2005) state, those who are interested in only acknowledging quantitative data in regard to the phases of development of adult numeracy in Australia might not have the full scope of what was actually transpiring at the time as voluntary organizations of professionals provided assistance to those who sought it out. With basically no formal infrastructure, no formal numeracy curricula, few pathways for student progression and little system accountability it was the volunteers who helped those who ‘fell through the gaps’ (Wicket., et ak, 2005).

Policies and Frameworks

“When a new policy strategy enters there is a tendency for earlier work to be forgotten, especially where it was not nationally visible or publicly documented” (Hamilton & Hillier, 2009). The literature also suggests that there is a constant re-invention of the wheel leading to the New Zealand Tertiary Education Commission to recommend that, “ Policy interventions need to be consistent over time and need guidance from the central government along with acknowledgement that educational change takes time, resources and support, (Alkema & Rean, 2013).

The field of research literature on adults globally, which can be traced back to the 1970’s, who have difficulties with numeracy, bears witness to some gross failures of policy implementation and lack of recognition of numeracy as a separate skill. There is also ‘tension’ between ESOL and literacy and numeracy (Hamilton & Hiller, 2009) for limited resources.

The 2016 International Adult Literacy Survey released findings for the Republic of Ireland, which revealed that, “One in four working adults in the Republic of Ireland have problems with even the simplest of numeracy tasks.” These “simplest of tasks” in real world applications mean that one if four working adults could possibly not be able to determine the correct amount of medicine to take based on information printed on the medicine package.

The same international survey conducted in 2013 identified that 55% of South Australian adults scored in the lowest two levels on numeracy tasks. Of this group 42% scored on the lowest tier when it came to problem solving numerical tasks. Indicators of this tier suggest hat these adults lacked the numeracy literacy skills to read a bus timetable, transfer data from a text to a graph, were unable to set a budget, made mistakes in measuring ingredients to cook with and worrisomely unable to correctly interpret medical instructions.


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Linguistic difficulties adult ESL users encounter in numeracy and mathematics
An outcomes-oriented focus on the themes from the research literature July 2006-July 2016
Charles Darwin University
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linguistic, july
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Karen Dalton (Author), 2016, Linguistic difficulties adult ESL users encounter in numeracy and mathematics, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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