This page is located at:

Numeracy Needs of Adult Literacy Participant

Numeracy Needs of Adult Literacy Participants

Learners' descriptions of their numeracy needs have a surprisingly strong emotional component

by Aydin Yücesan Durgunoglu and Banu Öney
"I want to be able to look at a price tag and know how much something costs. They think you're stupid when you have to ask." "When I get a phone call, I tell the caller, 'Sure I'll write down your number.' You can't say you don't know. I try to memorize. But yesterday someone called my husband. I said to him, sorry I cannot remember [the caller's number] the middle letter, was it a 4 or 5 or 6? I forgot, I'm sorry."

These are quotes from women who participated in an adult literacy program in Istanbul, Turkey. Like millions of adult literacy program participants all over the world,  they need basic mathematics skills to participate effectively in society. They need to interpret and process large amounts of numerical information. Although the particular mathematical skills may differ from culture to culture and from context to context, basic skills such as identifying numbers, using measurements, understanding graphs, and solving problems are high on the list of skills everyone needs to master.

Adult literacy programs are successful to the extent that they meet the needs of their participants. Recently, we completed an in-depth study of the participants in the adult literacy program with which we have been working to understand their literacy and numeracy needs as well as the impact of the program on their lives. We conducted in-depth interviews before and after participants attended the course. We will describe the evolution of the course and report the findings of the study pertaining to numeracy needs as expressed by participants in precourse interviews.

The Program

Since 1995, with the support of the Mother-Child Education Foundation, we have been developing, implementing, and evaluating the Functional Adult Literacy Program (FALP) in Turkey. FALP includes explicit instruction on letter, sound, and word recognition, as well as activities to foster reading and listening comprehension, critical thinking, and writing. It also uses practical exercises such as reading signs and bills and telling the time. Working with its 11th cohort, this program has reached about 10,000 participants in Turkey. FALP participants are predominantly female, between the ages of 15 and 65. Most report not having attended school because of economic and sociocultural difficulties, getting married young, and raising families. FALP teachers are volunteers with university or high school educations. They participate in a three-week intensive training program before they are certified to teach.

Teachers' Feedback

The very first FALP cohort had 170 participants at five different sites in Istanbul. At the end of this cohort we met with the instructors to revise the program based on their feedback. According to them, one of the most glaring omissions of the program was the lack of mathematics. Teachers stated that unless they taught some numeracy skills, they could not even ask the participants to turn to a specific page in the book. Low numeracy skills also made one of the regular classroom activities, writing the date on the board, very difficult.  In addition, practical exercises such as reading bills required numeracy. The teachers recommended including instruction on recognizing and writing numerals, as well as on addition and subtraction. So, while preparing for the second and third cohorts, we added a mathematics component with topics that ranged from recognizing numerals, telephone numbers, counting, place value, and addition and subtraction, to measurement units for length, weight, and time.

Investigating Needs

After running the course for a number of years, we decided to do an indepth study of the needs of our learners and the impact of the course. The participants in the study were all living in Istanbul, a sprawling metropolis of about 12 million people. Many of them had been living in Istanbul for many years. Like many adult literacy participants, particularly newly arrived refugees and immigrants in this country, they needed some advanced skills to navigate in an urban environment. These skills are likely to be different from those needed in a rural environment. In a rural community, close neighborhood and kinship ties, intense face-to-face (rather than written) communication, more limited travel, and bartering  rather than shopping at a market are often the norm. In contrast, in cities, individuals need to interact with many strangers, for example, bus drivers, supermarket cashiers, and admissions clerks in hospitals. In addition, written information is used much more: on bus signs, telephone numbers, hospital room numbers, water and gas bills, and so on. We wanted to identify the literacy and numeracy needs as articulated by our participants living in this big city.

We asked participants open-ended questions about their life histories, educational background, aspirations, and expectations. The questions were worded to elicit information about their literacy needs in general, rather than their specific numeracy needs. However, most of the participants brought up mathematics proficiency on their own, within the context of literacy needs. We compiled the responses of 63 participants (60 female and three male) to the following two questions of the precourse interviews:

The need for numeracy was mentioned by 39 of the 63 participants in response to these two questions. Several general themes emerged: a general need for mathematics; a need for math in some specific settings; and emotions related to participants' lack of mathematics skills.


In Turkish, the phrase "hesap-kitap" literally means "computing and bookkeeping" and it is usually used in the context of money. Seven participants said that they wanted to "be able to compute." These responses may be reflecting a narrow but very practical way of describing the numeracy skills needed for use in real life situations.

photo collage of students in classroom

Other participants were more specific about their goals, and described nine different goals for mathematical skills. Shopping was one of the most common reasons for needing numeracy skills. One of the participants expressed this need this way: "When I go shopping, you look at a price tag, but you don't know. If you could read, you would buy it if you had enough money."

Banking was another activity for which participants needed mathematics skills. Although most participants did manage to complete bank transactions on their own, they had no way of verifying the accuracy of a transaction. One participant said: "Right now I can deposit money in a bank, but I don't know if there is any cheating." Another noted: "When I learn to read and write, I can take care of my business at the bank without asking anybody. I go to a hospital, they send me to lab, and I ask and ask, wasting a lot of time." Using the telephone, both to make calls and to write down numbers when a message is received, was mentioned quite often (see the quotation at the beginning of this article). Reading gas and water bills, working, finding a job, or being more comfortable in the workplace were also mentioned. A participant who owned a small business said: "We have our own garment shop, but I cannot prepare an invoice or stop payment on a check myself and [I have to] ask others to do it."

Going to the hospital was another theme that emerged quite frequently. Most participants told us that they had to go to hospitals with friends and relatives. Often they reported being humiliated because they could not find the offices they were sent to. "[At a hospital] they describe [where to go], for example Door 9, Dr. So-and-So. I look at the doors, but cannot see. They say, 'Do you have a problem with your eyes?' "

Problems with transportation, such as reading the signs on a bus, were also mentioned:
"When I go to Antalya [a city in southern Turkey] to visit my sister, when the bus has a rest stop, I cannot get off the bus, even to go to the bathroom, because all buses look alike and I'm afraid of not finding my bus." [Authors' note: this is a ten-hour trip.]

Many strong emotions about the need for numeracy were expressed. These reactions can be classified into several categories: need for independence, feelings of shame, worry about being cheated, the need to help family, and jealousy. One participant provided this example: "When you go the bazaar, ask the seller [the price], and the guy says 'All illiterates find me today.' If I could read why would I ask him?"

Another mentioned the frustration of not being able to stay in contact with family: "My son is doing his military service. When I learn to read, I can call him on the phone."

Worry about being cheated or spending unnecessary funds was evident in these responses: "I can help my husband with the cash register [at his business]. You can't trust a stranger."

"A secretary would come and work at our business, answering telephones and I get upset. If I could have helped, she would not be here."


Adult literacy programs should focus especially on teaching skills for which their participants express a need. In our case, talking to the teachers and the learners provided us with evidence that mathematics skills were needed. Both the teachers and the participants discussed the importance of numeracy skills in literacy development. Thus, we focused on developing basic mathematics skills while presenting real-life applications that would help participants apply their skills in practical contexts.

Although we can think of numeracy in terms of dry and concrete skills, and list the contexts in which numeracy is needed and used, there was a surprisingly strong emotional component associated with the numeracy needs as expressed by our learners. The majority of the participants expressed a deep desire to master numeracy and mathematics skills at a level that would help them make sense of the world they were living in. Lacking these basic skills, they felt inadequate and helpless.

Our work focused on the needs for mathematics skills as expressed by participants of a specific adult literacy program in Turkey. However, we believe that these conclusions may be generalized to any adult literacy context in which participants never went to school and are living in a highly literate, urban context. The more the participants have an occasion to see where and how basic mathematics skills are applied, the stronger will be the impact of the adult literacy program, both cognitively and emotionally.


This study was supported by a grant from the Spencer Foundation. We thank Nilufer Cepoglu for her work on the mathematics curricula; Hilal Kuscul, Meltem Canturk, Evrem Tilki, and Bilge Topac for their help in data collection; and Cennet Engin Demir for her help in data analysis.

About the Authors

Aydin Yücesan Durgunolu is an associate professor in the psychology department of University of Minnesota Duluth. Her research interests are language and literacy development of both children and adults, in both monolingual and multilingual contexts.

Banu Öney is a senior research associate at the Education Development Center in Newton, MA. Her research interests are early literacy, adult literacy, educational technology, and staff development.