There is huge emphasis placed on our children coming away from school at the end of their ‘education careers’ as literate and numerically capable beings, for want of a better word. So what does this mean for our kids.

We often hear the words “literacy” and “numeracy” tossed about in and around schools, on the news and amongst school mums and dads, but may not always understand what is meant by them. The term literacy is defined as being able to read and write. (For more info on literacy read Core Subjects.)

But this article is about numeracy. It is probably a fair assumption that parents often place a great deal of importance on the literacy of their children, wanting them to be able to read and write fluently, but maybe give less attention to “numeracy” or literacy with numbers.

To be numerically able is hugely important in a person’s life and there are things you as a parent can be aware of and do to help your child achieve this.

What is numeracy?

Numeracy is basically numerical literacy. To have good numeracy skills means you have an ability to reason and work with numbers and be able to use and understand other mathematical concepts. It means being able to add two or three numbers in your head, being able to measure an item and decide how to use that measurement, and being able to problem solve using key mathematical skills.

How is it taught in schools?

Numeracy is taught through many subjects in schools; possibly in subjects you may not have considered would have a bearing on the numerical skills of your child.

Obviously the majority of the teaching and learning takes place in maths lessons. Everyone needs to learn mathematics – an essential subject in the primary school curriculum. Reasons for this include it being a basic necessity in many aspects of our day-to-day life and essential in most areas of employment.

In maths your child will be given opportunities to

“…work with and explore mathematical problems in ways that encourage them to be enquiring, systematic, creative, resourceful, self-reliant, and persevering. They will gain confidence and competence in the use of number, and will develop the skills of measurement, construction, and spatial interpretation. They will learn to collect, organise, and interpret data, to use apparatus, to generalise from patterns and relationships, and to think abstractly.”The Curriculum Framework

Some of the mathematical concepts & benefits involved in numeracy are –

Problem Solving

  • Interpreting mathematical information
  • To perceive options and choose actions appropriate to purpose
  • To perceive and remember direction
  • To reason and think logically
  • Short term memory and the ability to memorise
  • Visual perceptual skills
  • To apply mathematical ideas and techniques to solve problems
  • To infer or abstract from the concrete


  • Giving digits/numbers meaning
  • Understanding number concepts and the relationship between numbers
  • To sequence and organise numbers
  • To calculate


  • To understand how to measure
  • To understand the different instruments of measure
  • To understand different systems of measurement


  • To perceive, recognize, predict and communicate patterns and mathematical relationships
  • To decode an algorithm from a complex problem


  • To develop spatial awareness and understanding
  • To understand geometric relations in 2 and 3 dimensions


  • To collect, organise, analyse, and present data
  • To categorise and identify relationships between numbers
  • To present information using charts, tables, diagrams, and graphs in order to readily convey meaning
  • To use language and handwriting/typing in order to convey meaning

As they progress through the school levels students will realise that mathematics plays a part in a great many subjects where there is a need for calculation for estimation, quantitative research, measurement, decision making, and for precise communication through symbols for graphs.

Some of these subjects are things like art where a student may need to draw an elipse, graphics where it might be necessary to draw a building to scale requiring calculation, and science where a precise mix of 20% of one solution and 80% of another may be needed.


Why is numeracy so important?

People need adequate numeracy skills for a variety of reasons. The need for people to be able to calculate, estimate and use measuring instruments has always been a key outcome for education, and maths aims to contribute to the development of the broad range of numeracy skills.

It becomes obvious when you read the above examples of mathematical concepts in practice (in How is it taught in Schools?) that numeracy plays a large part in your child’s educational success. When we start to think of where we may use these same concepts on a daily basis it becomes obvious too to see that being numerate is important in everyday life.

An understanding of mathematics will help your child develop logical approaches to procedures and arguments. In its most basic form, numeracy is important because one day your child may need to build a fence, make a pattern for a tee shirt, or budget for a holiday, so without a good grasp of mathematics he or she may not be able to do these things.

How can you help?

Some children struggle with numeracy at some stage in their development while others appear born to be mathematicians. It’s the same with many subjects and, as mentioned above, till recently we as a society have probably placed more importance on the value of reading and writing as skills we must have. Now the tides have turned and we as parents are beginning to realise earlier on that maths (numeracy) needs to be valued as highly.

As with the challenges of reading, children need support and encouragement at home with numeracy and there are many ways you can do this.

Talk to the classroom teacher

It always pays to learn first what is expected of your child at their age. What math skills are they working on in class this term/year? Should he be able to do the five times tables? Have they begun to learn about fractions and percentages?

There is no point in you as a parent barrelling in and forcing your little one to measure the angles of the cake slices you’ve just cut if that’s a skill they don’t get to till the end of next year!

Ask also of the teacher what it is best for you to help with at home. Find out what the maths focus for that term is and try to build on that. Children learn through repetition, so if you can reinforce what they are being taught at home then everyone is better off.

Create a maths friendly environment

As with learning anything your child needs to know that any attempt they make to learn and do something new is going to be met with positive and constructive support. They won’t want to have you help them along if they are going to be berated for getting something wrong.

A serving of maths every day

We’re very good as parents at having our very young ones count everything under the sun with us when they are learning this new skill. The problem is that as they master this we tend to ‘lose interest’ and forget to challenge their maths skills in new ways.

Children learn a huge amount of their base maths skills at home by helping to do everyday things that involve problem solving, calculating, and estimating strategies, including:

  • Baking
    • measuring ingredients, counting out ingredients, checking the timings, following a logical sequence via the written recipe;
  • Preparing meals
    • slicing fruit into segments — halves or quarters?, How many glasses of water from the jug?, How much does each item weigh?;
  • Shopping
    • reading the shopping list, different sizes/weights and prices of an item, comparing different brands, learning to read and understand the labelling;
  • Gardening
    • reading the seed packet instructions, counting out or weighing the seeds, how many seeds over what size of land?;
  • Reading together age appropriate articles/features in a newspaper
    • statistics? percentages? averages? surveys? graphs? sudoku? kids’ corner?
  • Playing board games, number puzzles, and geometric puzzles simply for the fun of it, but which involve decision making and logical thinking. Monopoly and Yahtzee are great!
  • Engage in conversation with your child about their approach to a problem and how they arrived at their solution. Discuss other possible approaches to the same problem.

Model Maths

As with reading it is important as a parent that you demonstrate to your children the importance of math and having great numeracy skills. It’s the old adage, if you want your kids to enjoy reading, show them that you enjoy it. Play their games, have another person create a ‘maths quiz’ and do it together.

Given the commitment to maths required by children throughout their schooling, and how important numeracy is in their lives and future careers, discuss numeracy with your children, and gain their buy-in. Understanding the importance of numeracy will help to sustain your child through the many hours of practice ahead.

Check they understand what is being asked

The biggest problems arise when your child is learning or trying anything if they don’t understand what is being asked of them. We’re very quick as parents at asking our kids if they have understood the rule we have just told them, but sometimes fail to do this when we want them to complete homework of some sort. For your child half the battle in finding the answer is in clearly understanding the question. Verify that your child understands the question and can explain why it is important to attempt it.

The snowball effect

Maths knowledge and understanding builds upon itself. You cannot advance to the next stage until you have mastered the previous (prerequisite) lesson. For example, “Have got percentages sorted? Right then decimals are next.”

Check with your child and their teacher at every stage. Find out if they have moved on to a new concept in a new term. If they have not fully grasped what was going on before chances are they’ll begin to stumble, flounder and then get lost in maths. This is most important in a subject like maths.

Practice, Practice, Practice

As a general rule, the more that your child practices, the greater their understanding, retention, and self-confidence will be. Help them to memorise their times tables using props and techniques based around the child’s learning style. Let them take pride in showing how they can do “mental arithmetic”, and then explain how they arrived at the answer eg. 9+8=?


Take an interest in their homework and help make it interesting. Ask if there is any way you can help them. Which are the hard questions/sections? What is the purpose of this section/lesson? Are there different ways to solve the question? Praise their efforts. Celebrate their success in particularly challenging sections.

Legible writing – keep it tidy

Maths is an exact science which requires precision of thought and precision of writing. Help your child to write numbers clearly and in accurate alignment. This will help to eliminate unnecessary mistakes. It may mean you need to buy a quad book with square printed paper for them to make sense of this.

Extra Assistance

There are also many product and service providers available to support children frustrated by numeracy or with possible learning difficulties with numeracy. Some vendors provide an after-school numeracy tuition service, some vendors provide games, activities and software which the children can “play” at home, and some vendors provide a professional consultation service combined with particular products.

Keep an eye out for flyers for products and services that are circulated through schools. The chances are the school will not allow it to be circulated if they feel there is no value, so it may be worth your investment.

Helpful links

More about numeracy from TKI – the portal for New Zealand teachers

Free maths games

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Kylie Valentine is a qualified secondary school teacher, trained journalist, and the mum of two fabulous children.

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