The evolution of the concept of literacy and numeracy over the years


The concept of literacy and numeracy has evolved over many years. We now have a greater understanding of these basic skills that people need to contribute meaningfully towards the development of societies. People who do not understand basic maths and who are unable to read and write, or do not possess analytical abilities cannot function effectively in communities, businesses, or governments. Worryingly, about 4-million South Africans are still functionally illiterate and innumerate. This means that they cannot engage in all those activities in which literacy and numeracy are required for effective functioning of their group and community.

They are also unable to continue to use reading, writing and calculation for their own and community’s development. It is for this reason that enterprising companies continue to invest in quality adult basic education and training or “ABET” from Triple E Training. Triple E Training is a leading accredited training provider. Whether for workplace instruction or community upliftment programmes, the accredited training provider’s quality adult literacy training and adult numeracy training programmes are having a significant positive impact on the lives of many South Africans. This is in addition to the role that that the accredited training provider’s adult basic education and training or “ABET” is helping to bolster the productivity of a country that has notoriously high illiteracy levels.

The concept of literacy and numeracy has evolved significantly over the past 40 years. This evolution is based on extensive research into literacy and basic numbers skills to better understand these proficiencies. This includes, among others, how literacy and basic numbers skills are acquired, refined and honed, as well as the way in which they benefit societies at large. This has helped to inform policymakers on how to improve the literacy and numeracy levels of citizens. Certainly, this learning has also helped to shape adult literacy training and adult numeracy training over the years.

Until the mid-1980s, literacy and numeracy skills were understood to be associated with the years of formal education that individuals had completed. Adults who had completed four years of basic education were deemed functionally literate. Meanwhile, those individuals who had completed nine years of schooling were considered to be fully literate. This includes an exceptional ability to perform functions that involve the use of maths.

South Africa still uses educational attainment by individuals to broadly measure the literacy levels of the population. Individuals who have not completed a Grade 7 are considered to be functionally illiterate by the Department of Basic Education and Statistics South Africa. However, the country’s government understands that this is only a general indication of the functional literacy and numeracy levels of the population. There are many other factors that also need to be taken into consideration when attempting to determine the true extent of the functional literacy levels of the population. For example, many South African companies have expressed their concerns about the low literacy and numeracy skills levels of matriculants, particularly from public schools that are located in poor and outlying areas of the country.

Considering their education levels, many would believe that these young adults are functionally literate and numerate. However, this is certainly not the case. Many matriculants cannot read for meaning, although they are literate. This is because of the way in which literacy is being taught at our schools. The focus is on “oratorical reading”. This involves reading aloud, fluency, accuracy and correct pronunciation. While all of these are important, there is little, or no emphasis on reading comprehension and actually making sense of the written word.

A new approach to adult literacy training is needed

Reading should be taught as a process that involves decoding and understanding text in its context, as opposed to just a “mechanical skill”.

Moreover, teachers need to reflect on how they were initially taught how to read with understanding. This will help them to recognise the shortcomings of the oratorical approach to teaching literacy to young learners.

Teachers and learners should also be encouraged to use all their language resources in a multi-linguistic African environment to better assist reading with understanding. Meanwhile, teachers’ own reading experiences should also be harnessed to help improve literacy skills in the country. These experiences can be developed through book clubs and reading groups for teachers of literacy.

School environments also have an important role to play in improving the literacy skills of learners. Worryingly, about 62% of South African schools do not have libraries which play a critical role in promoting a culture of reading among learners. Schools should also allocate ample time to extensive reading in their timetables. They could also incentivise learners for reading a target number of books and writing about them to help raise literacy skills. There is also a need to establish and promote reading clubs at schools to improve literacy skills among learners. Moreover, teachers should encourage learners to draw on local oral traditions by gathering stories from elders, writing them and reading them to others.

This solution, in particular, is a unique approach that is ideally suited to addressing some of the challenges that indigenous South African learners face in the rural areas in acquiring English literacy skills. Bear in mind that English is their second language. Yet, English is used widely throughout business and as a medium for learning at institutions of higher learning. The home environment is also important. Evidence has shown that children excel at literacy when their parents read regularly and especially to them.



Reading is a complex process that involves the use of many skills. They include:

  • Decoding: This is an important step. This skill is used to sound out words that have been heard but not seen in text. Decoding is the foundation for other reading skills. It relies on early language skills, referred to as phonemic awareness. It is the ability to hear individual sounds in words, also known as phonemes. The skill also involves an ability to sound a word and syllable. Decoding also entails connecting individual sounds to letters. An understanding of the connection between letters and their sounds is another important first step in learning how to read.
  • Fluency: To read fluently, people need to be able to instantly recognise words. This includes those words that they are unable to sound out. Fluency accelerates the rate at which people can read and understand text, bearing in mind that it takes significant effort to decode every word in text. Word recognition is an ability to identify complete words immediately by sight without sounding them. Fluent readers can read quickly and without making many errors. They also read smoothly and at a sound pace. Moreover, they are able to group words together to help with meaning, while also using the appropriate tone in their voice when reading aloud. Reading fluency is a critical skill for good reading comprehension.
  • Vocabulary: People need to understand most of the words in a text to comprehend what they are reading. They improve their vocabulary by learning the meaning of words through everyday experience and by reading.
  • Sentence structure and cohesion: An understanding of how sentences are constructed and cohesion, which is an ability to connect ideas within and between sentences, are both writing and reading skills. An understanding of how ideas connect at a sentence level enables people to derive meaning from passages and entire texts. This also leads to coherence, which is an ability to connect ideas in a piece of writing.
  • Reasoning and background knowledge: Most readers relate what they read to what they know. It is, therefore, important for people to have a background or prior knowledge about the world when they read. Moreover, they need to be able to extract meaning even when it is not literally spelled out in the text. This ability is also referred to as “reading between the lines”.
  • Working memory and attention: These skills are closely related and part of a set of proficiencies that is referred to as “executive function”. When people read, their attention enables them to absorb information from text. Working memory enables them to retain the information and use it to gain knowledge from the text that they are reading. An ability to self-monitor is closely aligned to this skill. People need to be able to recognise when they do not understand what is being conveyed in the text. They need to know when to stop and reread the section of the text that they do not understand for clarity.

ENGLISH LITERACY AND NUMERACYFurthering an understanding of literacy and basic numbers skills

In 1985 and 1987, assessments undertaken in the United States and Canada furthered the understanding of the concept of literacy and numeracy skills. These assessments noted that literacy and basic maths skills were developed by individuals on an ongoing basis. They also pointed out that reasoning demands had a bearing on the relative difficulty of literacy and numeracy tasks. This is opposed to the complexity of the text or function that is being undertaken as was initially thought to be the case. The way in which the levels of literacy and numeracy skills were previously measured were, therefore, seriously flawed.

This meant that large proportions of the world’s adult population who were considered to be functionally or fully literate before these findings actually lacked a sound ability to read and write or do basic maths. At the same time, it also had to be acknowledged that a great section of the world’s population with a limited formal education had found a means of becoming highly literate and numerate. The findings of another study undertaken at about the same time also questioned what was previously thought to be understood about literacy and basic numbers skills. It noted that individuals lost their literacy and numeracy skills rapidly after they completed their formal basic education if they did not practice them.

This also helped to inform the practice-engagement theory, which notes that people hone and refine their literacy and basic maths skills by using them frequently. Conversely, individuals who do not use their literacy and basic numbers skills regularly lose these abilities over time. Literacy and basic numbers skills are, therefore, considered to be a dynamic commodity. The more individuals practice their literacy and basic maths skills, the more proficient they become at them. This is very similar to an athlete that prepares for a competition by practicing daily ahead of the event.



Literacy and numeracy are skills that people use in all aspects of their lives. They benefit people in the following ways:

  • Literacy and numeracy skills lift people out of poverty. This by enriching their lives and creating opportunities for people to develop skills that they can use to provide for themselves and their families. Modern economies have become increasingly reliant on sophisticated skills. At the most basic level, employees need English literacy and numeracy skills to perform at optimal levels. It is, therefore, essential that more focus be placed on adult literacy training and adult numeracy training to help more people participate in the modern economy.
  • Literacy and numeracy skills improve the development of the wider community. Educating women, in particular, has a significant positive impact on communities and on each generation. This is through raised expectations and increased self-esteem. It is for this reason that many companies focus on equipping women in poor communities with English literacy and basic maths skills. This is achieved through quality adult basic education and training or “ABET” programmes from accredited training providers.
  • Literacy and numeracy skills improve health and wellbeing. People who do not have literacy and basic maths skills are more likely to be unhealthy. For example, literate women are three times more likely than illiterate females to be aware that a person is infected with HIV although they seem to be in good health. They are also four times as likely to know how to protect themselves from HIV infection. Infant mortality rates also drop significantly when women have a primary education and more so for females who have completed secondary school. According to experts, infant mortality also decreases by up to 9% for every year of education that has been attained by women. This is considering that literacy and numeracy skills enable women to educate themselves on health issues, helping to reduce the cycle of poverty and mortality rates over the long term.
  • Literacy and numeracy skills empower women and girls. Literacy and numeracy skills enable women and girls to become economically productive and independent. This enables them to take control of their lives. Literacy and numeracy skills foster personal autonomy, as well as creative and critical thinking to enable women and girlsto contribute meaningfully to their societies. For this reason, many enterprising companies continue to direct their community-based adult literacy training and adult numeracy training at rural women. They know that empowering women through quality adult basic education and training or “ABET” is a very effective way of developing communities.
  • Literacy and numeracy skills positively impact economic growth beyond communities. This is because people who have literacy and basic numbers skills are more productive and efficient than those who do not possess these proficiencies. This is felt countrywide and beyond communities. Equipped with literacy and basic maths skills, people are also better able to secure employment. This is considering that English literacy and basic numbers skills are the absolute basic proficiencies people need to participate in an increasingly global economy.

LITERACY AND NUMERACY EMPOWERMENT – Developing our understanding of basic literacy and basic numbers skills

At the same time, a study was undertaken into the important role that literacy and basic numbers skills played in empowering people. Experts noted that the use of literacy and numeracy skills also varied significantly between populations – even those that had similar characteristics. Previously, this was not really understood. It was assumed that the use of literacy and basic maths skills only varied between different societies. Moreover, we now know that the systems that condition adults to exercise their literacy and numeracy skills are open to change. More specifically, attention was also given to better understanding elements of literacy and numeracy skills supply. This is in addition to literacy and numeracy skills demand and the way in which it evolves. Focus was also placed on learning more about literacy and numeracy skills use; how markets facilitate the full application of these proficiencies; and the impact that this has on their outcomes. Greater clarity was also obtained between how individuals acquired literacy and basic maths skills and the highly variable way in which they used them in daily life.

Importantly, the concept of “critical literacy” was also brought to the fore. “Critical literacy” is a goal that can be achieved by engaging with books and other written texts, especially through reading. This includes interpreting, reflecting on, interrogating, theorising, investigating, exploring, probing and questioning. “Critical literacy” is also attained through writing, including acting on and dialogically transforming the social world. As early as 1978, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization or “UNESCO” defined functional literacy. Still in use today, it states that functionally literate people can engage in all those activities in which literacy is required for effective functioning of their group and community and also for enabling them to continue to use reading, writing and calculation for their own and the community’s development.


Accredited training provider helps companies uplift literacy and numeracy skills of employees and communities

Accredited training provider, Triple E Training has been helping companies to uplift the English literacy and numeracy skills of low skilled employees for more than 30 years. This adult literacy training and adult numeracy training is helping to improve productivity, efficiency, accuracy and safety in the workplace. Bear in mind that English literacy and basic maths are the basic skills employees need to perform their jobs at optimal levels, especially in a modern economy that is increasingly relying on technology.

The company is also the preferred accredited training provider for companies’ corporate social investment projects. This leading accredited training provider has helped to equip numerous unemployed people from poor communities with literacy and basic maths skills on behalf of companies. It is also achieving this through tailored adult literacy training and adult numeracy training that is geared specifically at community development.

Learn more about Triple E Training and our unique approach to adult basic education and training or “ABET”.

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