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Integrating Numeracy into the Adult ESOL Classroom

by Hali Massey

The definition of numeracy is “the ability to confidently interact with and engage in the mathematical demands of everyday life in the home, workplace, and community” (Ciancone, 1996, unpaged). Numeracy tasks occur regularly in everyday life, and it is important for adult English language learners to have the language and context in order to engage with these tasks (Ginsburg et al., 2006). In addition, the U.S. uses several systems that are most likely new to recent immigrants, refugees, or new Americans, such as the imperial system of measurement, monetary values, western calendars, etc. Therefore, numeracy in the adult ESOL classroom helps orient English language learners to these systems and measurements that they will be encountering.

Examples of numeracy include:

  • Using quantitative data to express facts and opinions, such as comparing prices or sales or analyzing statistics to make decisions or form opinions.
  • Calculating percentages, such as when shopping and calculating sale percentages and when trying to calculate how much tax is owed or how much tip to leave.
  • Measuring items, such as knowing how much medication to take and measuring ingredients when cooking.

Some strategies for incorporating numeracy into the adult ESOL classroom include:

  • Incorporate numeracy into classroom texts, videos, vocabulary, tasks, and discussions by aligning ESOL content with numeracy objectives: ESOL instructors can look at their curriculum or course materials to see where numeracy aligns with their content. This ensures that numeracy objectives will be contextualized within the already established classroom curriculum.

See the following examples:

Proficiency Level ESOL Content Numeracy Objective
Beginner Sharing personal information Learn names of numbers (1-100) in order to share age, birth dates, and phone numbers.
Beginner Sharing time from a clock and dates from a calendar Use numbers to communicate the time on a clock and dates from a calendar in order to answer the questions of “What time?” and “When?”.
High Beginner Shopping and buying goods Use amounts of money in dollars and cents to answer the question of “How much?”.
Low Intermediate Shopping and buying goods Use addition and subtraction to add up amounts, calculate totals, and determine balances.
Low Intermediate Giving directions Use differences in time to answer the question of “How long does it take to get from Point A to Point B?”.
Intermediate Cooking and food Use whole numbers and fractions to follow and/or write a recipe.
Example Lesson Plan
Intermediate Paying bills and making a budget Calculate a monthly budget using a given monthly income.
High Intermediate Paying taxes Use percentages to calculate food and retail tax.
Advanced Housing Determine the financial benefits of buying versus renting.
Advanced Paying taxes Use percentages to calculate state and federal income tax.


  • Use graphics or images to represent statistics or situations that allow for numeracy discussions/activities: ESOL instructors can use graphics or images to engage learners in conversations that support learners in developing metalinguistic and metacognitive skills for processing numeracy situations in their everyday lives (Ciancone, 1996). See the following examples:
    • Estimation 180: This resource provides images of everyday objects that allow learners to make estimations about measurements and amounts. These types of conversations help learners develop metacognitive skills for thinking about and discussing these types of estimations in everyday situations.
    • 3 Act Math Lessons: When using this strategy, instructors present a scenario, a conflict that requires mathematical processing and thinking, and the opportunity for learners to work together to solve the conflict or problem. These lessons contextualize math thinking and processes into situations that adult learners can relate to which allows them to transfer these skills into their everyday lives.
    • A Splat Routine: This strategy allows instructors to engage learners in conversations around what they observe and how they reach their conclusions. This supports learners in developing metalinguistic and metacognitive skills for having mathematical conversations. These discussions also allow learners to learn from the perspectives and thought processes of other learners.
  • Assess how learners are using or need to use numeracy skills in their everyday lives and build off of those situations or problems. (Ciancone, 1996)

In addition, these are some best practices to follow when incorporating numeracy into the adult ESOL classroom. (Ciancone, 1996)

  • Ensure that numeracy activities are interactive, collaborative, and relevant to the everyday lives of your learners.
  • Encourage the focus to be on thought process and not on wrong or right answers and acknowledge various ways of thinking and reaching conclusions.
  • Scaffold with visual representations such as images, graphs, charts, drawings, etc.
  • Integrate numeracy into the adult ESOL classroom from the beginning; meaning that all levels of proficiency are engaging in numeracy activities.


Ciancone, T. (1996). Numeracy in the adult ESL classroom. Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL). https://www.cal.org/adultesl/resources/digests/numeracy-in-the-adult-esl-classroom.php#:~:text=Numeracy%20is%20the%20ability%20to,opinions%20and%20to%20analyze%20situations

Ginsburg, L., Manly, M., & Schmitt, M.J. (2006). The components of numeracy. National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy (NCSALL). https://www.ncsall.net/fileadmin/ resources/research/op_numeracy.pdf

Hali Massey

Hali Dayberry-Massey, M.A. TESOL, is the English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) Specialist at the Virginia Adult Learning Resource Center (VALRC). In this role, she coordinates teacher professional development that aligns with state and federal initiatives, as well as local interests and needs. This work includes the design and delivery of online courses, face-to-face workshops, and virtual meetings, all with a focus on the practice of teaching English to adult learners.


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