3.9.2 Literacy, Numeracy and Digital Literacy

Learning objectives for this chapter

By the end of this chapter, we would like you:

  • To be able to define literacy, numeracy, and digital literacy with respect to their place in supporting wider education and economic productivity
  • To have considered the centrality of these three skills areas to learning and to engaging with contemporary society after schooling has ended
  • To have creatively engaged with approaches to integrating core and curriculum skills, knowledge, and capabilities
  • To have considered the nature of the role of compulsory education in preparing young people for work

What are literacy, numeracy, and digital literacy?


At its most straightforward, literacy refers to the ability to read and write, though some organisations see literacy in broader terms. There is a functional aspect to literacy which sets it aside from related subjects such as English. Definitions of functional literacy focus on the levels of competence in reading and writing which a person might need to fully cope with adult life.

Being literate means that people are more able to access goods and services, are less reliant on others for support, and are better equipped to lead full adult lives. Research by the charity underlines the fact that there are direct links to be made between being functionally literate and being able to make positive impacts in respect of:

  • Economic wellbeing
  • Having aspirations
  • Stable and engaged family life
  • Health, and access to health services
  • Cultural and civic engagement
  • National curriculum documentation outlines the levels of ability to be achieved by learners at each Key Stage.

Though there is an end-point of achievement at GCSE in compulsory education terms, there are also other considerations which mean that, for some learners at least, alternative approaches to developing their literacy standards, as they relate to life and basic skills, may be appropriate.


Numeracy refers to the ability to use mathematics in everyday life. Being numerate means that young people become more independent, as they have both the underpinning ability and the confidence to use numbers and straightforward calculations in their everyday lives.

Being functionally numerate includes being able to demonstrate a range of competencies which have a relationship to mathematics (National Numeracy, 2016):

  • Interpreting plans, maps, charts and diagrams
  • Processing information accurately
  • Solving problems and puzzles
  • Checking answers
  • Ready reckoning
  • Understanding and explaining situations
  • Decision-making based on logical thinking and reasoning

Where numeracy may differ from mathematics is the focus on skills and competencies which are directly related to the use of numbers and related problem-solving in life contexts, as opposed to being asked abstract questions.

As with literacy rates, international studies suggest that there is a societal issue with levels of numeracy in the UK, with an estimated 9 million adults of working age with low numeracy skills (Fino, 2016) There are three times more low-skilled people in the age group 16-19 than comparator nations; younger generations are at a disadvantage compared not only to their international peers but to older generations, who have been seen to have greater levels of numeric abilities (Fino, 2016).  

Digital literacy

Digital literacy may be defined as "the capabilities which fit someone for living, learning, and working in a digital society" (JISC, 2015). Learners need support with many aspects of their digital activity, and it is important that those needs are addressed, not merely for their present and future academic development, but for life skills and work-related competence for the future as well. The digital world is fast-evolving, and though the schoolchildren of today have grown up in a world where the internet and digital communications and entertainment have been ever-present, that does not mean that competencies with digital media can be assumed.

In addition, there are modes of engagement with digital environments, and in online activity and communication, which may represent hazards to children; there is a need also to teach and learn responsible and safe use of the internet and online communications, as well as to teach subject-specific and software-related skills. Risk areas might include access to sexual exploitation, access to pornography, access to violent imagery, the potential for being targeted for political and religious-motivated extremism, as well as fraud, cyber-crime, hate-crimes, self-harm and suicide ideation, and online harassment and bullying. Education represents a way to combat the pervasiveness of such potential harm, as well as to teach responsible and productive online activity and digital engagement (Palmer, 2015).

Why are these considered 'core skills'?

These three skills are considered essential, not only for the individual in the present, but also for their future ability to contribute in society and to cope effectively with the world of work and with wider adult responsibilities. Changes to post-16 education funding brought in during 2014 mean that further education learners who have not yet achieved a good (A*-C) grade in GCSE English and Mathematics are expected to retake those qualifications and resit examinations.

Core Skills

In Scotland, five core skills have been identified which are considered by employers and others to be central to working and living in the contemporary world (Scottish Qualifications Authority, 2016). The five are:

  • Communication: communication skills (two components - oral and written communication) are seen as underpinning all social, cultural, interpersonal, and economic activity.
  • Numeracy: there are two components to the qualification; using graphical information, and using number.
  • Information and Communication Technology: contextualises ICT skills to work and home productivity contexts.
  • Working With Others: this qualification develops co-operative and teamworking skills.
  • Problem Solving: this qualification develops competencies to manage problems and issues in social, personal, occupational, and in vocational contexts.

Functional Skills

In England, the term functional skills is now used to describe the core vocational skills offered as part of the UK government's response to "employers' concerns that young people and adults are not achieving a firm enough grounding in the basics" (For Skills, 2016, para. 1). There are three functional skills: English, Mathematics, and ICT. Again, there is a focus on the vocational aspects of communication, on numeracy, and on working in the digital world. A range of pathways exist for the qualifications, depending on the level of the learner, and the nature of the course of study that they are undertaking. There is not necessarily a direct correlation between functional skills qualifications and syllabuses and those of the equivalent GCSE; there is an expectation that to some extent these will be taken as additional course rather than the learner being directed towards an either/or option.

What can be done to embed these skills throughout age groups and subjects?

The kinds of initiatives and qualification frameworks alluded to in the previous section show that, particularly from the ages of 14 and over, throughout GCSE level study at Key Stage 4 and into further education, and also into the more directly vocational alternatives which learners may move into either at Key Stage 4 or on a move from school to college at 16, there is a keen focus to develop core skills.

One way to approach this is to consider ways of embedding vocationally-appropriate skills and competencies into classroom learning across all age groups and in all subjects. This should be done with care and discretion; children are good at spotting opportunism and awkward relationships between teacher input and the kinds of activities which they are asked to complete to embed and exemplify their learning progress. However, an inventory of schemes of work and lesson plans will suggest opportunities throughout the subjects we teach, at the levels being taught, where core skills can be successfully integrated in terms of teaching, and evidenced in respect of learner ability levels.

Some subjects will suggest natural fits; science and technology topic areas will use numeracy frequently, and humanities subjects will involve aspects of communications and literacy competencies. ICT may be engaged with no matter what the subject. Going beyond these straightforward associations, however, there is perhaps a need to make more oblique connections, and to make those less-apparent links clear so that learners can appreciate them for themselves. Examples might be the use of numeracy concepts such as measurement and area in craft and design working, or English skills in writing up science reports. To some extent, the core skills which learners use to help support their subject-based learning will tend to become invisible, as the learner is focusing on the product rather than on their learning process. So, draw attention to the learners' core skills as they are being used to work to subject-oriented ends; core skills can in this way be developed alongside subject knowledge.

It is the transferability of these skills from formal education to adult life which is being sought here, and if learners can appreciate their existing abilities, as well as have them channelled and provoked towards their development while at the same time enjoying their education, then multiple outcomes are being addressed simultaneously.

Why is promoting these skills such a high priority for the government / educational establishments / employers?

A 2015 review of essential skills provision in England noted the contexts in which the review was undertaken; the commitment to have learners achieve GCSEs in English and Maths at grade C or above, and to develop literacy and numeracy more generally (Education and Training Foundation, 2015). In 2013/14, a third of pupils did not gain at least a C in both English and mathematics GCSEs. Employers consistently demand new recruits with effective maths and English skills, with half surveyed being concerned at young people's English language abilities, and a quarter of employers having concerns with both; only 11% of employers had no concerns about young people's core skills levels (Education and Training Foundation, 2015).

The kinds of competencies which employers have voiced concerns about include speaking and listening skills, comprehension of instructions and of work documentation, in appropriate email communication, and in the use of business English to communicate professionally with colleagues and with others in the supply chain. Furthermore, other studies have shown that there are quantifiable impacts on businesses in terms of their operations. Poor core skills abilities mean that there are additional costs associated in recruiting and retaining suitably-able employees, in working efficiency terms, in accidents and wastage levels in production, in the time taken to fulfil orders, and in additional training costs generated by a need to contribute to employee skills in-house (BIS, 2016).

The perception of a mismatch between qualifications on exiting compulsory education and in fitness for work leads to credibility issues for the education sector and for government; key and basic skills have been in place for decades, yet there remains a perception of a problem of the vocational competence of many entrants to the workplace. Though the function of compulsory education may not be to produce fully-formed individuals ready to fit seamlessly into economic productivity, there nevertheless needs to be a closer integration between education and the wider contexts in which it exists. Part of that means being equipped to support learners to be active, engaged, skilled, and competent members of society, which means being able to be economically active. Vocationally-relevant skills and experience are an aspect of such outcomes, as are the underpinning core and functional skills which can enable and support such outcomes being achieved.


The three sets of core/functional skills outlined in this chapter are central to our experience of education as learners, as they represent not only specific learning but as gateways to other - subject-based - educational experiences. A focus on the central skills of numeracy, literacy and digital literacy, then, is only appropriate, and more than that, necessary. However, as this chapter has indicated, there are ongoing efforts to successfully bridge the gap between school and work, between study and ability to apply learning to wider contexts, and to successfully ensure that our young have the competencies and the confidence to engage with work, as well as be able to navigate and communicate appropriately and effectively as adults. 


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Denholm, A. (2016) Call for schools to address Scotland's digital skills gap. Available at: http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/14388380.Call_for_schools_to_address_Scotland_s_digital_skills_gap/ (Accessed: 16 November 2016).

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Education and Training Foundation (2015) Making maths and English work for all: the review of what employers and learners need from the maths and English qualifications taken by young people and adults. Available at: http://feweek.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/Report.pdf (Accessed: 17 November 2016).

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