What is the relationship between students’ academic numeracy and their mathematical and language competence? And, why is it important?

Presenters: Vera Frith and Robert Prince

Vera Frith is the coordinator of the Numeracy Centre, a unit within the Academic Development Programme, which delivers quantitative literacy courses to about 400 first year students and provides other interventions across campus. Her primary interests are the quantitative literacy of university students and the appropriate curriculum for promoting this academic literacy of students in various disciplines.






Robert Prince is a senior lecturer at the Centre for Educational Testing for Access and Placement (CETAP), University of Cape Town. Robert coordinates the development of psychometrically sound tests in academic literacy, quantitative literacy, scientific reasoning and mathematics. His research enables a deeper understanding of the admissions (selection and placement) policies and the teaching and learning environment. The aim is to inform appropriate placement and curriculum development so that a wider range of students can be admitted and appropriately placed, in order to succeed.






Many school-leavers are considered underprepared for higher education especially in academic literacies, including numeracy. From our experience of teaching and assessment in the Numeracy Centre and the Centre for Educational Testing for Access and Placement, we observe that student’s difficulties with quantitative material are frequently related to the language used to express quantitative ideas, as much as to the mathematical content.

For this reason we investigated the relationship between students’ academic numeracy and their mathematical and language competence. We investigate the relationship between students’ academic numeracy scores (on a test reflecting the expectations of higher education) and the writing of four school-leaving examinations that reflect most directly mathematical competence and language ability.

In a sample of 7 464 students, only 13% had numeracy test scores that were classified as proficient, almost all of whom had studied Mathematics and English Home Language. Almost 90% of those who took Mathematical Literacy and English First Additional Language achieved scores in the lowest category. Comparing the test score distributions of groups of students defined in terms of the mathematics and language school subject combinations, reveals that mathematics competence and language ability are equally related to students’ academic numeracy.

The results indicate the need for curriculum reforms in schools and in higher education. Ideally development of students’ academic numeracy should be infused in the teaching of the disciplinary discourses. The effectiveness of interventions intended to improve academic numeracy will be enhanced if they focus not only on quantitative competence but also on language development.


Wed, 24 Jul 2019 -
13:00 to 14:00

CHED Boardroom, Level 6, Huriǂoaxa (Hoerikwaggo) Building

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RSVP: Please RSVP by 5pm on Monday the 22 July, 2019