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Math Illiteracy Is Not a Laughing Matter

January 5, 2010


Julie Lewis

04:41 PM CDT on Thursday, October 15, 2009

I cringe every time I hear someone say, “I’m not good at math” or “I just can’t do math.” Honestly, how many people would joke about not being able to read? So why do people joke about their math abilities?

I watched the primetime version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire recently and could not believe the number of people who made jokes about their weak math skills. Granted, I would be shaking in my boots if I were in the hot seat, but can anyone seriously imagine telling Regis, “I can’t read the question, so I’ll take my $100 and go home.”

Society rallies to fight illiteracy; those who cannot read have many programs to help them learn. Most illiterate adults I have come across hide their illiteracy, going so far as to lie about their abilities or to rely on their children to read for them. Yet no one seems to have a problem announcing to the world that they are math illiterate – or innumerate, as some have started saying.

I have been a big advocate of parents being a child’s first teacher. I am privileged to have a student for one or two years, but a parent is blessed with the child for a lifetime. I like to remind parents that just because students today are being introduced in middle school to subjects we learned in high school doesn’t mean we close the door to our influence at home.

Teach your child every day. Have them cook with you and show them how to double the recipe, make half a recipe, set a budget, count back change and understand fractions of miles on exit signs. Have your child calculate gas mileage when you fill up the car, or compare price per ounce when grocery shopping to determine the best value. Discuss sales tax and how to calculate it. How much are you really saving by shopping on tax-free weekend?

By proclaiming you are innumerate, are you sending the message that you cannot add or subtract? Are you really saying you have trouble setting up an equation from a word problem?

Everyone can do math to a certain degree, so why proclaim that we can’t?

Should this trend continue, where will we hear those words next? From our bank teller cashing our paycheck, insurance agent issuing our claim check, the nurse giving us medication or the mechanic fixing our brakes? Oh, well, I can’t do math. Ha ha.

It’s a scary thought, but I have heard people in each of these professions make the innumeracy claim. I have been quick to question their ability before allowing them to continue with services for me.

We need to hold each other accountable for the messages we are putting out about education. It’s time to start admitting that we are competent people and that we can do math.

Julie Lewis is an AMI/Math Interventionist at Lamar Middle School in Irving and a Teacher Voices volunteer columnist. Her e-mail address is

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