Ok, before I get too many hateful thoughts from people who may read this, I don't have anything against literacy, I think it is an incredibly important skill that all people must develop and it is an incredibly important part of being able to talk about mathematics. My issue is not with literacy itself, but more with the way the word literacy is being used, particularly in relation to terms such as statistical literacy and financial literacy. In trying to make my point I have taken the following definitions for statistical and financial literacy from Wikipedia
Statistical literacy is the ability to understand statistics. Statistical literacy is necessary for citizens to understand material presented in publications such as newspapers, television, and the Internet. Numeracy is a prerequisite to being statistically literate. Being statistically literate is sometimes taken to include having both the ability to critically evaluate statistical material and to appreciate the relevance of statistically-based approaches to all aspects of life in general (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Statistical_literacy)
Financial literacy is the ability to understand how money works in the world: how someone manages to earn or make it, how that person manages it, how he/she invests it (turn it into more) and how that person donates it to help others. More specifically, it refers to the set of skills and knowledge that allows an individual to make informed and effective decisions with all of their financial resources. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Financial_literacy)
In looking at those definitions it should be clear that these are not only very important, but it should also be clear that these are not literacy skills, they are numeracy skills. For many it would be "so what, it is just a label" but it is much more than that. As it is, numeracy is not a term that is respected as much as it should by the general public, and people cannot generally identify the aspects of their lives that deal with numeracy. By taking two very large aspects of numeracy and labeling them with a literacy tag, people start to associate them less with numeracy and more with literacy.
It seems like the term literacy is being associated with every aspect of learning considered an essential life skill. Apart from the ones already mentioned there are terms such as technological or computer literacy, emotional literacy and physical literacy, this was just with a quick Google search. Although not necessarily numeracy skills, they are also not literacy skills, just terms given the literacy tag again to hopefully gain support for their importance.
It is interesting that people are starting to believe that these things are really literacy skills, and not numeracy skills. Having spoken to some teachers from other schools, teachers who work in English faculties, they believe skills such as reading and constructing graphs are truly literacy skills, but I also doubt that these skills have ever been taught in an English class, but they are taught every year in Mathematics classrooms. Just because there is a fact, figure, graph or table as part of a written text, it doesn't make it a literacy skill, simply it is just a part of the text that needs some numeracy to fully comprehend it.
The argument has been made for years that you can't be numerate without being literate, and with that I do agree, at least to some degree. Many mathematical problems require the comprehension and decoding of written texts or problems and being able to transcribe them into a mathematical construct. However I would also argue the reverse is true, that you can't been literate without also being numerate, it is a reciprocal relationship not a one way relationship. Often texts include numbers that students may not recognize the size of, graphs and tables that they find it difficult to interpret and map, flowcharts and other diagrams requiring spatial reasoning that they may not be able to fully interpret
If we are to have any significant impact on both numeracy and literacy levels in students we need to acknowledge that they are separate skill sets that are connected by the idea that you cannot fully have one without the other. Central to doing this is acknowledging the numeracy that is present and not forcing the literacy tag onto everything.
Mathematics Coach and Coordinator in Regional South Australia. Current driving the Empowering Local Learners project as a numeracy strategy from pre-school to senior secondary.
Opinions in this blog are my own and do not necessarily represent the views of my employer.