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7 ways to improve numeracy skills

This is bigger than just being good at math. Numbers are essential to life. Learn how to improve your numeracy skills in this lesson.

Ed Latimore
Ed Latimore
Writer, retired boxer, self-improvement enthusiast

Numeracy is your ability to use mathematics in the real world. It’s being able to use numerical skills to solve actual real-world problems. I believe that the ability to understand and apply math concepts to real life is a literacy skill that’s as important as reading.

Most people have poor numeracy skills. It’s not because they’re bad at math, but because many people had a terrible experience learning math. It’s been my experience that elementary school math teachers tend to lack the numeracy needed to properly develop strong numeracy skills in 6-10-year-olds.

It’s not that these teachers are bad at math, per se. It’s more like they are so comfortable with math that they don’t remember what it’s like to learn. Rather, many of them just push memorization rather than promote true understanding and skill in handling the numbers.

The following 7 things you can do to improve your numeracy and become more comfortable with numbers.

[This article gives more reasons why math is important—>12 reasons why math is important]

Estimate more

The goal with estimation isn’t to provide an exact answer. It’s to provide one precise enough that it allows you to make useful predictions.

It’s useful to know approximately:

  • How many visitors to your sales page purchase.
  • How many miles your car can go before it needs a fill-up.
  • How long it will take you to walk somewhere.
  • How much money you have in your bank account. 

In each of these scenarios, not only is an exact number not necessary to make plans, it’s usually impossible to get one anyway. Too many variables are out of your control to make an exact calculation possible.

Still, just because we don’t need to hit the nail on the head doesn’t mean it’s ok to miss it entirely. We want to be in the general vicinity of the correct answer, even if the correct answer is effectively impossible to find. How do we do this?

Understand fractions

What’s bigger: 7/8 or 9/10?

If you thought that was easy, which of these two is bigger: 5/7 or 16/37?

These questions give the average person trouble because it’s unnatural for us to think in terms of fractions and, to a lesser extent, ratios. You’re much more comfortable with the more obvious comparison:

.875 (7/8) vs .9 (9/10) and .714 (5/7) vs .432 (16/37)

In the percentages or decimals form, it’s obvious which one is bigger. However, you’d need a calculator to generate those values. But when you have a decent understanding of fractions.

If you’re wondering how to make the general comparison of the size of fractions, there are two rules:

  1. First, compare the numerator to the denominator. The larger the gap between the two, the smaller the fraction. This is obvious in the second example. The gap between 5 and 7 is 2. The gap between 16 and 37 is 21.
  2. Second, if the gap is the same, look at which fraction has the bigger numbers. That is the larger fraction. This is obvious in the first example. The gap between 7 and 8 is the same as the gap between 9 and 10 (1). Following the first rule, see that both fractions have the same difference between the numerator and denominator. Now we check down to this rule. We see that 9 and 10 are bigger numbers than 7 and 8. 9/10 is the bigger fraction.

Learn geometry

When I took geometry in school, we focused on proving theorems. I hope that wasn’t (or isn’t) your experience with geometry. If it was, I feel for you and I understand why you might look down on geometry.

You should have spent more time understanding the spatial relationships between shapes and their representation of mathematical ideas.

When you go shopping for a new piece of furniture or appliance, you need to understand the measurements of the object relative to the space that you’ll be placing it in. The better your intuitive grasp of spatial relationships, the easier it will be to do other things that we don’t quite attribute to math skills.

An intuitive grasp of mathematical concepts related to geometry will make you a better graphic designer or musician. You’ll better be able to appreciate geometric patterns that appear in nature. Geometrical concepts of mathematics are observable in the tessellation pattern of hexagonal-shaped wax cells in a honeycomb or in a floor plan or in the geometric pattern of a snowflake.

Developing your geometric skills will simply add to the richness of your life and improve your numeracy skills.

Improve your financial skills

Many people are terrified to look at their spending habits. They don’t want to confront the true nature of their financial situation. However, doing so will not only improve the quality of your life but will also increase your basic numeracy skills.

Budgeting only requires basic math skills, but it’s an area where the quality of your decision-making and data analysis is directly tied to outcomes in your life. You’re able to clearly see why you’re having problems in your life and make decisions based on the numbers you crunched.

[Read: 5 reasons why you’re broke]

This is something that everyone can do and needs to do and does not require any high-level mathematical skills. It can, however, lay the foundation and develop an interest in what is needed to pursue more math education.

Learn how to interpret graphs

Graphs are powerful because they take numbers collected from data and turn them into easy-to-understand pictures. This is why one of the first things that young children do in their early numeracy training is learn how to understand graphs.

Graphs are simple but effective tools for making quick sense of any amount of data. 

On the horizontal axis, there is an “independent variable”. This is the quantity that does not depend on anything else being measured. On the vertical axis, there is the quantity that correlates to the independent variable, called the “dependent variable”.

On most graphs, everything you see follows this setup. Graphs allow you to correlate the change in two quantities with a visual representation. This is useful for developing the intuition to tell if there’s a relationship between two quantities.

[I talk about this and some other methods in an article about getting better at math. Read it here—>How to get better at math]

Scrutinize news and media

It’s amazing the amount of damage that is done by the media misquoting statistics and data or taking them out of context. One thing that will make you more comfortable using numbers is learning which buzzwords to look out for when you see the statistics.

For example, most people don’t realize that “mean” (the sum of all data divided amount of all data) and “median”(the data point that is the midpoint of the range) are not synonymous and are usually not the same quantity. Depending on the data under analysis, this makes a BIG difference.

News outlets and social media posts tend to use whichever buzzword can be used correctly and fits best with the point their trying to make. For example:

  • Teen pregnancy in our town is up 100% (This is a lot scarier than saying “last year we have two teen pregnancies, this year we have 4)
  • The median household income is $67,000 (If you don’t realize that this represents the middle you can be led to believe anything depending on the agenda of the person presenting the data.)
  • As of the writing of this post, the U.S. death rate for Covid-19 is .012 of all people infected. However, you feel about that number is irrelevant to the point I’m making. Given what we’ve learned about the virus, we should be much more interested in the age range of that .012.<div class='jekyll-twitter-plugin'><blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">186 deaths.
    Median age of 84.
    Youngest patients 23 and 42.

    Cases are up but it only confirms what was obvious:

    Everyone can get it, but young people effectively (< 1%) don't die from it.</p>— Ed Latimore (@EdLatimore) June 26, 2020</blockquote>


The goal isn’t to become an expert statistician. It’s simply to become aware of how people rely on your lack of numeracy development to try to influence you. By remedying this lack of knowledge and skill with numbers, you set yourself up to be more informed and less fooled by randomness.

Play math games

24 math game ed latimore's favorite
24 math game ed latimore's favorite

When I was growing up, one of my favorite games was “24”. The game came with cards that had four numbers on them and your goal was to figure out how to get 24 from them by any of the basic arithmetic operations (addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division).

I was always pretty terrible at these types of games, but they made developing math skills more fun. Games like these weren’t necessarily learning activities. They were more like playing and by taking the pressure off and gamifying the experience, I was more motivated to at least try.

Any math activity that can be gamified will improve your numeracy skills if for no other reason than you make it fun. One of my favorite math games to play in everyday life takes place when I’m shopping. When I pay with physical money, I try to beat the cash register to figure out what my change will be.

It’s a fun game that also improves my budgeting skills as well.

Summary of 7 things you can do to improve your numeracy skills

  1. Estimate more
  2. Understand fractions
  3. Learn geometry
  4. Improve financial skills
  5. Learn to interpret graphs
  6. Scrutinize media
  7. Play math games
Ed Latimore
About the author

Ed Latimore

I’m a writer, competitive chess player, Army veteran, physicist, and former professional heavyweight boxer. My work focuses on self-development, realizing your potential, and sobriety—speaking from personal experience, having overcome both poverty and addiction.

Follow me on Twitter.