Write Stuff – This Episode Brought to You by the Number 10

When it comes to promoting literacy, I’m all for it. Besides the vast stores of pleasure to be found in the written word, good reading skills put you in a much stronger position to decipher that new home purchase or understand the potential side effects of a prescription. But for all the good intentions behind literacy programs and special events, there’s an essential part of the equation That’s often missing: numbers.

Do an online search for ?literacy,? and you’ll find golf tournaments, Family Literacy Day, literacy programs, library read-ins, and more. You name it and somebody’s doing it to promote reading. Now try running a search for ?numeracy,? and the first thing you’ll notice is the lack of high-profile events. Sure, there are some 10 million results, but the majority belong to government and school websites. Clearly, when it comes to popularity, math skills are still sitting on the sidelines at the dance while literacy is out there whirling around the floor.

Yet math skills and reading are much more closely connected than you might think. Whether It’s prose or poetry, half the magic of reading comes from the patterns. From the orderly arrangement of a given set of elements. Elmore Leonard’s cool blue prose has a distinct structure, one that puts me in mind of those compact formulas used to figure out astronomical distances: tightly condensed while still covering vast depths. Jane Austen flows more like algebra, with plenty of curious asides and alphabetic equations to wander among before you reach your destination.

And if You’re looking for a true union of those two subjects, look no further than this recent Telegraph column that claims that ?poetry . . . is mathematics.?

As the article explains, poetry is ?close to a particular branch of [math] known as combinatorics, the study of permutations ? of how one can arrange particular groups of objects, numbers or letters according to stated laws.? If you’ve ever had to figure out the metre of a poem for English lit, you’ll know how accurate that comparison is.

In spite of all the efforts being spent on increasing reading skills, ABC Life Literacy Canada reports that ?four out of 10 adult Canadians, age 16 to 65 . . . struggle with low literacy.? Numeracy skills fared even worse (StatsCan numbers from 2003 reveal that ?over half of adult Canadians did not demonstrate levels of mathematical skills and knowledge associated with functioning well in Canadian society?).

If we want to change that picture, perhaps the key is to broaden the approach. To begin with an appreciation of the patterns that run through both letters and numbers, rather than treating them like we usually do?as two distinct areas that have little in common. Even better, include music. What better way to demonstrate how closely the subjects are related?

There will always be students (young or old) who have a natural affinity for one discipline over the other, who can decipher Shakespeare much more easily than they can balance a chequebook. But by appreciating the bigger picture, by seeing the beauty and precision in those underlying patterns, many of them may finally be able to turn a new page.

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