The Difference Between Mathematical Literacy & Algebraic Literacy

As more colleges implement Mathematical Literacy courses, we are running in to a point of confusion:  what is the difference between Algebraic Literacy and Mathematical Literacy?  The easy reference is problematic … comparing these courses to the traditional beginning & intermediate algebra courses; those traditional courses are at the ‘same level’ in a general way, but this fact does not help us deal with the details of new courses.

I’ve written previously on the comparison of the new courses to the old, especially Algebraic Literacy compared to the traditional course ( and ).  However, I’ve not talked that much about the difference between these new courses that share a word in the title (“Literacy”).  That’s the goal of this post.

First, the course titles are not perfect … the word ‘literacy’ was meant to imply that the courses deal with pre-college material; ‘mathematical’ was meant to suggest that we did not start with algebra directly … while ‘algebraic’ was meant to suggest some directionality (headed towards STEM and STEM-like courses).  We have focused on the goals and outcomes documents for the new courses as a way to clarify what the courses are designed to deliver.

MLCS Goals and Outcomes Oct2013 cross referenced 2 by 2

Algebraic Literacy Goals and Outcomes Oct2013 cross referenced

Since these courses diverge from the traditional curriculum, these documents were not sufficient to clarify “what belongs in each course” for shared topics (especially algebra).

So, here is a side by side chart meant to provide some additional clarification.

Math Lit vs Algebraic Lit July2016















The intent is not to avoid any overlap between the courses, though there is less overlap than the traditional courses (in general).  As an example, many Math Lit courses introduce systems of linear equations; the solution methods are usually limited to numeric (graphing & intersect) and some substitution.  In an algebraic literacy course, the problems would be more diverse and so would the solution methods presented.

Another example is factoring polynomials.  The classic Math Literacy course might cover “GCF” factoring only (pardon the redundancy) … though that is not assumed.  The intent is that Math Literacy avoid most factoring beyond that which is a direct application of the distributive property; Algebraic Literacy picks up most of the factoring concepts necessary.  We note that most ‘needs’ to include factoring are contrived; a deep understanding of functions (the core goal of pre-calculus) does not depend upon all the typical methods presented in the albatross “Intermediate Algebra”.

A solid Mathematical Literacy course will involve some algebraic manipulation (limited in types as well as in complexity), and these procedures would be further enhanced Algebraic Literacy.  Therefore, the distinction between Math Lit & Algebraic Literacy can not be reduced to a particular ‘problem’ being present in one course but not the other.  We really want to keep the focus on the purposes of each course; see the ‘goals’ part of the course documents listed above.

If you have questions about the distinction between the two new courses, I would be glad to provide any information I have.

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