Choosing Mathematics & Mathematical Literacy – everything you need to know

6 min read   •   July 29, 2021
Elmien Ackerman – Copywriter

In our blog series, we will be exploring the various subjects offered by Impaq in the FET Phase (Grades 10 – 12). We spoke to education specialists Lientjie Young and Kimberley Britz to learn more about Mathematics and Mathematical Literacy as subjects.

Mathematics vs Mathematical Literacy

While choosing subjects in Grade 9, many learners are unsure of the difference between Mathematics (MAM) and Mathematical Literacy (MAL). We asked Young and Britz to explain the differences between these two subjects below:


“Mathematics deals with theories and abstract concepts that are not necessarily encountered in everyday life,” Young explains. “It is a study of numbers and shapes and the relationships between them,” she adds. Simply put, Mathematics is a language that attempts to describe the world in abstract terms that can be modified and, therefore, often simplified in this language. Topics include:

  • Algebra
  • Basic calculus
  • Statistics
  • Geometry
  • Trigonometry
Mathematical Literacy

“In contrast to Mathematics, Mathematical Literacy deals with conventional real-world situations,” Britz says. “In short, it is an ‘everyday’ kind of Mathematics, as there is a direct connection between Mathematical Literacy and everyday life,” Britz adds. Topics include:

  • Budgeting
  • Interest calculations
  • Profit and losses
  • Break-even points
  • Data handling

Divide and conquer

In the FET Phase, Mathematics is a compulsory subject for South African learners. However, learners may choose between Mathematics and Mathematical Literacy when making their subject selections in Grade 9. Let’s take a closer look at the pros and cons of each subject:


“Mathematics is one of the most important subjects [to consider taking] for university degree purposes,” Young explains. Many university degrees, particularly in the natural sciences and commerce, require Mathematics.

Mathematics can be very difficult for many learners, but it can also be very beneficial in many areas related to cognition, such as problem-solving. “As learners of Mathematics are provided with the opportunity to develop their [various cognitive skills], it can become challenging in a number of ways,” Young says. She adds that the need for additional assistance, such as a tutor, may be required to help the learner master the subject.

Read more: How do I choose a tutor for my child?

Mathematical Literacy

“Mathematical Literacy enables learners to use numbers to solve real-world problems and equips them with the ability to interpret and critically analyse everyday situations,” Britz explains.

She adds that depending on the career path chosen, it may be more challenging for learners who choose Mathematical Literacy to get accepted into specific university degree courses such as medicine or accounting. However, this does not mean that Mathematical Literacy is not a valid subject choice, particularly for learners who are more artistically or linguistically inclined. With Mathematical Literacy, learners are still very much able to pursue fruitful careers if traditional STEM fields are not right for them.

Limit breakers

So, how do you know which subject is right for you? Young and Britz provide a few factors to consider below:

Consider your other subject choices

“When making your subject selections in Grade 9 and deciding whether to choose Mathematics or Mathematical Literacy, consider your other subject choices,” Young advises. Mathematics is compulsory when taking Physical Sciences and highly recommended when selecting the following subjects:

However, Mathematical Literacy is suitable for most arts and social sciences subjects such as Hospitality Studies and Visual Arts and often benefits learners who choose these types of subjects.

Explore your study options

“Learners should also ensure that they know what the Mathematics requirements are for further study at tertiary institutions,” Young says. “As said earlier, taking Mathematics with Agricultural Sciences is not compulsory, but if a learner wants to study BSc Agricultural or Veterinary Sciences, Mathematics will be required,” she adds. However, Mathematics is not required for degrees such as an LLB (law) or BEd. (Bachelor of Education). Therefore, learners are encouraged to do their research about their chosen study field before selecting Mathematics or Mathematical Literacy in Grade 9.

Ensure that you understand what is expected of you

“It is vitally important for learners to understand what each subject entails before making their choice,” Britz says. “Both subjects require hard work, and learners should ensure that they have all the support they need to master the subject,” she adds. Learners are encouraged to talk to Impaq’s education specialists to see how their attitude towards mathematics and their previous marks in the subject will determine their choice and what additional support they may need.

Also read: The importance of practice in your learning journey


2 ∞ & Beyond

Your future career choice will undoubtedly affect your subject selections. Therefore, it is essential to explore career options in the different fields before making your choice.


Mastering a subject such as Mathematics will allow you to apply your knowledge in many fields. Mathematics plays an important role in fields such as:

  • Medicine
  • Genetics
  • Agriculture
  • Engineering

There are also many job options for individuals with a qualification in Mathematics. These include:

  • Investment risk and performance analyst
  • Supply and demand planner
  • Teacher or lecturer
  • Business analyst
  • Research statistician
Mathematical Literacy

Mathematical Literacy, on the other hand, will prepare you for real-life problem solving such as:

  • Budgeting
  • Purchasing property and other assets, including bond repayment amounts, transfer fees and legal fees
  • Calculating income tax
  • Reading and interpreting statistics in everyday life

These are valuable skills to master for your future financial life and to help you find solutions to everyday problems.

With Mathematical Literacy learners can go on to specialise and succeed in a wide variety of fields that do not require ‘pure’ Mathematics, such as:

  • Teaching, academia, and instructional design
  • Advertising and marketing
  • Law and legal practice
  • Writing and publishing
  • TV, radio, and film
  • Politics and advocacy

Choosing between Mathematics and Mathematical Literacy is a big decision, so ensure that you do your research and make the best choice for you! You might also want to consider completing an online career questionnaire to help you identify your interests and skills.