Good books are good for math

by Mary Hynes-Berry

The Early Mathematics Education Project finds that one sure fire way to warm up children’s attitude towards mathematics is to build math activities and lessons out of the books they all love to read.

When we start to sort through books that could be used in this way, three categories emerge.

One is the concept book, which is all those books specifically about shapes and counting and other mathematical concerns. Though they may belong to the same category, there are different types. For example, counting concept books can involve straightforward counting of items; that’s what happens in Sandra Boynton’s Doggies. In others, the counting occurs in the context of a story. Hippos Go Berserk is another Sandra Boynton book that uses this approach. In still other cases, the counting is part of a song or finger play such as 5 Little Monkeys.
See our previous article, “What kind of counting book is it?”

A second category of books good for math may look like typical picture books or stories, but these books all have a mathematical problem situation built right into them. This is so that it is easy to mathematize them,  using the story to trigger a mathematical discussion or activity. One of our favorites in this regard is Tikki Tikki Tembo, in which the problems Chang and his older brother have are the direct result of the comparative length of their names. Pat Hutchins’ The Doorbell Rang is another delicious example that children love to act out.

Finally, there are all kinds of wonderful stories that aren’t specifically mathematical but can be extended to develop understanding of mathematical Big Ideas. We have begun our learning labs about algebraic thinking by having the teachers list all the sets and patterns they can find in Goldilocks and the Three Bears. They report later on all the ways they could tailor this activity for use in their classrooms. In the Cinderella variation called The Talking Eggs by Robert San Souci, ornery students may like to make up story problems about how many treasures or nasty creatures came out of the eggs to reward or punish the kind and the mean daughter.

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