Q&A: Effective Math Instruction Using Children’s Literature

by Math Solutions Professional Learning Team, December 18th, 2013

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Carolyn Felux answered the following question about effective math instruction using children’s literature.

Q. I have an opportunity to work with my district’s language arts coordinator to help teachers use children’s literature in their mathematics instruction. Although I’ve witnessed a few remarkable math lessons using children’s books, my own experience with using literature to teach math is limited. I want to support teachers in providing thoughtful and effective math instruction using children’s literature. What advice can you give me?

A. Your question gives us the chance to share our thinking on a topic we’ve learned a lot about—teaching mathematics using children’s literature, especially literature that can be read aloud. Since 1992, when our first math and literature resource was published, we’ve devoted much energy and thought to resources and professional development experiences that help teachers teach math well using children’s books. Our response to you is organized around four questions that we are often asked by teachers.

  1. What is the value of spending instructional time in mathematics class using children’s books?

    Using literature as an instructional choice makes sense for a variety of reasons. Keeping those reasons in mind helps us choose and use literature in ways that strengthen our math instruction.

    Linking math instruction to children’s literature can:

    • Spark children’s interest in learning mathematics.
      Literature can motivate children by stimulating their imaginations in ways that textbook exercises and worksheets often don’t. Connecting math to literature can also build on the confidence of students who love books but are wary when it comes to math.

    • Provide contexts that bring meaning to mathematical ideas.
      Significant shifts in mathematics instruction are occurring to help students develop understanding of math ideas and make sense of the math they use. Well-chosen children’s books provide a setting for children to see mathematics in ways that can provide real meaning and personal connections.

    • Tie mathematics to another area of the curriculum.
      Aspects of literacy and mathematics require development of many of the same processes: classifying, recognizing patterns, analyzing relationships, organizing thoughts, solving problems, and justifying opinions and perspectives. Finding and using natural mathematical connections in quality children’s literature provide opportunities to develop and link the processes in these two content areas.

    • Support student understanding through communication.
      Children’s learning of mathematics is supported by communication. Investigation of mathematics through literature offers a natural way for students to connect the abstract ideas, language, and symbols of mathematics to a context they understand. As students listen, read, write, and talk about mathematics from these stories, teachers take opportunities to connect math terminology and symbols to the context. Teachers also support communication by asking students to explain their thinking and encouraging them to listen and respond to one another’s ideas.

  2. How do you choose books to use in math lessons?

    There is a wealth of children’s book available. However, when choosing among the many books available for math instruction, keep the following in mind:

    • Select books that are of a high quality from a literary perspective.
      Worthy pieces of literature have an engaging, imaginative story line. They are written in a style that invites children into the story and engages them. Their illustrations and graphics are appealing and relevant to the text and the book is appropriate for the intended audience with regard to readability and interest. Finally, quality literature presents positive ethical and cultural values.

    • Look for literature that presents content that is mathematically sound and grade-level appropriate.
      Teachers’ instructional decisions are influenced by the mathematics concepts and skills their students are expected to learn. Literature used in math class must provide meaningful and thought-provoking experiences that accurately represent the mathematics and are appropriate for the grade level. Look for books that will help students connect their knowledge, interests, and experiences to the mathematical content they must learn.

    • Carefully consider the potential the book has for helping students learn to think and reason mathematically.
      The primary reason for learning mathematics is to solve problems. Children’s literature books can offer engaging contexts for posing problems that provoke students to think and reason. The best of those books have one or more of the following characteristics: problems can be posed that have several different solutions, there are several different ways to arrive at one correct solution to a particular problem, or the story itself stimulates students to pose a variety of problems that they are interested in and can pursue.

  3. What experiences do teachers need to help them use literature in ways that support students’ learning?

    There are a variety of ways teachers can learn more about how to use literature in their classrooms. Common professional development experiences include workshop sessions, use of instructional resources, study groups, and collaboration with other teachers. Rather than address each of these strategies, we think it’s more important to consider aspects of professional development that we have learned are crucial no matter the type of experience.

    Professional learning opportunities for teachers that help them effectively use children’s literature in their mathematics instruction must address the following components:

    • how children learn;
    • mathematics content; and
    • effective instructional strategies.

    It is when teachers are confident in their knowledge of all three of these components that they are best able to meet the needs of their students and create an environment in which mathematical thinking flourishes.

    For more about these components of professional development, download the article “A Can of Coke Leads to a Piece of Pi,” by Marilyn Burns, featured in the Fall 2004 issue of JSD, the journal of the National Staff Development Council (NSDC).

  4. For those who are new to using literature, what resources are available?

    Although you did not ask for examples of worthwhile math experiences that use children’s literature books, we thought the following links would provide you a rich source of literature-based math lessons:

We appreciate the opportunity to respond to your question. Best wishes to you and your literacy colleague as you investigate avenues to support your teachers in linking children’s literature to their mathematics instruction.


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