Using Literature to Teach Math

When we think about tackling math with young children, literature isn’t necessarily the first answer which comes to mind.

We turn to literature, of course, to

  • teach the cadence of language,
  • introduce vocabulary, colors, and animals,
  • explain community and geography, and
  • practice themes of empathy and kindness.

When we read aloud to toddlers and preschoolers, we’re giving them a front row seat to a whole range of vividly imaginative life experiences. Yet when it comes to preschool and kindergarten math, there’s a temptation to

  • push aside the stories,
  • move into a serious mode, and
  • set the expectations that what we’re about to teach is going to be hard.

Why is that? Why are we so culturally conditioned to relegate math off into a separate area of life, difficult and distinct from every other discipline?

Early Numeracy and Math Skills Are Often Overlooked in the Shadow of Literacy

Despite more and more research revealing the importance of numeracy in early childhood, many continue to treat math as though it were only for the select few, spending very little time on early numeracy development. But can you imagine if we treated literacy the same way? We go to great lengths to foster early literacy skills, and subsequently view literacy as generally universal; yet view math as an elusive, esoteric field of study. It’s not one or the other, of course. We can meet young students’ literacy needs as well as their numeracy needs.

Our Own Negative Beliefs About Math Have A Harmful Impact

Britain’s National Numeracy organization reported: “Negative attitudes, rather than a lack of innate talent, are at the root of our numeracy crisis. In order for people individually – and the country as a whole – to improve and in turn benefit from raised levels of numeracy, our attitudes have to change. It is culturally acceptable…to be negative about maths, in a way that we don’t talk about other life skills.”

The good news is, we can start changing the mindset about math at a very early age. Using literature to introduce mathematical concepts is a gentle method which

  • cultivates number sense through natural conversation,
  • creates an awareness of how math permeates everyday life,
  • treats numeracy with equal importance to literacy, and
  • recognizes mathematical thinking as separate from mathematical operations,

all while honoring an already-rich, established tradition of reading to our children.

Mathematics is often Confused with Arithmetic

Perhaps our hesitancy to introduce numeracy and math conversationally through literature stems from an incomplete understanding of what math really us. Ask most people to recall a memory of math from their elementary days, and they’ll respond with a memory of timed drills or multiplication tables. If that’s our collective perception of math, it’s no wonder we keep it far away from board books and early storytime.

But arithmetic operations —

  • addition,
  • subtraction,
  • multiplication, and
  • division facts

— are only one aspect of math. Arithmetic deals with calculations, yes, but mathematics is the exploration of all the abstract, wild, and wonderful ways numbers and space work together. While arithmetic refers to calculations, mathematics refers to thinking conceptually and mathematically. (This emphasis on thinking conceptually is one of the reasons Singapore Math works best for our family.)

Calculation Speed is Not a Reflection of Mathematical Ability

When we imagine a math whiz kid, we might picture someone with an eidetic memory of the times tables, able to act as a human calculator at a moment’s notice. But the truth is,

  • the ability to calculate quickly, and
  • the ability to grasp abstract mathematical concepts

are not the same thing. In fact, mathematicians aren’t always the speediest when it comes to calculating facts.

Before the multiplication unit in the second grade Singapore Math course, the Home Instructor’s Guide warns,

“Students who are quite good at math concepts have difficult memorizing math facts. They can become quite fast at calculating them. If your student is like that, don’t assume he is a poor math student just because he does not have instant recall of math facts….Speed with math facts is not equivalent to mathematical ability, but simply helps with speed.”

Calculation does not give us a complete picture of math.

Curiosity is a Key Component of Numeracy

When we realize that math encompasses not just calculations, but also thinking analytically, we’re freed up to move natural discussions of numeracy, geometry, and number sense into storytime. Dr. Rachel McAnallen describes it this way: “Arithmetic is answering the question, whereas mathematics is questioning the answer.” Simply by talking with children as we read their favorite books — by asking them questions and encouraging them to do the same — we can lay the foundation for mathematical thinking.

But how do we do this? What kind of questions do we ask? What books do we use? While there are a plethora of overtly math-themed storybooks featuring anthropomorphic numerals as main characters, we can actually begin by using books we already have. Remember, math is everywhere, and mathematics is about the relationship between quantities and space. As you read to your child, begin thinking about the numeracy concepts already interwoven into the stories.

Asking Questions While Reading Aloud Can Jumpstart Mathematical Thinking

For instance, we can look at the number of storybook characters on the left side of the page and on the right side of the page and ask,

  • How many children (or animals, or trees, etc) are on the left side of the page?
  • How many are on the right side?
  • Which side has more?
  • Which side has fewer?
  • How many would we have to move if we wanted each page to have an equal number of objects?
  • Would we have to add to or take away from this side? How about the other side?

On a page with a group of objects, we can ask questions such as

  • Which one of these isn’t a toy (animal, person, etc)? Which one doesn’t belong in this set?
  • Which items are red? Can you count them?
  • Do you see any objects which are almost the same?
  • What makes these items similar? What makes them different?

In books where the same number of storybook characters or objects appear close together on one page and further apart on the next page, we can ask

  • How many people are on this page?
  • How many people on the next page?
  • Are there still the same number of people on this page, even though they are further apart?

This concept can be extended throughout the book.

  • Let’s count the number of plates on this table. If we picked up all the plates, and counted them again, would the number of plates remain the same?

We can also explore the concepts of size and space through asking questions such as

  • Which is bigger, the boy or the cat?
  • What if the cat climbed up in the tree?
  • Is the cat bigger than the boy now?
  • Is the ladder taller than the tree?
  • Is the tree taller than the boy?
  • Is the mouse smaller than the cat?
  • Which one is the smallest animal?
  • Where is the tallest person?

Once you begin this delightful and inquisitive journey, you’ll find that even stories you’d never before associated with math are now teeming with possibilities.

  • How many cups of tea could we pour back into that pitcher before it overflowed?
  • Would the quilt on the bed fit into the shopping bag? How about if we folded it up, and then tried again to fit it into the shopping bag?
  • Can we count the raindrops on this page?
  • Can we count the raindrops outside our window?

It’s important to note that these questions are not quizzes, seeking an instant rote response (arithmetic), but are invitations to explore (mathematics). As you ask, listen to the child’s response, and prompt any additional observations needed to solve the situation. How wonderful it is that we can utilize the beautiful connection between literacy and numeracy to

  • invoke inquisitiveness,
  • encourage curiosity,
  • boost problem-solving skills,
  • foster mathematical thinking,
  • break down the old belief that math is difficult and meant for only a select few,

and build a positive attitude toward mathematics, long before arithmetic ever enters the picture!

About Gina Munsey

Gina Munsey is a Mexico-born, Eastern Europe-raised missionary kid who ended up in Nashville, Tennessee. A blogger for 16+ years, editor, magazine contributor, co-op teacher, and writer who has only completed four chapters of her languishing memoir, Gina spends her days full of coffee and adventures while helping her asynchronous daughter with Chinese homework. On any given day you can find them both in the middle of [home]school surrounded by stacks and stacks of books.

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