Using Stories to Support Mathematical Thinking in Young Students
Children’s books often contain valuable lessons that can help young students begin to think like mathematicians.
Many students and teachers view math as a subject for numbers and computation, instead of one that benefits from discussion and interpretation. Based on our experience as children’s literature and mathematics teacher-educators, we’ve found that providing the context to mathematical problems through literature supports students’ learning—children’s books can be used to integrate math and literacy and to provide context for math.
For example, the books When Sophie Thinks She Can’t, a story about a little girl who discovers the importance of struggle, and Blue, a story about the history of the color blue, are great examples of books that integrate mathematical thinking into storytelling.
USING LITERATURE TO SUPPORT MATHEMATICAL THINKING
1. Selecting books to support mathematical thinking: First, find books that have a worthy math problem to discuss or a story to connect to a math problem in your curriculum. Context is one of the most important parts of choosing a book. If the problem is not challenging or accessible enough for students, think about ways to revise the problem. We advocate for low-threshold, high-ceiling problems, which allow access for all students with their previous knowledge and build more knowledge and challenge all students.
When Sophie Thinks She Can’t, by Molly Bang, poses a worthwhile math task, asking Sophie and her friends to form as many different rectangles with 12 tiles as they can. Because she can’t figure out the solution to the problem, her teacher says, “You can’t figure it out yet,” which encourages her to keep trying. This book is a perfect example of a mathematical problem that is easily seen in the context of the story and encourages the notion of the power of yet as a problem-solving technique.
In many books, the math problem is not as easily seen. As a teacher, you may not think that most books have some type of mathematical focus within them, but upon close examination, you can discover that many of them can be part of your math curriculum. For example, Blue, written by Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond and illustrated by Daniel Minter, can be connected to an examination of patterns and shapes in textile designs. Working with different shades of blue papers, students could be asked to create patterns by folding the papers and study the patterns that they created mathematically. Studying the relationships between the number of folds and partitions in the final shape would take this task to a higher ceiling.
2. Critically examining literature: Teachers should spend time critically examining their texts; as Maria José Botelho and Masha Kabakow Rudman advise, teachers should read beyond the words in the text and make connections between local, sociopolitical, personal, and mathematical content. Teachers can ask questions like the following:
- Whose story is this? How might it relate to students’ mathematical stories?
- Through what point of view is this story told?
- What mathematical concepts shape the story?
- How are mathematical tasks and understandings established?
The first two questions help students relate to the issues, topics, and questions they may have about the story. The last two questions help students think like a mathematician. For example, Blue is told from a historical perspective and touches on classism throughout time. By examining the book closely, teachers can pull out the patterns in the illustrations and ask students to create mathematical patterns on their own—this is shown throughout this book and particularly on the endpapers.
This picture book provides so many historical background understandings of who cultivated the materials to make the color blue and who had access to textiles made from blue dyes. By leading the students through the questions above, teachers will help them begin to see math in all things and begin to think like mathematicians.
3. Designing a lesson to integrate literacy and mathematics: It’s beneficial to think ahead about questions for both disciplines that can help students extend and guide their thinking; in previous work, we developed a full lesson with content-specific questions. Asking students to analyze or interpret their peers’ mathematical work and making connections to the text would also extend students’ thinking. After coming up with their own set of rectangles with 12 tiles, students can compare their rectangles with the rectangles created by their peers or by Sophie and her friends. This can lead to a discussion of how similar or different all of the rectangles are.
MORE BOOKS THAT PROMOTE MATHEMATICAL THINKING
A variety of books can be used to support math and STEM understanding through discussion and literature. Below are a few of our favorite books for pre-K through third grade.
Circle Dogs, written by Kevin Henkes, illustrated by Dan Yaccarino. Exploring shapes through a day in the life of two dachshunds. Perfect read-aloud for a geometry unit! Pair this with Hot Dog (below) to help your students make text-to-text connections.
Bean Thirteen, written and illustrated by Matthew McElligott. This book explores the concept of division with the tribulations that the two characters encounter as they work their way through a problem. A great way to engage children in discussions of trying to work through problem-solving.
Hot Dog, written and illustrated by Doug Salati. This 2023 Caldecott-winning book explores a day in the life of a dog as readers are taken on an adventure throughout an urban setting to find solitude for the owner and the dog in a noisy city. A wonderful way to look at mapping.
A Land of Books: Dreams of Young Mexihcah Word Painters, written and illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh. This story focuses on the creation of books by the Indigenous people of Mexico, exploring their knowledge, culture, and history. Readers can dig deeply into the illustrations and see how precise measurement, geometry, and special relationships of mathematical concepts enhance the telling of this story.
We hope these ideas and books will support you as you provide meaningful conversations with your students by integrating mathematical understandings through children’s literature.