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  • Writer's pictureCarrie S. Cutler

Using Picture Books in Math Instruction

Updated: Oct 28, 2021

I love books! And I love math! Seriously, can you ever have too many books or too much math in your life? No way! (Also, I think it is impossible to have too much chocolate.)

Carefully-selected picture books can set the stage for engaged, connected learning in math. Did you know that, even more than reading ability, mastering early math skills predicts later school success (Duncan et al. 2007)? Like me, you probably love sharing picture books with your children, but you may feel less confident when it comes to math. Parents and math teachers, help bridge something you love, literacy, with rich math learning by using picture books.

1. Find the Math in Your Favorite Books

Books rich in number, measurement, geometry, and problem solving contexts are probably already sitting on your shelf. These books connect to kids' interests, prior experiences, and funds of math knowledge. They provide new schema for mathematical ideas, vocabulary, and processes like problem solving, communication, connections and reasoning.

Plus, kids don't necessarily differentiate between math time and reading time,

so you can squeeze more math and more reading into your day!

To get started, look at your favorite picture books from a math standpoint. For example, at first glance the adventures of Scaredy Squirrel (Watt, 2006) may not seem math-y. But with creativity, Scaredy can connect reading to math inquiry. In the story, Scaredy Squirrel's fears of poisonous plants and creepy creatures keep him isolated in his tree, adhering to a strict routine of safety protocols and emergency preparedness. To explore classification (a big idea in math), children could brainstorm things they are afraid of and not afraid of. They could make lists of things that are helpful or not helpful in an emergency, using the illustrations in the book as a guide or classify animals that live in trees or on the ground. They could count the leaves on a playground tree or measure the height from its lowest branch. To integrate engineering design with math, they could design a parachute with patterned decoration and launch it. Following up reading a fun book with a fun math activity helps build math-positive mindsets. While it takes practice to develop, seeing the math-potential of picture books can add more math to your shared reading routine.

2. Be Choosy about Math-themed Books

Remember the TV show American Bandstand? Every week host Dick Clark asked a few teenage audience members to rate two new albums. The reviewers typically gave a vague response, falling back on the quip, "It's got a good beat, and I can dance to it." The evaluation never had much punch and eventually became a running joke. The same can happen when we try to describe what we like (or don't like) about a book. We often go with our gut. "It's got a good story, and kids can dig it." When we aren't thoughtful about the books we share with kids, we may miss opportunities for rich mathematical discussions and connections. And let's face it, not every book is worth the tree that sacrificed for its printing.

Here is a simple rubric for helping you make informed decisions about selecting picture books to use in math instruction (credit to Hellwig, Jacobs, and Monroe, 2000). Using this rubric as a guide gives you eyes for seeing what's important in a math-themed picture book. If a book scores high on most of these touch points, it might be a great fit for your lesson.

In math-themed picture books, the author clearly wants to expose children to math ideas and shows contexts where math helps characters solve problems. This can be done artfully or didactically. Choose books that you and your children find funny, clever, and interesting. Just because a book title includes the words math or counting doesn't necessarily mean the book contains rich mathematical ideas. In fact, some of those books are just plain boring. Choosing a low-quality book may have a counterproductive effect, leaving a bad math-taste in kids' mouths.

Instead, reach for a book that with vibrant illustrations, a compelling story, relatable characters and settings, and problems that kids care about.

3. Sharing Picture Books in Math

Now that you have a "good" book in hand, you're ready to share it with children. Marilyn Burns suggests initially reading the book aloud to your children straight through as the author intended without pausing. Doing this keeps the flow and continuity of the story and makes the experience quick and enjoyable. Then, after kids are familiar with the story, you can start to fully explore the math inside.

Here are a few tips that will help the math in picture books come alive.

* Draw attention to the math by describing, explaining, and wondering aloud as you read.

Take the classic wordless book Good Night, Gorilla (Rathmann, 1996) which follows a night watchman as he does his evening rounds at the zoo. The animals sneak out of their pens and into the watchman's bed--until the watchman's wife discovers the menagerie and sends them marching back to the zoo. As you read, point out the order of the animals. Who is first? Who is second? Who is third? Talk about the sizes of animals and their pens. After you read, children can use stuffed animals to practice ordinal numbers as they retell the story. They can research the actual size of a gorilla's hand print and compare it to their own using nonstandard units. They can order the zoo animals by size and build habitats with blocks comparing the areas needed for larger and smaller animals.

* Connect children to the math in the story by asking open-ended questions.

In the story Good Night, Gorilla, the animals are all different sizes. Do you have some friends who are taller than you are? How can you tell who is taller? What other ways can we measure our sizes? Encourage children to put their ideas into words using informal and formal language.

* Follow up with a rich math activity.

Planned activities extend children's learning beyond casual curiosity to deep understanding. Taking a book past its intention as entertainment gives children innumerable possibilities for connecting to mathematical ideas.

Here are some videos highlighting a few books I love. I've matched a simple math activity that engages kids in the math in authentic, inquiry-based ways. Most of these ideas are geared toward preschool to 2nd graders. For more ideas for young kids and ideas for later elementary grades, see my new book Math-Positive Mindsets: Growing a Child's Mind without Losing Yours. You can also find more videos of awesome math-themed books on my YouTube channel.

A Second is a Hiccup (Hutchins, 2007)

describes time in child-friendly terms: “A second is a hiccup—The time it takes to kiss your mom.” A minute is long enough to “sing just one small song.”

For this activity, all you need is a stopwatch. Instructions: Have children experience activities for one minute. Record how many times they can jump, walk to the classroom door and back, and/or put together a puzzle. Record the results and talk about the passage of time--one minute. In this video, my son Knox chose to jump for one minute. What movements will your children choose? They will love learning math while moving. (Also, I think Knox has his finger in his nose in this picture. Gross. Sorry. Just keepin' it real, baby.)

Steve Jenkins' book Actual Size (2011) has engaging illustrations and foldouts that help children make size comparisons as they learn the actual sizes of some unusual animals and their body parts. All you need for this activity is a measuring tape and some yarn. Instructions: Cut pieces of ribbon, yarn, or paper to the lengths of some of the animals in the book and label them. In this video, my son Knox chose the tarantula and the tongue of the giant anteater, but you may want to include up to five different animals. Have children put the strings in order from longest to shortest.

Zero is a tricky concept that can be difficult for kids to grasp, because they just don't get much experience with it. They never say, "I have zero crackers left." Even when they play rockets taking off, they say, "Blastoff" instead of zero when counting down. So, you have to give them lots of direct experience with zero. In this video, I share one of my favorite picture books Zero is the Leaves of the Tree (Franco, 2009). It gives lots of beautiful examples of zero, including the sound a snowflake makes when it hits your mitten. Zero sounds! Beautiful! Instructions: Follow up reading the book by going on a walk around your house or classroom. Ask children to count items such as 5 books or 3 bottles of glue. Then ask them to find how many crocodiles are in your house/classroom or how many purple aliens there are lurking around. Zero! Ask them to clap 3 times and hop 5 times and scream at the top of their lungs 0 times. Add zero to your dice too. Kids need more zero!

4. More Reading Can Lead to More Math

Books connect, teach, and motivate children as budding mathematicians. Books may specifically teach math, entertain but still offer math ideas for exploring, and include pictures that serve as springboards to mathematical learning.

When we're choosy about books, share them thoughtfully, and plan intentional follow up activities we bring math in the pages to life!

If you like these ideas, hit subscribe. And find many more tips in my book Math-Positive Mindsets: Growing a Child's Mind without Losing Yours and in the chapter I wrote for the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics' publication Deepening Student's Mathematical Understanding with Children's Literature. Check them out!


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