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November 14, 2012 Teaching Math With Picture Books, Part 1 By Alycia Zimmerman
Grades PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5

    Story time has a special feel in a classroom. We all gather close on the carpet with open minds and hearts, ready to be transported into the world of imagination. During picture book read-alouds, children let down their guard — this is a time reminiscent of cuddling on Mom’s lap to hear a story.

    When we use picture books to support math lessons, students are not only excited to learn math in a different way, but they also come to associate the feel-good joy of reading with math. This week I’ll share some of the ways I use picture books to teach math, and next week, I’ll share my annotated list of favorite picture books for teaching math, complete with lesson ideas.

    (Also be sure to sign up for a free upcoming webinar with Marilyn Burns about teaching math with children’s literature!)


    Why Teach With Math Picture Books?

    More expert heads than mine have focused on the power of using picture books to teach mathematics. This article "Building a Teaching Bridge from Reading to Math" by Marilyn Burns clearly explains the parallels between teaching math and reading, as well as the importance of using reading to teach math. (Hint: Proficient reading and math are both all about compression.) She has also written an article "Why Use Children’s Books to Teach Math." Here are two reasons from my own experience.

    Picture Books Create Real-World Contexts for Math

    We have come a long way from giving students long pages of isolated computation problems. Our classroom teaching (and state assessments) focus on word problems and math in context. The mathematical problems and solutions that children encounter in picture books are deeper and more nuanced than most of the word problems they encounter.

    In A Remainder of One by Elinor Pinczes, poor Joe is constantly the odd man out in his squadron of twenty-five marching beetles. My students are captivated by Joe’s problem and eager to devise a solution so that Joe can join the rank and file. 

    Picture Books Entice the Math-Phobic

    We all have some students in our classrooms who are lively participants during reading and writing lessons, but during our math period they timidly drift to the back of the room. Their hands are weighted with the fear of making a mistake. It’s only 3rd grade, and already these students have negative feelings about math. 

    Math read-alouds can particularly help these students see math in a new light. A picture book is the perfect low-stress introduction to a new math subject.

    At the beginning of the year, I read Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith’s Math Curse to my class, and we discussed how we are surrounded by math — and by a proliferation of negative ideas about math. I asked my students to work in small groups to quickly make up a fun public service announcement-style commercial to perform for the class that promotes mathematics. My kids loved this chance to be creative and to voice positive messages about math.


    Who Has Time for Math Stories?

    Like most of you, I only have a scant four hours of instructional time each day with my students. I cherish every minute, and I definitely don’t have time for extra “stuff.” So how do I make time to squeeze in math picture books to my already crammed schedule? I don’t view math read-alouds as an extra component of my math lessons. On days when I am doing a math read-aloud, the read-aloud with accompanying class discussion is my math lesson!


    The Three Tiers of Math Picture Books

    As I sorted through the picture books I use for math lessons, I realized that the books fall into three tiers. I try to use a mixture of all three types of math picture books although I do tend to use more of the second tier than the other two. Do you have a preference?

    Ø  Tier 1: Fundamental Math Picture Books — These are books in which the math content is the primary purpose of the book. It either dominates the plotline (for fiction books), or is an informational math text. These books are generally read with the specific purpose of learning math content.

    Ø  Tier 2: Embedded Math Picture Books — These are books in which the plot has deliberate connections to math, but the story stands on its own as well. These books feel more natural as read-alouds, but may require the teacher to direct the focus onto the content connections.

    Ø  Tier 3: Connected Math Picture Books — These books do not have any explicit connections to math, but the teacher can create connections through think-alouds or class discussions. Sometimes, the teacher may challenge students to come up with the connections to math.


    From left to right, Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3 math picture books. I use a mix of each type in my classroom.


    Four Ways to Use Math Picture Books

    1: Math Picture Books to Introduce a New Topic

    I often feel awkward at the start of a new math unit — we were just learning about addition, why are we now talking about measurement? Students build deeper understandings when their learning is connected, and the “jumping around” inherent in many of our math curriculums doesn’t provide the logical connections.

    A picture book is often the perfect bridge. I front-load my units with several read-alouds; it allows the students to work their way up to thinking about a new topic through plenty of accessible conversations about the books we’re reading.

    I generally begin with a Tier 3 “Connected Picture Book” to establish a generalizable context, and then we work our way through Tier 2 and finally Tier 1 books. So for my measurement unit, we read through the following sequence of books, interspersed with other activities and lessons:


    Inch by Inch by Leo Lionni This beautiful, award-winning book helps students grapple with the philosophical question of what can and cannot be measured.

    Length by Henry Arthur Pluckrose pairs beautiful photos with interesting questions about how we measure height and length. I use this book as the inspiration for a photo-technology project where the students create their own photo montages that explore length.

    Actual Size by Steve Jenkins both excites children with surprising scientific facts about animal sizes and also launches a discussion about actual size versus scale drawings.

    Rold Myller’s classic How Big Is a Foot is the perfect introduction to standard units of measurement. Of course my students trace their own feet and use them to measure items around the classroom. Hilarity and confusion ensue as the students discover the problems with nonstandard units of measurement.


    2: Math Picture Books to Pose a Problem

    Sometimes I use a picture book to launch an activity or problem-solving experience. At times I just read the first half of a book until the problem is revealed, and then I ask the students to go off and work on possible solutions for the math scenario. After the students share out their work, we finish reading the book together.

    This sample lesson from the Scholastic series Math Reads shows how to use just one section from the book How Big Is It? to pose a meaningful problem as a math lesson.


    3: Math Picture Books as an Independent Learning Center

    When I create math centers, often I select a few math picture books that tie into our current math unit and create a math picture book center. I create a task, graphic organizer, or writing prompt for each book, and the students read the books independently and complete the accompanying work.


    4: Math Picture Books as Writing Models

    Children LOVE to personify shapes and numbers. After reading The Greedy Triangle by Marilyn Burns, my students were eager to write their own stories with shapes as the characters. From a book about an ostracized trapezoid who was sad he wasn’t a parallelogram, to one in which an equilateral triangle campaigns for equal rights from some biased scalene and isosceles triangles, my students amazed me with both their creativity and their grasp of geometry!






    Organizing Math Books in the Classroom

    In addition to a math basket in my classroom library, I also display an ever-changing selection of math picture books in a bookstand near the math corner in my classroom. I also keep a “secret stash” of math books that I reserve for read-alouds in a closet so that I can get my hands on each of the books as I need them for lessons.





    Additional Resources

    Download this Instructor magazine article by math guru Marilyn Burns in which she shares three dynamic lessons that use picture books to teach math topics.

    Teaching Early Math Skills With Picture Books includes twenty fully scripted lessons for using popular children’s literature to teach math. Check out this sample lesson that uses Blueberries for Sal to help primary grade mathematicians explore composing and decomposing numbers.

    Sign up for a free webinar by Marilyn Burns this Thursday, November 15, "Using Children’s Literature to Teach Math"!


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