Under Five, February 2004

Using Stories to Teach Mathematics

Fiona Cartmell is a leading maths teacher and an Advanced Skills Teacher specialising in Early Years and KS1 maths education. She recently developed ten new maths storybooks called Numberline Lane. Fiona highlights how stories and maths can be used in conjunction to each other to aid in the mathematical development of a child and provide the child with certain benefits. Would this be something you would incorporate in your setting?

Why use stories to teach mathematics?

Children enjoy books from a very early age. The colours and pictures initially attract them, and later the storylines and characters. Stories make anything seem possible with just a little imagination. The unfolding of a story is as enjoyable as its conclusion, and children quickly find fun and excitement. This makes stories a good way to help children to develop mathematical ideas. Using stories in this way can help children to see the relevance of mathematics in their own lives. Stories can feature as strongly in promoting children's mathematical development as the other activities used for this purpose, such as physical activities (e.g. following directions, counting skips or jumps), music (e.g. clapping a repeated rhythm, singing mathematical songs), and art (e.g. creating patterns and shapes). Stories can show children how numbers, measuring and shapes help us with every day tasks. These practical examples of using maths give children a good foundation for the understanding of abstract concepts which later stages of their mathematical development will require of them.

The pictures in a storybook can offer many opportunities for the development of mathematical discussion as the story progresses. Stories can help visual learners, as well as auditory learners, to remember and understand mathematical ideas. For example, Rosie's Walk can be used to explore positional language with children and to help them to understand what it represents. Maths should be a part of children's daily life, not only explicitly but also as an integral part of living. Stories can be used at any time of the day. For example they can be read at breakfast, enjoyed during short story times, or shared with a parent at bedtime.

Development of vocabulary is an essential part of learning. Maths has words that are unique to the subject. Words such as minus, add, square, and symmetry are rarely used in children's everyday life. However, if these words are gently introduced through stories, children will have a picture of what we use them to represent. This will help children to be more comfortable with them when they meet them again in later learning.

Parents are sometimes unsure how to develop their child's mathematical learning at home. Opportunities for maths at home are countless, through such activities as cooking, pairing socks, or counting stairs. Teaching maths through stories is a non-threatening way for parents to continue their child's mathematical learning.

How to use a story to teach mathematics

A mathematically themed story can be shared on a one-to-one basis or in a group. In both situations It is important to match the questions and discussions to children's stage of mathematical development. For example, with the Hungry Caterpillar for children, who are at the stage of becoming familiar with the order in which we use numbers to count, helping them to use the number sequence correctly to count what he ate on each day will be appropriate. However, children who are confident with using the number order could use counting to find out how much he ate each day and to talk about him eating one more thing each day.

A book can be read purely as an enjoyable story without any direct questioning or discussion of the mathematical content. The child will however still be absorbing visual clues and vocabulary as the story unfolds. The book may be used to show children how numerals and ideas such as more or less are used. In this way children can begin to put together the ideas which lead to an understanding of number operations.

Using illustrations in a book can further develop mathematical vocabulary and questioning. Look for opportunities to count things on a page e.g. 'how many windows are there?', or use positional vocabulary e.g. 'what is behind...?' or 'who is in between...?'. Use comparative vocabulary when questioning e.g. 'can you see something smaller than...?' or 'is there anything taller than...?'

If there is a number on the page, ask the child to show the correct number of fingers or count up to the number aloud. Can they think of a number that is greater or less than the number on the page? Use shape or spatial vocabulary e.g. 'can you see anything in the picture that is round?' or 'point to something with straight sides.'

Storylines that develop a problem are a wonderful opportunity to encourage a child to think through what the problem is and why it needs solving. They can then investigate different strategies to reveal the solution. The end of the story could be saved for later, allowing the children an opportunity to try to solve the problem for themselves. This could be done through simple discussion or using role-play, equipment and drawings. The solution to the problem in the story can then be revealed at the end of the activity. A story can guide children's thinking when solving problems. When setting the problem, it is essential to give children time to think. Go over the story so far with them to clarify how the problem arose as well as what the problem is. If the children are unsure how to progress, read a little more as a pointer to the solution, or make the problem more real by bringing it to life with role-play.

Once the solution in the story has been found, re-cap on how the problem came about in the first place. The purpose for the problem solving is essential to a child's development in being able to identify problems and strategies for soliving them.

How to develop the mathematics further

Once the story has been read, look for opportunities to relate the story to other experiences the children may come across. Use practical activities involving a character or setting from the story. This will help the children to remember the story and the mathematical ideas which it illustrated. For example, reading The Enormous Turnip could lead to activities involving working out how to handle very heavy or large objects. Encourage consolidation of the concepts from the book at home through further practical ideas. Include activities for both inside and outside the home.

What stories can be used?

Most storybooks have no specific mathematical content, but their illustrations and storylines can lead to opportunities for mathematical discussion. A useful list of suitable storybooks can be found at http://www.tasc.ac.uk/depart/EDUCATIO/primary/maths/story/list.PDF

There are some books specifically written with mathematical content contained in their stories, such as the Numberline Lane series (www.NumberlineLane.co.uk).

The bottom line

Using stories to teach maths has many advantages. While a child is enjoying the narrative or pictures, maths can be taught at any suitable level. Linking the maths to the story helps both teaching and learning. If just a couple of mathematically based questions are asked when sharing a book with children, they will soon develop their mathematical awareness, vocabulary and understanding with increasing excitement, purpose and fun.

Website by Fonant
Last update 8 Mar 2021