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V.9 #1 Mathematics - Let’s Read Mathematics: The Power of Interdisciplinary Connections

Brought to you by Learning Disabilities Worldwide (LDW®) through the generosity of Saint Joseph's University.

The ability to think mathematically is critical in this technologically advancing society. Integrating children’s literature into mathematics instruction is one of the methods to make this vision a reality. The integration of literature into mathematics is a powerful vehicle that can be a useful approach to empower mathematics. Mathematics should be a living, exciting activity for children. It can give them a tool for solving real problems and a way of looking at and communicating about their world that adds understanding and insight. When students connect mathematical ideas, they exhibit a deeper understanding (NCTM, 2000; 2014). Foundations of language and mathematical ideas are developed in the elementary grades and connections teachers can make are critical to children’s development. Therefore, the connection of children’s literature with the development of mathematical concepts and communication should not be overlooked by classroom teachers (Moyer, 2000).

There is a natural mathematics-literature connection. Mathematical ideas are present in literature of all kinds, and indeed the purposes or functions of mathematics and literature are closer than might at first appear (Ezell, 1997). There are many similarities in the purposes of mathematics and children’s literature in content as well as structure; therefore, a bridge can be made between the two subject matters. They both involve looking for relationships and patterns, a concern for classification and problem solving, and have aesthetic appeal (Griffiths & Clyne, 1988). One function of mathematics is to order the world around us and children’s books bring order to the world well. These links should be explored to make more effective the understanding of both mathematics and literature.

Children’s Development and the Mathematics-Literature Connection Visual learners. Many children have trouble learning mathematics. One reason might be because these children are visual learners. This may be the result of growing up in a visual society (Murphy, 2000). Whatever the reason, picture books can help these children learn mathematics by explaining concepts visually, with carefully made diagrams, and illustrations. Teachers can encourage young children to create diagrams of mathematics-related ideas and display them in the classroom. Additionally, children can create books and posters that communicate mathematical ideas. Abstract ideas become readily understood when children are encouraged to create visuals that illustrate these ideas. Picture books can provide models for this kind of visual interpretation of a mathematical concept (Murphy, 2000).

English language development. Because the United States is so ethnically diverse, some children have limited English proficiency and they do not understand the new words and phrases that describe a mathematical idea. The illustrations in well-conceived children’s books give clues to the meaning of new words. In storybooks that include mathematical themes, diagrams often specifically demonstrate the main ideas and provide meaning to the vocabulary associated with those ideas. Learning mathematics through such stories can be a wonderful and positive experience for children who have limited English language proficiency or who are learning mathematics in English while they learn English as a second language (Murphy, 2000).

Social cognition. Social cognition theorists, such as Vygotsky, suggest that through socially meaningful activity, higher mental processes and ideas occur (Kozulin, 1990). Vygotsky (1978) advocated the use of signs and tools, identifying them as having a mediating function. Through signs, the learner is able to internalize the meaning bound in socially shared ideas. Sign systems may include language, systems of counting, mnemonics, and algebraic symbols. The internalization by children of these culturally acceptable structures shows the development of a higher level of cognitive processing, thereby developing language including the language of mathematics (Vygotsky, 1978). Children’s literature allows children to internalize these sign systems through real-world contexts. When language skills are embedded in meaningful contexts, they are easier and more enjoyable for children to learn. In the same way, numbers and their operations, when embedded in meaningful real-world contexts, give children the opportunity to make sense of mathematics and to gain mathematical power (Moyer, 2000).

Mathematics anxiety. Sheila Tobias (1993) explains in her book, Overcoming Math Anxiety, that we hear a lot about math anxiety in teenagers and adults. She states that millions of Americans are still letting fear of mathematics limit their career options and their pleasures in life. But mathematics anxiety starts earlier than the teenage and adult years; it begins when children are young. Mathematics can cause anxiety because of its abstraction. Many elementary students are not yet ready to be involved with abstract concepts and logical problems [See SSL 2015, 8(2) Gujarati, for additional information on mathematics anxiety]. Generally, mathematics in schools is not as integrated as other subjects and therefore mathematics is not as easily applied throughout the curriculum. Children’s literature can help to alleviate some of this anxiety since “[it] provides an exciting way to investigate [math] concepts and to understand the basic generalizations that underlie a mathematical view of the world” (Murphy, 2000, p.52).

Some Tips for Selecting Children’s Literature

Utilizing children’s literature to enhance mathematics instruction in the elementary grades has been shown to increase understanding of mathematics concepts (patterns, measurement, fractions, probability, estimation, and graphing), critical thinking, and problem solving skills by making mathematics a living and exciting tool that relates to children’s lived experiences (Moyer, 2000). Weaving literature into mathematics is a wonderful way to tap the talents of all students, no matter what their ability levels may be (Thrailkill, 1994). Marilyn Burns, a nationally known and award-winning mathematics educator, advocates the use of children’s books to motivate students to think mathematically (Burns, 1992). However, not all books are made to fit mathematical concepts and should not be twisted in order to fit mathematically (Christian, 2000).

Care should be taken in order to select quality literature to promote mathematics understanding. Good literature should afford the possibility of drawing out the students’ voices. It should also give children an opportunity to raise questions, make personal connections, frame mathematical ideas, and extend stories in their own ways (Whitin, 2002). Good literature also stirs the imagination and has an aesthetic element that helps readers see the common in uncommon ways (Whitin, 2002). Gailey (1993) classifies children’s trade books suitable for supplementing mathematics into four broad categories: counting books used to develop and reinforce counting and number concepts, number books which emphasize a specific number, miscellaneous story books such as a fairy or folk tales which may include a mathematical concept, and informational books which explore a specific mathematical concept. In summary, good books enrich our daily living and deepen our appreciation of what it means to view the world mathematically. The literature should be interesting and meaningful, providing children with a familiar structure and the use of numbers and language to understand and use problem-solving strategies in the real world.

Examples of Mathematics-Literature Connections

In my elementary mathematics methods courses, my preservice teachers are required to do a small group presentation in which they highlight a specific piece of children’s literature and showcase its important mathematics connections. It is a favorite assignment for many because it opens up many possibilities to link children’s literature with mathematics and allows them to feel more connected with the subject. Although there exist numerous texts which bridge mathematics and children’s literature, four books which have been consistent favorites with my teacher candidates are The Greedy Triangle (Burns, 1994), One Grain of Rice (Demi, 1997), Inch by Inch (Lionni, 1960), and Full House: An Invitation to Fractions (Dodd, 2007).

The Greedy Triangle. This book is a wonderful introduction to geometry for children in grades one through five, depending on the particular focus within geometry. Some important mathematical concepts, which can be highlighted, are: shapes, angles, sides, polygons, recognition of polygons in everyday life, and attributes. Children can bring the story to life through explorations with geoboards, tangrams, and even a classroom scavenger hunt to find objects with a particular number of sides or angles.