Teachers Turning to Children’s Literature To Help Teach Math

By Peter West — October 06, 1993 8 min read
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When the roll of the world’s great mathematicians is called, it is doubtful that the list will feature the names of Shel Silverstein, Roald Dahl, or Sharon Bell Mathis.

But the influence of each of these enormously popular and critically acclaimed children’s authors, as well as that of many of their peers, has begun to be felt in some unusual ways in mathematics classrooms across the country.

In a widespread grassroots movement, growing numbers of elementary school teachers are using passages from quality children’s literature to teach such important and sophisticated math concepts as estimation, graphing, number patterns, and exponential growth.

Their efforts are spurred in equal measure by the well-respected standards for math education published by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and by the growing use of the “whole language’’ method to teach reading.

Using children’s stories to teach math as one technique in an overall repertoire of teaching strategies, proponents argue, puts into practice the standards’ call to make explicit the connections between math and other aspects of daily life.

Moreover, as children discuss among themselves the math concepts embedded in the literature, they learn the subtle message, also emphasized in the standards, that math is a form of communication.

And, at least in concept, the idea is attractive even to such outspoken critics of contemporary math education as John Saxon, the well-known publisher of math texts embodying the “drill and practice’’ philosophy. And while Mr. Saxon is not about to abandon that approach, he allows that he might even incorporate the literature method into his own works.

A very important added benefit, researchers say, is that elementary teachers--who frequently have weak math backgrounds and consequently tend to slight math in their teaching--are more willing to experiment when math is presented in a familiar context.

“An awful lot of teachers are ‘math-phobic,’'' said Rosamond Welchman-Tischler, the coordinator of the early-childhood division of the college of education at Brooklyn College, who wrote the N.C.T.M.'s guide to using literature to teach math.

“I got into this as a motivational technique,’' she added, “because I found that teachers who would not go to a ‘math’ workshop would come to a workshop on ‘children’s literature.’''

‘Catching On Like Wildfire’

Elementary teachers have long taught youngsters the rudiments of counting by reading aloud from such stories as the Dr. Seuss classic One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish.

But at its best, the new movement employs literature in a more sophisticated way as a tool to lay a firm foundation for more complex mathematical investigations in the later grades.

All of which has made the math-literature connection a topic that has “really caught on like wildfire,’' said Linda O’Neill, the coordinator of the elementary-education programs for the Bedford, Ohio, city schools.

Ms. O’Neill, who models the technique for teachers in her district, was one of the many practitioners who discussed the pedagogy early this year during several popular sessions at the N.C.T.M.'s annual meeting in Seattle.

In fact, the topic has proved such a big draw that many more sessions were devoted to it this year, after teachers were turned away from overflowing rooms the year before.

Demand for N.C.T.M. publications on the topic also indicates a robust and growing interest among teachers.

The N.C.T.M. has sold an average of 160 copies of Ms. Welchman-Tischler’s “How to Use Literature to Teach Mathematics’’ every month since it was published almost a year ago.

Similarly, teachers have snapped up more than 800 copies of “The Wonderful World of Mathematics,’' an annotated list of children’s books, in the eight months since it was printed.

Sales of documents such as the N.C.T.M. standards routinely surpass those levels, said Eileen Erickson, the council’s spokeswoman. But she pointed out that the audience for the literature guides is a relatively small one, confined primarily to elementary educators.

“For a field that’s so narrowly defined, we’re pleased with the sales,’' she said. “It’s a new, breaking field.’'

Mary M. Lindquist, the president of the N.C.T.M., meanwhile, added that the organization is pleased to see the development of what she termed a “very broad-based movement’’ that capitalizes on the cross-disciplinary emphasis in elementary education.

Many educational publishers, she added, have begun to gear their products to be easier to use as math aids.

A Balancing Act

Skeptical observers, however, are quick to note that there is little or no research that proves the efficacy of the approach over traditional methods.

And Mr. Saxon, a frequent critic of the standards’ “inquiry based’’ approach to math teaching, added that he believes that any technique that fails to emphasize rote learning is merely window-dressing for untested experimentation.

“I think it might make the books more interesting to the child,’' he said. “But I think the possibility of getting any significant [learning] gains out of it has yet to be proven. What we need [in math education] is something that works, not more good ideas that have not been tested.’'

The relatively new technique apparently has yet to earn the endorsement of state-level curriculum developers or to find its way explicitly into any state curriculum frameworks.

But Walter Denham, California’s director of math education, said that his state framework’s heavy emphasis on using information in “meaningful contexts’’ would seem to support the use of children’s literature.

He also noted that the state education department recently published a list of 1,100 pieces of literature that could be used in science and math teaching.

Ms. Welchman-Tischler and others added that choosing from among the dozens of books listed in the N.C.T.M. publications on the subject is a relatively easy way to experiment with the approach.

In her book, for example, she suggests using Ms. Mathis’s book The Hundred Penny Box to teach students in grades 3 to 5 such relatively complex concepts as graphing, sampling, and measuring.

The emotionally charged story deals with the reminiscences of a 100-year-old black woman who has saved a penny for each year of her life and of her relationship with her grandnephew.

After reading the story, Ms. Welchman-Tischler suggests in her book, individual classes could make penny collections of their own.

Students then could divide the collections randomly between groups of students in order to investigate the regularity with which certain dates appear in their samples and compare their findings with those of other groups by graphing the incidence of dates.

She cautions, however, that, in many cases, it is vital for teachers to strike a balance between math and meaning when dealing with powerful literary themes.

“With a story like this, one would not want to interfere with the emotional impact by moving directly into the [math] activity,’' she writes.

The Magic of The Witches

On a lighter note, she suggests that a passage from The Witches, a Roald Dahl novel in which the young protagonist is magically turned into a mouse, could be a jumping-off point for several different investigations for older students.

In the story, the boy’s grandmother explains that a rodent’s heart beats much faster than that of a human being.

Students in grades 4 to 6, she notes, could compare the description with a similar, though conflicting, passage about animal heart rates from Matilda, another Dahl novel.

They then could be encouraged to hypothesize about the reasons for the inconsistencies in the two accounts.

They also could examine the variability between their own heart rates and those of their classmates, possibly displaying the information in graphical form.

But even enthusiasts about the technique, like Nora Miller, a 1st-grade teacher at Audubon Elementary School in Baton Rouge, La., concede that teachers often do not make the effort needed to use literature effectively.

“Often they’re doing it in a flippant way,’' she said. “They think if they sit in a chair and hold a book up for small children, that they are going to learn.’'

Expanding Visions

Nonetheless, Ms. Miller added, the approach has a strong intrinsic appeal for teachers in the primary grades who frequently “think of themselves as language-arts teachers.’'

And using literature-based examples is also an excellent way to teach skills that children today may not learn at home, said Susan Phelps, a teacher at Magnolia (Ky.) Elementary School.

“When I grew up, I cooked with my mother, so I learned to estimate the amount of ingredients,’' she said. “My dad was a carpenter and I learned to measure. A lot of times, parents don’t take the time to talk to the kids about this sort of thing. But you can always find a story about somebody who is measuring something.’'

Meanwhile, Judith Koenig, a teacher who stresses the use of writing to help students learn math in her classes at Nevin Platt Middle School in Boulder, Colo., said she also has had her students write their own math-based stories and read them to younger children as a service project.

“They really loved reading their own work,’' she added.

The technique also is endorsed by some teachers outside the math field.

Dianne Wetjen, a reading specialist at Tackan Elementary in Smithtown, N.Y., said she is heartened to see wider adoption of a technique that she has long advocated.

“I for years have been attending the N.C.T.M. meetings and watching and waiting for my time to come,’' she said. “When standards came out, that’s when I knew we would get along.’'

Joan L. Pennewell, a 1st-grade teacher at Whittier Elementary School in Everett, Wash., added that using the new pedagogy has broadened her own appreciation of math and her repertoire of math skills.

“I think once you start to look at books and how they’re related to math, your vision gets greater and you see the possibilities out there,’' she said.

A version of this article appeared in the October 06, 1993 edition of Education Week as Teachers Turning to Children’s Literature To Help Teach Math


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