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College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

Three Ways to Teach Economics Through Children’s Literature

By Amy Geffen — March 30, 2017 5 min read
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Financial literacy is an important life skill often overlooked in the classroom. But Amy Geffen, Director, Professional Development Council for Economic Education advocates that it is easy to include these skills in K - 8 English Language Arts lessons. Join Amy and other financial literacy experts for #Globaledchat, today at 8pmET on Twitter. (Just type #globaledchat into the search to join the conversation).

Children learn the three “Rs"—reading, writing, and arithmetic. But there is another important basic life skill, considered to be the fourth R—financial literacy, or real world understanding of money and economic processes. What is money? What is credit? Do we have everything we need? If not, what choices do we make?

Economics and financial literacy are an integral part of our everyday lives. Economic concepts may be taught through social studies, U.S. history, global history, English Language Arts, and math. We recommend starting with English Language Arts because many of the books are already part of their curriculum, and teachers are familiar with the plots and the characters and their choices. Some of the students may already be familiar with the plot lines as well, so digging a little deeper in order to introduce economic concepts is a natural fit. Sometimes it is simply a question of teaching the vocabulary to name the concepts that students already know.

Lesson Preparation

First, before reading each of the stories suggested below, choose the economics vocabulary words you would like to focus on. Create flip book, note cards, or other activities that you can use with the students to teach the relevant vocabulary words and concepts.

Also, develop an essential question based on the College, Career, and Civic (C3) Life for Social Studies State Standards or CEE’s National Standards for Financial Literacy. An essential question creates interest and purpose for close reading of the story. It provides guidance for text-dependent questions, and it creates a reason for writing.

Three ELA Books and Activities to Get Started

Here are some K-8 literature lessons to get you started teaching financial literacy in your classroom or program:

1. Arthur’s Pet Business by Marc Brown (grades K-2)
Arthur wants to buy a puppy and he needs money. So he decides to start a pet sitting and grooming business. This book provides a great way to explain to K-2 students the differences between goods and services.

Essential question: How do people earn income?

Key economic concepts: entrepreneur, income, consumers, goods, services, cost, and benefits

Pre-reading questions: Have you ever wanted a pet? How do you get money to buy things? Have you ever wanted something that required you to set some goals and save some money? What was your plan for saving money?

Read aloud questions: Why does Arthur need money? How could he earn money? What were the first two jobs suggested to Arthur? How did he respond to each of those suggestions? What does he have to give up to run his business? How does Arthur promote his business?

Extension activities:


  • Picture sort: Draw or cut out pictures from magazines showing goods and services. Show the distinction between goods (e.g., dog collar, cat blanket, pet food) and services (e.g., bathing the dog, walking the dog, clipping the cat’s nails, cleaning the cage). Then, have students separate additional pictures into two piles of goods and services.
  • Charades: Act out performing services and have the class guess what the student is doing.

Additional Resources:

2. Uncle Jed’s Barbershop by Margaree King Mitchell (grades 3-5 or 6-8)
Uncle Jed Is trying to save enough money to buy his own barbershop. He finally saves enough and then learns his niece needs an operation, so he pays for that. He has to start saving again. He saves and saves, but then the banks fail during the Depression, and he loses his money. Finally, he has enough money to open his own barbershop.

Essential question: How do you decide between two ways to spend your money?

Key Economic concepts: saving, savings goal, opportunity cost, bank failure

Pre-reading questions: Have you ever gotten your hair cut at a barbershop or salon? What things do owners of barbershops and beauty salons have to spend money on in order to run their business? How do you think they get the money to start their business?

Read aloud questions: What happened to the little girl? What is a sharecropper? How much was the operation cost? How did Uncle Jed help Sarah Jean? What happened when the banks failed? How much money did Uncle Jed lose? How could you save a lot of money?

Activities to help your students learn more about life during the Great Depression:


  • Grades 6-8: Read short articles about life during the Depression, the Dust Bowl, Hoovervilles, bread lines, etc. (link to sources-see below under Additional Resources)
  • Students can write diaries from the perspective of a person living during the Depression or create timelines showing the sequence of events that led up to and emerged from the Depression
  • Analyze historical photos and write captions
  • Grades 6-8: Run a simulation that shows how banks fail
  • Grades 3-5: Use the Savings Goal Game from The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis

Additional Resources:

3. One Hen: How One Small Loan Made a Big Difference by Kate Smith Milway (grades 3-5 or 6-8)
This story takes place in in a Ghanaian village. A young boy cannot pay for school. His mother takes out a small loan, and he buys a chicken. He sells eggs, and with the profit he continues to buy more chickens. He is able to pay for school and then starts a business that helps his community.

Essential questions: What are characteristics of entrepreneurs? How can loans foster economic development?

Key economic concepts: entrepreneurship, loans, risk, and saving

Pre-reading questions: Have you ever borrowed anything? Did you have to give it back? What happened if you didn’t give it back?

Read aloud questions: How did Kojo earn money? What was he able to do with the money? What did he do after school? How did he become a business owner? Why did he lend money to other entrepreneurs? How did that help the community?

Some extension activities:

Additional Resources:

Teaching economics through children’s literature is an effective way to integrate key economic concepts into the classroom. Concepts such as earning, saving, risk, scarcity and entrepreneurship are easily understood by students once they can relate to character in a realistic situation.

Follow Council for Economic Education and The Center for Global Education at Asia Society on Twitter.

Image created on Pablo.

The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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