Using Stories to Teach Mathematics

Posted in Knste Blog, Maths 1

Group of kids writing and studying math
Have you ever thought about using a story book as a stimulus for your mathematics lessons? This is something that is a bit of a passion of mine, as my ever-growing collection of story books demonstrates, but I feel that it is a much underused resource in schools, particularly with children in KS2.

What are the benefits?

Here at KNSTE we value the importance of research in teaching & learning and there is evidence to show that using mathematical stories is an effective way of engaging pupils with mathematical concepts, challenging their mathematical thinking and, therefore, promoting good mathematical understanding. In 2008,Marja van den Heuvel-Panhuizen and Sylvia van den Boogard undertook a small scale study of the use of mathematical story books. The study found that reading maths picture books to children without questioning or probing had large potential for mathematically engaging children. Even without follow-up activities, half of the children’s comments after reading the book were about the maths involved in the story.

Using good quality picture books helps children to engage in a fun way with mathematical concepts and provides meaningful contexts by relating the mathematics to children’s real-life experiences e.g. The Doorbell Rang by Pat Hutchins is a story about sharing cookies between different numbers of children.

Cover of the book The Doorbell Rang by Pat Hutchins

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) Guidance Report (Improving Mathematics in the Early Years and Key Stage 1 March 2020) also recognised the value of using story books to promote mathematical concepts. Recommendation 2, ‘Dedicate time for children to learn mathematics and integrate mathematics throughout the day’, cites using different contexts for mathematical learning including the use of mathematical storzy books.

Front cover of the EEF Report Improving Mathematics in the Early Years and Key Stage 1

So, where do you start and how do you know if the story is appropriate?

There’s a wealth of books out there covering a range of mathematical topics like simple number, counting, shapes, measure and calculating. It’s important to choose your story book resource carefully and plan how you are going to use it with the children so that you and the children get the most out of the story book resource. There is no ‘right way’ of doing this, for example, you might use the book to introduce a particular mathematical concept and set up the context for learning, or you might use the book to consolidate learning that has already taken place; you can read the book in one go, or chunk the book up into smaller sections. Often the book dictates the best way to go.

There are a few good websites containing free resources to help with choosing an appropriate, high-quality mathematical story book. These are:

  • Development and Research in Early Math Education (DREME).  This site contains lots of helpful guidance and a number of free resources including lists of recommended books for different concepts and a guide helping you to think about how you will prepare for using the book. The guide encourages you to think about what you will do before, during and after reading and is highly recommended.
  • Mathematics Through Stories.  This website was set up by Dr Natthapoj Vincent Trakulphadetkrai who is a researcher and lecturer at the University of Reading. The website contains lots of examples of mathematics story books together with suggested lesson plans submitted by teachers.
  • NRich Early Years Foundation Stage Activities section.   Here you will find examples of how you might use selected story books with young children.

KNSTE Mathematics Specialism Group

In a recent specialism day with the current cohort of Associate Teachers (ATs), we looked at using mathematical story books. Each of the ATs chose a book with a mathematical theme and then thought about how they would use it in the classroom using some of the resources listed above. Here is one example using the book Spaghetti and Meatballs for All by Marilyn Burns.

Firstly, the ATs identified key vocabulary to be taught prior to reading the book. This could include non-mathematical vocabulary as well.

ATs then went through the book identifying and preparing key questions to share during the reading of the book.

Book cover of Spaghetti and Meatballs for All! By Marilyn Burns

Here are a couple of pages:

  • Read this page to motivate the pupils
  • Ask them if they were given 32 chairs and 8 tables how would they solve it?
Page from Spaghetti and Meatballs for All! By Marilyn Burns
  • Do you think there will be room?
  • Can you explain why/why not?

Finally, the ATs identified follow-up activities for the pupils practice and apply their knowledge.

Page from Spaghetti and Meatballs for All! By Marilyn Burns

  • How else could she have arranged the tables?
  • You have been given access to up to 30 tables. How could we organize the tables to seat all of our guests? All tables must be in a square pattern and must be full.

(Concrete resources to be available e.g. square templates for tables & cubes/counters for chairs)

This is a great example of a book suitable for use with older Primary School children.

What next?

Hopefully this blog has whetted your appetite for using story books in your mathematics lessons. You might even want to consider using them as a resource to help parents engage with mathematics by suggesting books that they might share and discuss at home with their children to promote mathematical dialogue. Talking about Maths at home - how great would that be!?

So, what are you waiting for? Check out the suggested resources, choose yourself a book and give it a go and experience the benefits and joys of using stories to teach mathematics!

Marie Bateman, Assistant KNSTE Director (Placements).
Find out more about Marie’s background here:

  1. Lucy Miller
    | Reply

    Thanks for an informative blog post. I look forward to using these resources in my maths lessons.

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