How the magic of stories can ignite a spark in your maths lessons, by Sara Tilley.

Teaching maths through story is one of my favourite ways to teach. It provides a break from the norm and is a fantastic way to engage children with real-life maths. I teach maths, all day, every day. I love my job, but I miss the shared experience of reading a book with a class. It’s a special moment when you see your class is hanging on every word you read, eager for you to turn the page so they can hear what happens next!

This inspired me to venture into the unknown and explore the wonderful world of maths story books – and I’m pleased to say I wasn’t disappointed. There are numerous amazing maths story books out there waiting to be shared, many of which have been written specifically to engage children in maths. As with trying anything new, there are always some bumps along the road, so here are some top tips to get you started.

Which book should I choose?

The first question I ask myself when choosing a maths story book is, ‘What is the purpose of me using this book?’ If I know how I want to use it, this will enable me to narrow down the choices and select a book which gives the children what they need, when they need it. It’s easy to be swayed by a book with beautiful illustrations or humorous text, so having a purpose in mind keeps me focused. The categories I use for purpose are:

  • a book to introduce new learning
  • a book to consolidate learning
  • a book to revise learning
  • a book to deepen learning

The purpose will impact on the type of book I choose because I have different requirements depending on what I am trying to achieve. Generally speaking, the more text that a book has, the more opportunities there are to draw out the maths. This is also true of illustrations. Look at the detail to see if they will generate lots of discussion. A great example of detailed illustration is ‘Have you seen my dragon?’ Suitable for Reception and Year 1, this book is packed with different things to count on each page.

A book to introduce new learning

This book needs to have enough detail either in the text or the illustrations. Ideally, it will cover key concepts in a real-life situation which the children can connect to. You may want a more detailed explanation or a more complex story for the children to attach meaning to. ‘Sir Cumference and All the King’s Tens’ is a good example of this. This book is thirty-two pages in length and looks at efficient counting in several different scenarios.

A book to consolidate learning

This book will not need to have as much detail as the book you use to introduce the new learning. Your children will have prior knowledge of the maths concept, so you are looking for a book which will enable them to practise the maths idea they have been learning about. I often use ‘Bean Thirteen’ when I am consolidating division with remainders because it is all about 13 beans that need to be shared amongst guests. The constant is thirteen, so children can really focus their knowledge of division through one dividend. There is clear emphasis on the importance of equal sharing. Because the children have prior knowledge of division and remainders, they can focus on the problem-solving element of the story and make predictions before the pages are turned.

A book to revise learning

When I am selecting a maths story book to revise learning, I am looking for a book which promotes discussion so I can get the children to articulate what they know. I don’t want a book that teaches too explicitly; I want to get the children thinking. So, I am looking for a story book which has a problem needing to be solved. ‘One Is a Snail, Ten Is a Crab: A Counting by Feet Book’ is my go-to book when I am revising addition with Key Stage One children and want to think more deeply about different ways to make a given number. I share the whole book with the children, but I focus on and draw out the maths from the first half of the story, which looks at different ways to add numbers to ten.

The second half of the book can be unpicked in more detail in lower Key Stage Two when children learn more about times tables and balancing missing number equations. To support retrieval, I often use the same book a couple of months later when I return to a topic. I have been amazed how some children who have previously struggled to recall maths ideas have been able to remember more when it has been attached to a story or an illustration.

A book to deepen learning

Deepening learning often comes from understanding maths in the world around us so I usually end up with a book which presents a real-life maths problem. ‘Spaghetti and Meatballs for All!’ is great for this. It’s a humorous book which explores a family party and the saga of trying to work out how many tables and chairs you need when the number of guests expected keeps changing! It has a reasonable amount of text and plenty of illustrations, so it provides lots of opportunities to pause and hand over the problem-solving to the children.

My other approach for deepening learning is to choose a book which covers more than one maths idea. It is a good way to see if the children can make the connection and jump from one idea to another. ‘Maths Quest’ is a series of books which helps them do just that. It is a wonderful set of quests which take children on a mathematical mystery where they answer a wide range of questions across a domain.

One model does not fit all

I have learnt that there is no hard and fast rule to how you use a book in the classroom. It all depends on what your purpose is and how many opportunities the book gives you. Some books are short and focused, so they lend themselves to being read quickly. These books can be shared once as a one-off lesson or several times during the week with activities drawn from each page.

If I am using a book with more complex story, I start the planning process by looking for places to pause in the story so I can use the book over several days. The aim is to consider not only an appropriate break in the plot, but also which parts of the story lend themselves to different independent activities. Some days, I might only read a page of the story because the maths opportunities are too good to miss – and other days, I might read several. My focus here is to concentrate on what I want the children to be thinking about and then create activities which link to the book.

It’s easy to get led by the narrative and create activities which focus on the characters rather than the maths, so I always double check that the maths activity is ‘mathsy’ enough!

The activities you create do not always have to be directly linked to a plot – they might be linked to a representation or a character in the story. A good example of this is ‘Ten Black Dots.’ For example, when looking at ‘Five dots make buttons on a coat,’ you could ask children to count the buttons on other children’s coats, or ask them to find a coat with five buttons or put a 5 frame on a picture of a coat and ask them to fill in the frame with a specific number of buttons.

Where can I find out more?

I hope this article has sparked some interest in exploring maths through story! On my YouTube channel I have a playlist called ‘I love maths stories!’ with videos sharing my favourite maths story books and others which spotlight a maths book and suggest activities which you can draw from it. Also, Maths through Stories is packed with recommendations of books, lesson ideas and even competitions.

Author

  • Sara Tilley

    Sara Tilley has worked in education for over 25 years, with the last 14 years as a primary maths specialist. An advanced skills teacher and NCETM professional development lead, Sara is the founder and owner of ‘Curious Maths.’ She delivers teacher training across three London boroughs, offers consultancy support for schools, and teaches over one hundred children a week!
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