• Article

Using maths storybooks to engage children

Mini ‘stories’ can be an effective way to reveal mathematical structure and are a common feature in some of the best maths textbooks

Using maths storybooks to engage children
  • Published: 01/03/2019

Have you ever thought about using a story picture book as one of the tools in your maths teaching repertoire?

Mini ‘stories’ can be an effective way to reveal mathematical structure and are a common feature in some of the best maths textbooks. The CBeebies’ Numberblocks series is built around little stories, and the NCETM Primary Mastery Professional Development Materials use them too.

Mathematical story picture books of a more substantial nature, and how they can be used effectively by teachers, is a major interest of Dr Natthapoj Vincent Trakulphadetkrai (Vince), researcher and lecturer at the University of Reading. He believes that storybooks have the power to foster children’s conceptual understanding of maths and to develop engagement.

We interviewed Vince about his initiative, MathsThroughStories.org, which encourages learning maths through story picture books. And, of course, we asked him for some recommendations!

What is your background in mathematics education?

I did an undergraduate teacher training specialising in maths. Since then, I’ve been in the academic world of maths education, involved in both research and lecturing. Whilst studying for my PhD, I also kept in touch with the classroom through supply teaching, which gave me invaluable experience in a broad cross-section of primary classrooms.

I am now a lecturer in primary maths education. Teaching and learning through maths story picture books is my main research interest; specifically, the effectiveness of children learning maths through creating their own story picture books.

What got you interested in learning maths through stories?

When I first taught primary teacher trainees, I was asked to cover ‘how to teach mathematics creatively’. In reading up about the topic, I became more and more interested, perhaps obsessed, about the idea of teaching maths through stories. I started collecting mathematical story picture books. The next thing I knew I had over 500 of them and had started the MathsThroughStories.org website, which has turned out to be really popular. It has all happened so fast!

What would you say makes a good maths story picture book?

First, it must contain an engaging story – it mustn’t be a word problem or textbook in disguise.

Second, it should be able to demonstrate how different representations of a concept come together – the illustrations must match the context and the mathematics.

Third, the story should demonstrate how maths can be used, by the characters, to solve problems in an everyday context.

So where should we start? What are the benefits of learning maths through storybooks?

When compared to teaching through textbooks or worksheets, storybooks make mathematics more engaging. Quite often, there is some sort of a problem or crisis in the story and characters use their mathematical knowledge and skills to solve it. As children become involved in the narrative and characters, they emotionally invest in understanding the maths.

Stories also allow children to relate mathematics to their own lives through contextualisation.

Another powerful aspect is the visualisation of abstract mathematical ideas. Through illustrations, abstract concepts such as prime numbers or division of fractions are represented visually.

Do you see a difference in how a storybook might be used by a teacher compared to a parent?

Given their access to manipulatives, teachers might be more likely to design a teaching and learning activity based on the story using these. Parents, on the other hand, might be more likely to just read the stories and ask relevant mathematical questions without designing a series of follow-up activities.

A small-scale research study (van den Heuvel-Panhuizen and van den Boogaard, 2008) found that when very young children were read a maths story, even without any follow-up activities, half of their comments related to the maths.

How would you recommend teachers use maths storybooks?

ClassroomTeachers could start the maths lesson by luring pupils in using a story book. This sets the scene and contextualises the mathematics to be taught.

I also know teachers who prefer to wait until the end of the lesson to read the story, to consolidate the learning of mathematics.

Or, you might not want to finish reading the story in one go. Quite often there is a problem for the characters in the story to solve using maths. Teachers could stop reading the story before a solution is revealed and use the story’s plot to encourage children to solve the problem themselves.

There isn’t only one way of integrating story picture books in mathematics teaching. We encourage teachers to share lesson ideas and inspiration on the website.

I have also been encouraging pupils to create their own mathematical story picture books – even just a simple book of a few pages. If we encourage children to become the creator of mathematical stories, they have to work really hard to see how the topic can be applied in everyday life. Then they have to work hard on visualisation, thinking carefully about how they are going to illustrate abstract mathematical concepts through drawings. From a distance, it might look like a cute, fun activity, but when you examine this approach you see just how pedagogically powerful it can be. I’m surprised this approach hasn’t been used more often, because it costs nothing in terms of resources.

We’re currently running a competition for pupils age 8-13 to create illustrated mathematical stories.

I suppose many teachers, even primary teachers who teach both maths and English, might not have thought about combining the two like this?

Yes, indeed. From my research with over 1,000 teachers, for many the idea of combining mathematics and literacy seems like an alien concept.

I would like to challenge the perception that maths and literacy/language don’t mix. My other research has shown that children’s mathematical abilities and their language abilities are closely linked.

If you think about children solving mathematical word problems: apart from their mathematical understanding and skills, they also need literacy skills. Teaching mathematics through narrative means children have an opportunity to develop both mathematical and linguistic abilities in parallel.

Have you a recommendation for teachers who haven’t thought of teaching maths through stories before?

Doorbell coverA classic title that many primary school teachers and parents will have heard of is The Doorbell Rang. A mother bakes some cookies and, just as her two children are about to eat them, the doorbell rings and two more children arrive. This means the cookies have to be shared between more people. Then just as they are about to eat the cookies, the doorbell rings and two more children arrive. And so on. Although the book doesn’t scream ‘this is a maths story’, you can see there’s a meaningful context for teaching division and remainder.

What about a favourite maths picture book of yours?

I have a LOT of favourites! I would love to recommend the Sir Cumference series (for KS2 and KS3), the Math Matters series (KS1 and KS2), the Math Start series (EYFS, KS1 and KS2) and Mouse Math (mostly for Early Years).

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Martyn Yeo

Martyn Yeo, a Year 2 teacher and maths lead at Whitestone Infant School, Nuneaton, used one of the books recommended on Vince’s website.

'I opted for using a book Pezzettino, which tells the story about a square who feels he should belong to a bigger shape. In the end he falls and breaks into lots of pieces and realises he can be a 'whole' on his own. This really helped my class cement their understand of fractions and was a great opportunity to address any misconceptions on the topic. The story then prompted the rest of our maths work for the lesson with my Year 2 class where we got creative making our own creatures.'

Read Martyn's description of his lesson on the MathsThroughStories.org website.

You can keep up with Vince’s project by following @MathsStories on Twitter.

Why not comment below? We’re after more suggestions of maths story picture books you’ve found useful to draw out mathematical understanding and engagement. If you’ve got a favourite, please share it with our readers!

Image credit: classroom photographs copyright University of Reading Institute of Education, used with permission

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