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Make Math Meaningful by Teaching Through Story

Jul 30, 2021 1:51:38 PM / by Louise El Yaafouri

TeachTransform August Blog Article (1)

Need to Know:

  • Research shows that stories can be highly effective tools for teaching students about critical math concepts.
  • Stories and storytelling can teach about the language of math and can bolster sequencing abilities, spatial reasoning, and geometry skills.

A Closer Look:

Humans have been making sense of the world around them through stories for millennia. As a veteran Newcomer teacher, I’ve long relied on storytelling as a way to help students make meaning out of challenging content. Stories can draw kids in and engage them at various language acquisition levels. Storytelling is a culturally responsive practice. 

In our self-contained classroom, we embed storytelling as a cross-curricular learning tool. While this strategy is widely helpful, my students’ gains in math are especially evident. And, it turns out, there’s more to it than just my wishful thinking. 

A library of research points to the power of stories as tools for improving learners’ mathematical comprehension and reasoning. “Storybooks provide a rich opportunity to build not only literacy skills, but also math understanding,'' say researchers at Stanford’s DREME project. “Books with math concepts woven into the pictures and storylines can promote children's mathematical thinking and introduce foundational math concepts such as numbers, shapes, patterns, and measurement.” (Be sure to stop by DREME’s40 Children’s Books That Foster a Love of Math, too!)

Let’s explore ideas for using stories to grow young mathematicians.

The research says: Stories can help learners understand the language of mathematics. 

Try this: I love this strategy, as described by L.L. Barakat for Edutopia. She employs the largely wordless picture book Tuesday (David Weisner) to teach important math concepts like spatial relationships and the language of number line sequencing. “With just a little questioning,” Barakat points out, “The teacher can turn the reading of Tuesday into a sequencing activity that uses the language of the number line (before, after, forward, backward, next, then).”  

The research says: Picturebooks can be used to teach kids about size, patterns, and counting

Try this: Browse 15 Patterning Books and Videos That Teach Kids Math for new school year inspiration. Its author, Elyse Rycroft, explains, “Patterns are everywhere, including in the classroom and at home. When it’s time for children to learn about patterns, using patterning books and videos is a great way to help them learn.”  

Looking for a more comprehensive story selection to engage kids in math learning? TeachTransform is an instructional design company that creates standards-aligned math resources for grades 3-5. The company’s approach centers stories as an integral part of teaching and learning. The stories used in TeachTransform’s instructional materials build cross-curricular frames of reference—and bring a lot of fun into the learning process!  

The research says: Literacy-based activities enable children to connect new mathematical knowledge to real-life experience. 

Try this: Explore this incredible collection of math-infused picture books from the What Do We Do All Day? website. Mathematical concepts play a crucial part in each of the chapter books and story collections included in this list. “They are excellent tools for cross-curriculum learning,” says the article’s author. “Best of all, even if your child's favorite subject in school is art or drama or history, all of the books make math accessible and tell a good story.”

For 3rd-5th graders, TeachTransform’s math supplemental activities include math problems that are actual stories. Using recurring characters, the activities engage students by weaving problem solving and the engineering design process into adventure stories where the math is fundamental to the character’s success.

The research says: Books can improve kids’ understanding of geometry concepts (especially in the middle grades).

Try this: Angie Olsen shares an exciting complication of Children’s Books that Teach Geometry. “Introducing geometry-focused storybooks is an excellent strategy for helping your students gain a deeper understanding of the subject and helping you teach it!” she says. 

Teach middle school? Teresa Cooper shares her math-supportive book suggestions to The Educator’s Room. Of one of her selections, the Sir Cumference series, Cooper writes, “This entire series of books are great for teaching geometry and the silly, but adventurous stories will help students seal math concepts dealing with circumference and angles into their minds.” 

Using stories to teach math is a best practice approach—it can increase engagement, make learning concrete, and amplify students’ math confidence. Here’s a bit of advice from Stanford’s DREME project in getting started: “The most important rule to keep in mind when selecting and reading a math picture book is to enjoy the stories and enjoy the children enjoying the stories! Read often, smile, and laugh.”

Topics: Mathematics

Louise El Yaafouri

Written by Louise El Yaafouri

Louise El Yaafouri is a Recent Arriver & Cultural Competency Consultant at DiversifiED Consulting. She provides professional development and curriculum design in the areas of Emergent Multilingual education, trauma-informed practice, culturally responsive pedagogy, and equity/inclusion work. Louise has authored a wide range of ed-related books and articles, including the forthcoming Restoring Students’ Innate Power: Trauma-Responsive Strategies for Teaching Multilingual Newcomers (ASCD press). Louise lives between Denver, Colorado and Saida, Lebanon with her husband and sons Noor and Joud.