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Math and Literature:
A Match Made in the Classroom


Curriculum CenterIf you are seeking a new way to add relevancy to your classroom math activities, the answer may be right in your school library! Literature is the ideal vehicle to help your students see the importance of numbers in their daily lives. Included: Author Marilyn Burns is one educator who says, "Math and literature together? Why not!" She shares her thoughts with Education World. Plus more ideas for integrating math and literature!

"I've found throughout my teaching career that students are my best teachers, that the more I understand how children think and reason, the better I'm able to find ways to help them learn," author Marilyn Burns told Education World. "I believe that we can't teach what we don't understand, and we can't teach well what we don't enjoy. I think that children's literature offers a wonderful vehicle for helping teachers teach math well."

In Books by Marilyn Burns, Burns uses traditional and original literature to address mathematical concepts. Her efforts show students that those subjects, like most classroom topics, are interrelated.

"Combining math and literature in classroom activities is a way for teachers to invite children into the world of math," stated Burns. "Reading books that weave mathematical ideas into engaging stories helps dispel the myth that math is dry, unimaginative, and inaccessible. Children's books can not only generate interest in math but also provide contexts that help bring meaning to abstract concepts. Using children's literature is a win-win -- for children and for teachers."



An educator who began teaching secondary mathematics in 1962, Burns describes the start of her writing career as a "fluke." A friend asked Burns whether she would be interested in writing a book about math for what became the Brown Paper School series. She did so, creating The I Hate Mathematics! Book, published in 1975. That publication jump-started her parallel career. Burns has since written about a dozen books for children and the same number for teachers. Through offering workshops for other educators, she developed her love for teaching younger students, an experience she found delightful in a different way.

"From presenting many workshops to teachers, I realized that many elementary teachers, particularly teachers of young children, aren't comfortable with mathematics," Burns explained. "For many, their own learning of mathematics was difficult and often unpleasant, and they took only what was minimally required." She added that when math becomes an elective, more than 50 percent of high school students elect not to study it any longer.

"Teachers who aren't comfortable with math typically prefer teaching reading and language arts, drawn to the many beautifully illustrated children's books available and how they spark children's interest and imaginations," continued Burns. "I began creating math curriculum materials that involve literature to show teachers how to connect their interest in children's literature with helping children experience the wonder and delight of mathematics."



"My advice to educators just beginning to incorporate literature into math activities is to choose a book and dive in," said Burns. "Read the story aloud to the class and discuss it as you would any other book. Then introduce an activity. As with all math lessons, keep the emphasis on children's reasoning, ask students to communicate their thinking and solutions, and encourage discussion among students."

Burns recommends two resources from Math Solutions Publications for K-3 teachers, books one and two of Math and Literature (Grades K-3). Those resources introduce more than 50 children's books that are useful for teaching math ideas and present vignettes of actual classroom lessons that use them, along with samples of student work. Some of the literature selections may be familiar to classroom teachers -- Rooster's Off to See the World, Little House in the Big Woods, Ten Black Dots, -- and some may be new. For teachers of older students, Burns suggests Math and Literature (Grades 4-6), also from Math Solutions. That resource presents instructions for using 20 age-appropriate books in mathematics classes.

"In 1994, I launched the series of Brainy Day Books, books for children, published by Scholastic, specifically designed to help learn math," Burns elaborated. "I wrote the stories for two of the five books in the series. For the other books, I wrote the section at the end, 'For Parents, Teachers and Other Adults,' explaining the math underlying the story and providing ways to involve children with the mathematical ideas."

Because of beginning the Brainy Day Books, Burns began to edit Scholastic's Hello Math Reader series, which produces easy readers for children in Pre-K through grade 3. Each book offers activities at the end of the stories. There are now more than 30 books in that collection. Some of her favorites are Stay in Line, One Hungry Cat, A Quarter from the Tooth Fairy, and Even Steven and Odd Todd.


See reviews for some of Burns's books in an Education World BOOKS IN EDUCATION article, Math and Reading Do Mix.


"My students tend to be very uninterested in school and continually deny that whatever subject we do has any value in their lives," said high school teacher Sharon Powell. "I was hoping that by tying everything together, I could make them see that the things we learn in class do relate to their lives."

Powell knows well the struggles a classroom teacher can face in trying to link subjects such as math and literature. Her Northwestern High School class in Rock Hill, South Carolina, is part of a remedial program for students in grades 9 through 12 designed to improve the test scores of students who fail the school's "exit exam." Those students need extra help to pass the exam so they may receive a diploma rather than a certificate.

"Last year after the exit exam, I wanted to do something that would combine all the subject areas that I teach into one set of lessons," Powell explained. "I had been teaching seven different combinations of reading, writing, and/or math. I used to be an elementary teacher, and for years I felt that all subjects should be combined at the elementary level in order to be able to spend more time teaching reading."

Calling upon her two only real resources -- 25 years in the classroom and a determination to get kids to pay attention -- Powell set about locating literary works that could be used to support her math curriculum.



One of Powell's big successes in marrying math and literature in her classroom has been with the book The Crazy Horse Electric Game, by Chris Crutcher. "Some of the things I did with the book had to do with figuring out the cost of the trip," she said. "The students had to read bus schedules and discover the cost of medical treatments by using percentages based on different rates of insurance payment. They computed statistics for the players. I had them find a job in the classified ads that Willie was qualified to do and plan a budget for him. They did maps of his trip. We did distance problems based on how fast the boat was traveling and how far it had to go if the family took him to the hospital. Basically, I looked for ways that math was used in the book and expanded on it. This can be done with any book."

Powell has even borrowed from Hollywood to make her point! "As a treat, I show a movie occasionally. I have a three-day lesson plan that takes Good Burger from movie to lesson. The students figure out how much the repair costs. I give them an estimate and have them adjust it by percentages for different repair shops. They have to figure out the profit on burgers based on different prices for materials. They have to compute how many hours have to be worked at different salaries to pay the repair bill. I give them raises, and they have to solve how much less time will have to be worked than before the raise. I compare the profit from the two restaurants based on the cost of the food. I give quantity discounts and compare the profit based on certain sales. It takes a little while to plan the lesson, but it is not horrible. I make up the salary schedules and prices for items rather than researching them. This saves time, but I do have to create my own answer keys.

"Books are stories about people and their lives, and these lives involve numbers," Powell continued. By keeping that in mind, she believes, any teacher can join math and literature activities. "My kids like this kind of work. They see it as real or fun, but either way, it is something they are willing to do. My own children actually think that math problems are harder when there is no story to go with them."




  • Math Solutions A division of Marilyn Burns Education Associates, Math Solutions offers in-services, workshops, and publications designed to improve mathematics instruction.
  • Math and Children's Literature This site contains articles and sample ideas from resources to help teachers integrate math and literature lessons.
  • Math in Daily Life From the Annenberg/CPB Project, this resource explains the mathematics involved in daily activities such as cooking and home decorating.

Cara Bafile
Education World®
Copyright © 2001 Education World




Updated 02/20/2008