It seems obvious to plan primary English work around stories and texts. Whether we use short stories, picture books, animated films, novels, oral tales or any other form of story to engage children and give them a focus for their writing, the results speak for themselves. We can use the Talk for Writing model of imitating; innovate; invent and children are guided through the writing process, supported by the wonderful world of stories.
We know that stories engage and capture children’s imaginations. Why then, do we not think in the same way for maths? We know that stories engage and capture children’s imaginations, but it seems a less obvious “hook” into learning to use a picture book, story or animation when planning maths.
There are some great examples of books written specifically for maths teaching. For example,
- Spaghetti and Meatballs for all by Marilyn Burns (click here to view) is an amusing, engaging tale of a family party. The logistics of seating all the guests around a certain number of tables leads to plenty of rich maths talk and problem solving, and of course, lends itself to role play. Actually moving tables around the classroom and working out how one table can be used to seat different numbers of people makes the maths accessible to different abilities and gives the teacher plenty of opportunities to question and assess understanding.
- Even the most reluctant of mathematicians cannot fail to be hooked into discussions about place value, multiplying and dividing by How Many Jellybeans? by Yancey Labat (click here to view). Children are fascinated by very large numbers and, in this “Giant book of Giant numbers”, they can actually unfold the pages and see what one million jelly beans look like!
However, there are also the less obvious books: books not written to address mathematical concepts but which engage children and start them off on mathematical adventures.
- Who wouldn’t enjoy following a recipe for George’s Marvellous Medicine using a variety of foul-coloured gloopy liquids? If children learn about capacity, converting between standard units of measure and adding two or three-digit numbers as they go, all the better.
- Similarly, The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka (click here to view) can be used to begin an exploration of mass. Just how much sugar will a cup hold? And how much would the wolf need to make his dear old granny a birthday cake?
- Nothing by Mick Inkpen (click here to view) is a heart-warming story of an abandoned little cloth tabby cat. Although the story is written for young children, it can successfully be used with older primary pupils to explore the concept of zero. Why is zero so important? What would happen if zero was abandoned in the attic and forgotten about? What would happen to our numbers and calculations?
- Learning about time and distance can also be explored through stories. The World Came to My Place Today by Jo Readman and Ley Honor Roberts (click here to view) is a well-known story often used in geography and PSHE. George explores how small the world is by thinking about where his orange juice comes from, where the tomatoes for his soup grew and where the rope for his swing was made, amongst many other ideas. Upper Key Stage 2 children could use the story as an introduction to calculating food miles and time differences, using the ruler function on Google Earth to map long distances. There are also opportunities for using positional and directional language, currency conversion, population… the possibilities are endless.
- As part of a recent focus on measuring length in my mixed Y2/3 class, I used Jim and the Beanstalk by Raymond Briggs (click here to view) to give the children a fun way to practise measuring accurately. Jim is asked by the giant to visit the oculist and order a giant-sized pair of spectacles. We started off by thinking about how much bigger than an average adult would a human be. This involved measuring me and recording the result in metres and centimetres, in centimetres and, for my more able Year 3s in metres. Knowledge of the children told me that many of them also needed practice rounding and doubling.
The Y2 task was set: could they work in small groups and use art straws to make spectacles double real-sized spectacles? I provided a couple of old pairs of glasses for them to measure and off they set. The first step was to think about how to use a ruler to measure accurately. We discussed the “spare bit” at the end of many rulers before 0; choosing the “centimetre” side of the ruler and rounding to the nearest whole cm. Once initial measurements were taken, we discussed how we could double these measurements. Every child was engaged and every child could access the activity. Differentiation for my Y2s came through careful questioning, and support was provided by a TA and mixed-ability pairs…
This online version of the article was first published in 2014 and updated in 2020 by the UKEd Editorial team in accordance with policy and website updates.