The argument for teaching mathematics through literature

When it comes to public education, almost everyone has an opinion: teachers are paid too much, teachers aren’t paid enough, the system is ineffective and should be disbanded, the system is ineffective and should be enlarged, there are too many standardized tests, there aren’t enough standardized tests. Arguments are made around every aspect of public education, with statistics and research-based evidence cited on all sides. In the ongoing debate, many critics of the current system are advocating for heavier emphasis on STEM topics, which have been traditionally less accessible for students.

It can be a daunting task for teachers to effectively teach engaging mathematics lessons, especially at the elementary school level, where students can easily lose their confidence and interest in math with the rapidly advancing difficulty of curriculum. A growing trend to combat the loss of interest in elementary aged-students is to introduce mathematical concepts through the lens of children’s literature. The argument for this approach is that it allows for the introduction of concepts in a highly engaging, non-threatening way. By first partaking in a story, students are drawn in, and can make real world connections to the concept before ever having to pick up a ruler or classify a shape.

Additionally, the idea of students gleaning mathematics concepts through the use of literature gives a cross-discipline element to lessons, and allows for the integration of a wider array of standards. To truly ingrain concepts into students’ minds. This, used in tandem with critical thinking prompts and summative assessments allows for students to translate their initial excitement about the concept into solving high-level problems.

According to research done by Whiten and Wilde (1995), integrating literature into math curriculums motivates students to learn, provides a framework for which to grasp challenging concepts, further develops number sense, and anchors math in human experiences. Malinsky and McJunkin (2008) echo these sentiments in Wondrous Tales of Measurement, using the example of a 5day measurement unit to demonstrate the merit of anchoring math concepts, such as measurement, in engaging literature. The result: students who feel well equipped to engage with mathematical concepts that might otherwise be intimidating or unappealing, and are invested and confident well before actually handling a problem set.

This approach questions the assumptions that mathematical concepts must be taught in a formulaic way, instead opening up the topic to, as the title suggests, wonder and excitement. It seems other educators are jumping on board, with Math and Literature: A Mach Made in the Classroom (found on stating “Literature is the ideal vehicle to help your students see the importance of numbers in their daily lives.” It also provides a cross-curricular aspect to teaching, something that can greatly improve the connections students make and accelerate their growth. This process can allow them to see mathematics as a part of their daily lives, versus something contained simply within their classroom.


If you’re interested in integrating literature into your mathematics curriculum, below is a starting point collection of books aligned to various elementary-level (K-5) math concepts:



This innovative book by Greg Tang uses the lens of famous works of art to explore the benefits of grouping. Students will be engaged by the vivid imagery and riddles on each page.


This whimsical tales is written by Carol A. Losi, and gives a great framework for reinforcing doubles. As a little girl and her parent set up a picnic, they attract the notice of an ant, then two more, etc. Students will count along with the doubling ants for a fun and entertaining activity.



Stewart J. Murphey tells the tale of Ben and his mother’s math-laden journey to the top of a skyscraper. Ben uses subtraction to determine the next floor they visit on their journey, and he meets some animal friends along the way.


Another story by Stewart J. Murphey, this one geared at more advanced students. Sharks are training for a “swimathon”, and need to swim 75 laps by the end of the week in order to guarantee a sponsor. Readers track the amount of laps left every time the sharks swim, engaging the concept of two-digit subtraction.



In this fraction-based tale (with underlying lessons against greediness) by Matthew McElligott, Lion bakes a cake and offers to share with his friends. But, each friend takes a half of the cake – leaving none for Lion. Ant offers to bake Lion another cake. The friends feel bad, each promising to bake twice as many cakes as the last. Children will learn why the situation quickly spirals out of hand.


This invitation to explore fractions, written by Dayle Ann Dodds is told from the perspective of a housekeeper at a busy inn. Children explore and use reasoning skills along with the housekeeper to determine how to feed dessert to all they hungry guests.




This tale by Robert E. Wells introduces children to the concept of comparing lengths using non-standard forms of measurement. Starting with a blue whale, Wells challenges readers to think about the largest things in existence. This book could work across a variety of grade levels, and lends itself to graphing activities.


Keliko Kasza weaves a tale in which a hungry wolf craving chicken stew hatches a plan to fatten up his neighbor. He sends Mrs. Chicken all sorts of treats to plump her up, but when he finally goes to collect his prize, he has a shock in store. This book is a great introduction to graphing (measuring student’s favorite foods) and measuring amounts (baking activity based on the book).



Providing literature as a familiar and comforting anchor for students aids instilling a love of mathematics in scholars and giving them the confidence to go forward and conquer the problems set before them. Give it a try!



Malinsky. “Wondrous Tales of Measurement.” Teaching Children Mathematic 14 (2008): 410-13. ERIC. Web.

“Math for Kids– Best Childrens Books / Picture Books.” Math for Kids. Best Children’s Books, 4 Oct. 2016. Web. 1 Dec. 2016.

Shatzer, Joyce. “Picture Book Power: Connecting Children’s Literature and Mathematics.” The Reading Teacher 61.8 (2008): 649-53. Web.

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