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Stretching the English Curriculum (The Council Chronicle, Sept. 04)

Language Arts + Math= A Good Equation

Are literature and math compatible? Can math-related literature be useful in the elementary classroom? In an era where literacy is crossing traditional boundaries, exploring connections between literature and math offers teachers an exciting opportunity to smoothly draw students into both literature and math through an integrated curriculum.

And, while there is no shortage of math-related books for children, it helps to have knowledgeable researchers and teachers offer advice about specific books and whether they should be used in the classroom.

To meet this need, Phyllis and David Whitin include a chapter that offers criteria for judging math-related literature in their new book, New Visions for Linking Literature and Mathematics.

The following is a quick tour of some of their favorite titles and the reasons for including them:

  • If the World Were a Village: A Book about the World's People by David Smith introduces children to a statistical view of the world. It has the potential to open up some interesting discussions about justice, poverty, and stereotyping.
  • One Is a Snail, Ten Is a Crab: A Counting by Feet Book by April Pulley Sayre and Jeff Sayre shows children a variety of ways to count using the legs of different animals.
  • One Grain of Rice: A Mathematical Folktale by Demi showcases a female protagonist who cleverly tricks the unjust raja and helps to recover the farmland of her people.
  • Round Is a Mooncake: A Book of Shapes by Roseanne Thong portrays a little girl learning shapes in her urban environment. She is reminded of her Asian as well as her American heritage as she observes round rice bowls, square pizza boxes, and other shapes--all in the context of her multicultural world.
  • If You Hopped Like a Frog by David M. Schwartz uses the fascinating abilities of some animals to spark both scientific and mathematical wondering.

Phyllis expands on some of the educational possibilities of If You Hopped Like a Frog: "The amazing facts and hilarious illustrations make the book a terrific read-aloud. Then, from a language arts perspective, teachers can capitalize upon Schwartz's opening author's note, in which he describes his boyhood fascination with a frog's leaping ability. He wondered how far he could jump if he were a frog. Years later, he built upon this 'seed idea' by researching various animals' specialized abilities and by using similar ratios to apply those abilities to humans. What a wonderful demonstration for children to collect what Ralph Fletcher calls 'fierce wonderings' in their writers' notebooks, and to build their own paths of research and writing!"

"Schwartz also includes endnotes that explain his calculations, and he invites readers to extend his examples. These explorations are perfect for mathematics class. An example like the chameleon, whose tongue is half as long as its body length, can be used as an introduction to the concept. Even young children can cut a piece of adding tape as long as their body, fold it in half, and use this model to 'be a chameleon.'"

Phyllis notes that other examples in the book are challenging for older or more experienced children.

Both New Visions for Linking Literature and Mathematics and the Whitins' earlier Math Is Language Too: Talking and Writing in the Mathematics Classroom (2000) are copublished by NCTE and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM). And both books are referenced to NCTE and NCTM's standards. This collaboration makes sense to the Whitins, who believe that all national educational organizations need to work together to benefit children.

David adds that "given today's busy classroom schedules, connecting literature and mathematics is also pragmatic for teachers. Highlighting both sets of standards helps teachers justify integrated teaching."

The Whitins stress the importance of using books in "exploratory, open-ended ways." Phyllis explains that Math Is Language Too focuses on strategies for building a community of mathematical thinkers by emphasizing the importance of writing, talking, and representing mathematical ideas; outlining strategies for starting and sustaining math journals; and sharing ways to conduct exploratory conversations that help children make their thinking visible. The book also examines ways children's literature can spark interesting mathematical or literary investigations.

New Visions for Linking Literature and Mathematics includes a chapter devoted to high-quality books for all ages and shows how good K-6 teachers have used books with a wide range of age levels to support both literary and mathematical skills. "Our emphasis," David says, "is on possibilities not prescriptions. We devote chapters to two important strategies: book pairs and problem posing. We show how pairing books in inviting ways opens up interesting mathematical and literary discussions. The strategy of problem posing underscores the importance of listening to children's observations and using those as catalysts for investigations.

"We also show how teachers themselves can use this strategy to envision new mathematical and literary possibilities for literature. In all these chapters we show numerous samples of children's work so that readers can better understand the potential of these strategies. We conclude with a comprehensive, annotated list of the best, and most recent, math-related books."

Ordering Information

New Visions for Linking Literature and Mathematics; stock #33487-1525; $21.95, NCTE members; $29.95, non-NCTE members

Math Is Language Too: Talking and Writing in the Mathematics Classroom; stock #21349-1525; $15.95, NCTE members; $21.95, non-NCTE members

You can order these and other titles through the NCTE Online Store at, by calling (toll free) 877-369-6283, or by e-mailing

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