Academic journal article Australasian Journal of Early Childhood

Picture Books Stimulate the Learning of Mathematics

Academic journal article Australasian Journal of Early Childhood

Picture Books Stimulate the Learning of Mathematics

Article excerpt


THE USE OF PICTURE BOOKS to support children's learning, and the research that investigates this, generally focuses on learning related to language development, including oral language skills and early literacy concepts (Blok, 1999). However, since the late 1980s, linking mathematics instruction to children's literature has become increasingly popular (Clyne & Griffiths, 1991; Doig, 1987, 1989; Haury, 2001). During that period, several books were released that either provided examples of teachers who used children's literature (see Whittaker, 1986)in mathematics teaching, or provided teachers with guidelines on how to use picture books--and children's literature in general--in their mathematics lessons. This popularity has extended to some authors' websites, where parents are provided with suggestions for using storybooks for educational purposes, and not just mathematics (see Kehoe, n.d.).

Children learn mathematics from meaningful contexts, and teaching should build on the informal knowledge children have acquired both before starting school and outside school hours. This view, of the supportive role of intuitive and informal knowledge when learning mathematics and the importance of a meaningful context in establishing mathematical thinking (Donaldson, 1979; Hughes, 1986), is widely accepted in current theories on learning and teaching mathematics (Bransford, Brown & Cocking, 2000). Or, as one first year of school teacher, Sue, said: 'With the little ones I think that books are great ... it engages them straight away, so ... that's good' (Doig, 2008). Learning mathematics by starting with a context that makes sense to children also forms one of the founding principles of Realistic Mathematics Education (RME), the Dutch approach to mathematics education (see Van den Heuvel-Panhuizen, 2001). RME sees mathematics as an integral part of human experience, which means that it can also be seen as an integral part of the stories told in picture books. For that reason we believe the use of picture books is well-suited to this reformed approach to mathematics education.

What we want to show is that good, but ordinary, picture books--in the sense that they are not written to teach mathematics--have the power to get children thinking mathematically. Through reading picture books, children encounter novel images or actions that linger in their minds, which they can combine with previous experiences, and on which they can build new thoughts and understandings. This means that the pictures and the situations in the stories can function as 'cognitive hooks' for the children (Lovitt & Clarke, 1992) that trigger and form a foundation for their mathematical development. Some good insight into the power of picture books was acquired in a study by Van den Heuvel-Panhuizen and Van den Boogaard (2008), which showed that mathematical thinking can be invoked in young children when they are read a picture book. The findings of this study, conducted as part of the Picture book and COncept development in mathematics (PICO-ma) project, support the idea that reading children picture books without explicit instruction or prompting has lots of potential for mathematically engaging children. This perspective was also taken in the PICO-ma study reported in the present article.


To show the range of possibilities that picture books hold for giving young children access to mathematics--through offering them a source of experience for further concept development--we look beyond the more familiar domain of numbers and include here three examples from three separate mathematical domains that are less likely to be touched upon with young children. The first example deals with geometry, in particular the cross-sections of objects and shapes. The second example is about data handling, where a time-length graph and a time-weight graph are used to express growth. The third example addresses measurement, and includes issues such as scale and ratio, and measuring objects that are curved. …

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