Illustration by Joyce Hesselberth.

Searching for something to get kids excited about math? Scrambling for a great resource to share with your colleagues or use in the library?
Consider picture books.
What I’ve learned over the years is that illustrated books can help dispel the myth that math is dull, unimaginative, and inaccessible. They can spark children’s mathematical imaginations in ways that textbooks and workbooks often don’t. Picture books can also help students who love to read—but think math isn’t their thing—experience the wonder of math in the same way they already enjoy the wonder of books. Plus, students whose first love is math will learn to look at books in a new way. If you’re an educator who doesn’t enjoy or feel comfortable teaching math, using picture books can build on your existing strengths in teaching reading and language arts, and help bolster your confidence and enthusiasm for teaching math.
To show you what I’m talking about, I’ll present a vignette of a firstgrade math lesson. But keep in mind, picture books also work well as a springboard to math with older students in grades four, five, and six. (For some tips on selecting an appropriate picture book, see "Count on Me" below.)
One of my favorite books to share with young students is Keith Baker’s Quack and Count (Harcourt, 1999). After gathering the children on the rug, I show them the cover of the book and read the title and author’s name.
"What do you think this book is about?" I ask.
After children share their ideas, I say, "Let’s find out."
I open to the first spread and read: "Seven ducklings in a row. Count those ducklings as they go." After talking about "ducklings" being a word that describes baby ducks, I ask the students to count along with me as I point to each of the ducklings in the illustration.
Then I turn to the next spread and read the accompanying rhyme. Six ducklings are shown on the left page and one on the right page, and I have the kids first count the ducks on the left and then the one duck on the right. "And how many ducklings do you think there are altogether?" I ask. Some of the first graders know that there are seven, others aren’t so sure. Together we count all of them to make sure that six ducks plus one more are indeed seven.
The following spread shows five ducklings on the left page and two on the right. I read the rhyme and we count the ducks on the left first and then those on the right. After posing the same question about how many there are in all, we verify that there are seven by counting all of the ducks together.
I continue in this same way for the rest of the book. Then I talk with the children about the story, asking them to recall what the ducklings did, revisiting the illustrations, and repeating the addition sentences—seven equals six plus one, seven equals five plus two, and so on.
To extend this experience, I reread the book to the class, this time writing number sentences on chart paper to keep track of what happened and to model how to connect mathematical symbols to the story. For example, after rereading the spread with six ducks on the left and one on the right, I write:
7 = 6 + 1
I have the children read the number sentence aloud as I point to the symbols, and I invite them to help me write equations for the rest of the story. An especially nice feature of this book is that the illustrations near the end allow for thinking about seven with more than two addends. When we finish the rereading, the chart looks like this:
7 = 6 + 1
7 = 5 + 2
7 = 4 + 3
7 = 3 + 4
7 = 2 + 5
7 = 1 + 6
7 = 2 + 3 + 2
7 = 2 + 2 + 2 + 1
I then give each of the children seven interlocking cubes and have them show each of the combinations by using the cubes to represent each addend with a train. The students enjoy holding the trains up as if they were finger puppets.
For an individual assignment, I ask them each to choose one of the number sentences from the chart, copy it, and illustrate it. "You can draw ducklings or any other shapes," I tell them. For kids who finish quickly, I ask them to grab another sheet, fold it in fourths, and illustrate a different equation in each section. And, to differentiate the assignment further, I ask students who are ready for an additional challenge to write and illustrate their own equations, each with combinations of more than two numbers that add up to seven.
Often the same book is suitable for more than one grade level. I read Quack and Count to a class of kindergarteners, and it worked just fine. However, I limited the math part of the experience to focus only on the combinations of two addends, and I skipped the individual writing assignment.
To help you get started, here are some of my favorite titles for introducing or reinforcing a wide range of math concepts. For each title, I’ve listed the math concepts and skills they include, along with the appropriate grade levels. Following each brief story description, there’s also an idea for a math lesson. I hope these suggestions will inspire you to use picture books to teach math to your own students.
Burns, Marilyn. Spaghetti and Meatballs for All! Scholastic, 1997. Gr 4–6: AREA AND PERIMETER
For a family reunion, Mrs. Comfort arranges eight square tables, each with four chairs, so that all 32 guests will have a place to sit. But as guests arrive, they create havoc with their own seating plans.
Have students use square tiles or draw on squared paper to experiment with what happens to the seating when square tables are pushed together. Introduce the math vocabulary of area (one square unit for each tabletop) and perimeter (four units for each square table, one unit for each side).
Emberley, Ed. The Wing on a Flea. Little, Brown, 2001. K–Gr 2:
GEOMETRY
With brightly colored illustrations and simple rhymes, children learn how common geometric shapes—triangles, rectangles, and circles—are found in the world that surrounds them.
Prepare a sentence starter strip for each child:
A triangle could be a ___________.
Also, title chart paper with the sentence starter. As children share ideas, list them on the chart. Then each student writes a word to complete his or her own sentence starter strip, glues the strip to construction paper, and illustrates the idea with cutout shapes and drawings. On the next two days, repeat for two other sentence starters:
A rectangle could be a ___________.
A circle could be a ___________.
Compile their work into class books.
Florian, Douglas. A Pig Is Big. Greenwillow, 2000. K–Gr 1:
BIGGER, SMALLER
The book opens by asking, "What’s big?" and presents an exploration of things that are increasingly bigger and bigger—from a pig to a cow, car, truck, street, neighborhood, city, Earth, and finally the universe.
Give each student two pieces of paper and ask them to draw something that is bigger than a pig on one piece and something that is smaller than a pig on the other. Have children share their drawings and record what they drew (or record for them). Compile their work into two class books: What Is Bigger Than a Pig? and What Is Smaller Than a Pig?
Goldstone, Bruce. Ten Friends. Holt, 2001. Gr 1–2:
COMBINATIONS of 10
The book presents different combinations of guests that could come to tea; for example, eight trusty tailors with two proud plumbers, or seven salty sailors with three loud drummers. Ten combinations of 10 guests are suggested in all.
Present children the challenge of writing as many different addition equations as they can that show different combinations of numbers that add to 10. It may help some children to use interlocking cubes of different colors to build different combinations.
Hutchins, Hazel. A Second Is a Hiccup. Scholastic/Arthur A. Levin Bks., 2004. K–Gr 1:
TIME
This book explains units of time in ways that all children can recognize. Beginning with "How long is a second?" it goes on to addresses the length of a minute, hour, day, week, month, and year.
Revisit the spread that begins, "How long is a minute?" Tell the children that you’ll time one minute while they cover their eyes or put their heads down on their desks. When they think one minute has passed, they should raise their hand. They may have to wait until you say "One minute." Then have children think of things they do that take about one minute.
Krull, Kathleen. Wilma Unlimited. Harcourt, 1996. Gr 4–6:
GRAPHING, MEASUREMENT
This is the inspiring story of Wilma Rudolph, the first woman to win three gold medals in a single Olympics. A sickly child just over four pounds at birth who had a leg paralyzed by polio just before she turned five, Rudolph became an incredible athlete.
A few days before reading the book, ask students to find out how much they weighed at birth. List the information on chart paper. Then, after reading the story, have students work in pairs to create a graph of the data.
Lionni, Leo. Inch by Inch. HarperTrophy, 1995. K–Gr 3:
MEASUREMENT
An inchworm is able to measure anything and proves it by measuring a robin’s tail, a flamingo’s neck, a toucan’s beak, and more. When confronted with either measuring a nightingale’s song or being eaten, the inchworm creatively solves the problem.
Model for the students how to use a oneinch tile to search for objects that measure one inch. (For older students, use a ruler.) Entitle a piece of chart paper "1 Inch" and list the items you find. Then have students search for things to add to the list.
Pinczes, Elinor J. A Remainder of One. Houghton, 2002. Gr 3–6:
DIVISION
Soldier Joe is in a squadron of 25 bug soldiers and is left to march alone when the troop assembles in two, three, or four lines. The Queen is displeased until finally the soldiers organize into five lines.
To reinforce or introduce the idea of remainders, write division equations for each arrangement of 25 bug soldiers—25 ÷ 2 = 12 R1, 25 ÷ 3 = 8 R1, 25 ÷ 4 = 6 R1, 25 ÷ 5 = 5 R0. Then give students clues and have them figure out the number between 1 and 25 that fits them all:
When you divide by 2, the remainder is 0.
When you divide by 3, the remainder is 1.
When you divide by 4, the remainder is 2.
When you divide by 5, the remainder is 0.
Students can make up their own sets of clues for other problems.
Ross, Tony. Centipede’s 100 Shoes. Holt, 2003. Gr 3–4:
MULTIPLICATION AND ADDITION
A little centipede buys 100 pairs of shoes at the shoe store and, the next morning, discovers that he bought too many. He only has 42 legs (which is typical for centipedes!) and, besides, the shoes hurt his feet. So he sells them along with the 42 socks his aunties knit for him.
List who bought the shoes and socks. The centipede sells shoes to all of them, and socks as well to the spiders and worms. Either include the number of legs each has or have the students research to find out.
4 beetles (6 legs each)
2 woodlice (14 legs each)
1 grasshopper (6 legs each)
5 spiders (8 legs each)
2 worms (1 leg each)
Then have them verify that the centipede really did sell all the shoes and socks.
Shulevitz, Uri. One Monday Morning. Farrar, 2003. K–Gr 1:
NUMBER SENSE, GRAPHING
This tale begins one Monday morning when a king, queen, and prince pay a visit to a little boy who isn’t home. They return each day of the week, each time with one more visitor, and finally find the boy at home on Sunday.
As children retell the story, use stacks of interlocking cubes to make a concrete graph that represents how many visitors arrived each day, using a different color for each character. Record for each day, writing two different equations from Wednesday on:
Monday 3
Tuesday 3 + 1 = 4
Wednesday 4 + 1 = 5, 3 + 1 + 1 = 5
Thursday 5 + 1 = 6, 3 + 1 + 1 + 1 = 6
and so on.

Author Information 
Marilyn Burns is the founder of Math Solutions, which helps schools improve K–8 math instruction through professional development and publications. 