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Shannon O'Sullivan

School Improvement Partner

  • Experienced Senior Leader and Primary Teacher
  • Specialises in data, leadership, English, Maths and Curriculum design.

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Storytelling in Maths: Making Maths Fun

Once upon a time, deep in an enchanted forest, in the inner depths of the castle cellar, there lived a secretive wizard.  During the day he supported the kingdom’s wizardry needs, but by night, he was terribly puzzled by an unanswered problem, he was under extreme time pressure, he only had 100 days to solve it.   Night by night, week by week, he would spend hours trying different models of fractional and whole numbers to solve his problem….

Do you want to know more?  Are you intrigued?  This is storytelling maths!

Just imagine how excited your pupils would be if this was the way we introduced mathematical vocabulary, new concepts and word problems to pupils.

Consider what we know already; the patterns of traditional stories activate our prior knowledge to support learning and reading of new books.  Mnemonics support our memory of spelling patterns and rules and songs help us to develop our fluency in number systems, therefore following a story map will develop our oracy and vocabulary in maths.  In our Path to Success, this story can be seen as the ‘Hook’ and ‘Experience’.  You are giving a purpose to learning the new maths concept and building upon a problem in a more interesting way.

Good mathematical stories usually start with a great ‘hook’. This hook must contain appropriate mathematical vocabulary and allow opportunities for further investigations to take place.  For example, if the story above began in the way you see, however the equation linked to factors, then the wizard’s problem may relate to inviting friends to a potion party where he must work out ways to seat them and use the ingredients to make potions. If he has 13 or 17 friends attending, will one always be left out if the recipes, bedrooms and tables always call for divisors of 2, 3 or 4?

After introducing the problem, unpick the language and mathematical concepts with the pupils in story form; begin to map out the problem, drawing the actions and key facts.  This will enable the pupils to develop their verbal skills and confidence - this is a way of using oracy to develop conceptual and procedural approaches.

Once pupils have internalised the story and are confident with the mathematical language, by demonstrating an understanding of the mathematical concepts, this is a prime time to move their learning forward through investigative work.

Eventually storytelling in maths will lead to children internalising the language of maths through repetition and apply this skilfully to a range of reasoning problems.

Top 5 tips for using storytelling maths:

  • Try using everyday books, whole class texts and class readers and draw out the mathematical vocabulary. Look at the setting and location of the story, incidents that take place, for example, ‘As the sun sets...’ What time of day is the story taking place?  ‘As the leaves dropped...”  What time of year is this?  What is the previous season?  The next season?  Consider journey stories, “In which direction are they travelling?” Who is on the left?  Where there are amounts… What if you had to buy double everything?  Triple?  Using multiplication.  g.  Venn Diagrams for animals with less than 4 legs and 4 or more legs in What the Ladybird Heard, by Julia Donaldson, or even directions and positional language.
  • Try playing games with maths technical vocabulary. Define, deconstruct and use language, then share this on your working wall.  Consider vocabulary for arithmetic:  the suffix tion/sion simply put describes the process, action or result of something.  Therefore division, is the process of separating something into parts, addition is the process of calculating two or more amounts.  It is a noun of Latin and English origins.  Can they play with these words?  What other similar words do they know?
  • For further inspiration to engage KS1 and LKS2 use stories like Rosie’s Walk by Pat Hutchins for positional language; One is a Snail Ten is a Crab by April and Jeff Sayre for teaching calculations; How Big is a Million by Anna Milbourne for teaching place value 100,1000 etc; The Great Pet Sale, for teaching money and change by Mick Inkpen; What the Ladybird Heard, by Julia Donaldson, demonstrating Venn diagrams for animals with less than 4 legs and 4 or more or even directions and positional language.
  • Once you have hooked them with the now internalised story, supporting their communication and language with vocabulary and key facts, use this to develop investigative and problem-solving skills. For example, we could:
    • Explore key concepts further, using concrete manipulatives matched to the story
    • Conjure further problems and support children in writing their own.

To extend learning, try reinforcing formal methods or develop further opportunities for abstract concepts.

By using stories, we can introduce problems in a much more interesting way and provide a purpose and motivation to help children learn.