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FINE Newsletter, Volume VIII, Issue 2
Formula for Success: Engaging Families in Early Math Learning

Voices From the Field

Parents and their children often read together, bonding as they explore reality and fiction, the everyday and the fantastic. Children can learn about nature, animals, monsters, trucks, letters, and words. Books can also help children learn about different math topics, including number, operations, shape, space, and measurement. Book reading is a safe way for parents anxious about math to engage their children in a warm, unpressured math activity, and for both to learn that math can be fascinating and a source of intellectual excitement.

We like to think about three categories of math books:

  • Some books teach math directly. Counting books involve determining the number of objects on a page. Shape books may define the figures, saying explicitly that a triangle has three sides.
  • Other storybooks, like Elevator Magic, ground the concepts in a cohesive narrative in which characters explore math ideas and solve problems, like which button to press if the goal is to make an elevator go from the 10th floor to another floor five levels down.
  • A third category of storybooks includes math “implicitly.” On the surface, Goldilocks and the Three Bears is about a young girl who goes for a walk in the woods and finds herself alone in the bears’ home, where she gets into trouble. However, beneath the surface important math concepts of size and order support the narrative. Papa Bear has a big bowl of porridge and Baby Bear has a small bowl. Mama’s bed is both smaller than Papa’s but larger than Baby’s. The story makes no sense unless the child understands the relative sizes of the bears and how they relate to the bowls of porridge and beds.

Good books, implicitly or explicitly, can cultivate an interest in reading and in math. While reading, parents can engage their children in stimulating math discussions. “Which bed is smallest? Why do you think it belongs to Baby Bear?” Parents can use storybooks to engage their children in thinking and talking about math.

A new kind of book category: interactive storybooks 
We have been working with a relatively new kind of book, the interactive storybook, which resides on a touchscreen device (a powerful computer) like an iPad. Our goal was to create exciting stories that explicitly involve math ideas and encourage productive interactions among child, parent, and book. Interactive math storybooks can help the child to understand the math and the parent to appreciate and foster the child’s mathematical thinking.

A scene from Monster Music Factory
Figure 1: A scene from Monster Music Factory, an interactive storybook that promotes mathematical concepts.
In the interactive math storybook Monster Music Factory, children learn different mathematical concepts and strategies as they pack instruments for the greatest monster music band ever, The Whirling Wailers. Figure 1 shows a scene in which children are invited to count the tambourines (which shake and sound when touched) and then press the written number to indicate the total. If the response is wrong, the monster Tigga shows how to check the answers with a meaningful strategy, namely, by touching and counting each tambourine once and only once. Other appropriate strategies are used in other scenes. The storybook helps young readers to engage in an interactive narrative that promotes meaningful math learning and language.

What we’re learning
We are conducting several kinds of research to understand how parents and children behave when they read interactive math storybooks. We observe parents reading in order to identify the useful things they say and do to help their children learn the math in the story. We observe children to learn whether they are engaged in the story, how they respond to assistance, and whether they in fact learn math. Here are some effective strategies we’ve seen parents use: 

  • Read Together: It’s important that parents find opportunities to read with the child. Storybooks alone will not guide children’s learning. Storybooks are not Apps for children to use on their own.  It’s the parent-child interaction that facilitates learning. 
  • Ask Questions: Parents should pause at appropriate points and ask questions like, “How do you know?” and “How can you make sure?” and “Why is that the right answer?” Children need to learn to explain and justify their thinking.
  • Support the child’s learning: Parents can also support and reinforce children’s learning. For example, in our study a father was reading Monster Music Factory with his young son when three tambourines emerged from the machine. “How many tambourines?” the father asked, prompting his son to practice counting the instruments. Although the father could have been satisfied with the correct answer “three,” he instead took the opportunity to reinforce the three-ness of the tambourines. “Want to touch them and hear the sound?” As the child touched each tambourine, one at a time, the father counted along, “One, two, three.”
  • Extend the child’s learning: Another good strategy is to help the child transfer learning to new examples. For instance, in the example above, after the father and son counted tambourines, the father went on to point to the three-eyed, three-armed monster. He asked, “How many eyes does that guy have?” The goal was to draw connections between different representations of three. His son was learning that the concept of three can characterize not only tambourines but any three distinct items: three parts of a larger whole, such as eyes, or three sounds, such as the shakes of the tambourines.

Math books vary in quality. Some are dull, with poor illustrations and uninspiring prose. If the book is not interesting, don’t read it, even if it seems to have math content.  Instead enjoy an exciting book in all its aspects, math and other. By spending time immersed in good books, your child can learn to read and to do math, too. 

About the Authors:
Herbert Ginsburg is Professor of Psychology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. His work focuses on the development of mathematical thinking in young children. He is currently engaged in development and evaluation of math storybooks

Colleen Uscianowski is a PhD student in Cognitive Studies in Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. She was formerly a special education teacher and adjunct lecturer at Hunter College. She conducts research on early childhood math education and leads professional development workshops for teachers and principals that focus on improving math instruction for at-risk students.

Victoria Almeda is a PhD student in Cognitive Studies in Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Her research interests include early mathematics education and learning analytics.

Cassie Freeman is a post-doctoral researcher in the Human Development department at Teachers College, Columbia University. She designs and researches professional development and school change initiatives, focused on mathematics teaching and learning.

This resource is part of the May 2016 FINE Newsletter. The FINE Newsletter shares the newest and best family engagement research and resources from Harvard Family Research Project and other field leaders. To access the archives of past issues, please visit

© 2016 Presidents and Fellows of Harvard College
Published by Harvard Family Research Project