Literacy and Math

When I was in first grade, I mastered math placement.  Really.  Math is not my strong suit, but my teacher read aloud Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag.


The repeated text in the book is, “Hundreds of cats, thousands of cats, millions and billions and trillions of cats.”  I have come to chant those words, slapping my leg to the beat, every time I read this book to my preschool class.  I tell the children they need to help me say the words, and each time it appears in the book, they chant along with me, loud and clear.  Maybe my first grade teacher did the same thing.


The illustrations are pen and ink, yet finding all those cats- hundreds and thousands and millions and billions and trillions- pulls children in.  They clamor to see the pictures.  The book was written in the 1920’s and continues to be a big hit.  A book must be excellent, first and foremost, before it can teach.

Picture books can teach math.  The outstanding ones, like Millions of Cats, sneak up on you.  They put math in a real context, but first they draw the reader into the story, such as finding all the cats.

Adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing in preschool?  You bet!  A good story can do just that.  A case in point, The Doorbell Rang by Pat Hutchins.


The story is about chocolate chip cookies.  Mom makes the best batch from Grandma’s recipe.  One dozen cookies.  The reader sees two children sharing a dozen cookies.  As friends arrive and the cookies must be shared, the reader then sees four children, and the words simply say, “That’s three each.”  That visual is subitizing.


The new buzz word in math- subitizing- is being able to look at a grouping of objects, whether it is people, cookies, or the dots on a dice, and “know” what that number is.  This book continues with more children arriving, and more dividing of the cookies.  Of course it is the story itself, with a cliffhanger ending, that pulls in the reader.

And what about the ever-important counting and number recognition?  The gold standard for the richest book in building upon numbers is Anno’s Counting Book by Mitsumasa Anno.


Math is sequential, a series of building blocks.  This book starts with zero and builds to twelve, each page adding one more.  For example:


Not only does the count of each object depicted increase by one, a new object is added to each page.  Where number 2 shows two buildings, two people, two pine trees, at least seven different objects, number 9 shows many more objects.  The book also goes through the seasons, adding visual excitement to an I Spy-esque counting adventure.


Children love good books.  If those books are about math, they will be interested in math.  And so it goes.  Pretty powerful.


About Jennie

I have been teaching preschool for over thirty years. This is my passion. I believe that children have a voice, and that is the catalyst to enhance or even change the learning experience. Emergent curriculum opens young minds. It's the little things that happen in the classroom that are most important and exciting. That's what I write about. I am highlighted in the the new edition of Jim Trelease's bestselling book, "The Read-Aloud Handbook" because of my reading to children. My class has designed quilts that hang as permanent displays at both the National Liberty Museum in Philadelphia, and the Fisher House at the Boston VA Hospital.
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25 Responses to Literacy and Math

  1. You have put together a very educational post here. I wish all the preschool through grade school teachers were reading this. They could learn as much as I just have. I don’t think our teachers were as talented at teaching as you. You should be teaching teachers.

  2. Dan Antion says:

    It’s amazing how easily children can comprehend beyond expectations, when learning is fun. If I was a kid again, I’d want you for a teacher.

  3. Excellent post. You are an amzing teacher and will turn out amazing students. Kudos!

  4. Susan @ says:

    Jennie, Thank you for explaining exactly how helpful each of these classics is in teaching math. I will definitely be sharing this on my blog! Your instructions and enthusiasm about reading these books to young children will be so helpful to the moms who read my posts.

  5. Wonderful post. I feel the need to see if these books are in my local library, now!

  6. Tess DeGroot says:

    Reblogged this on Tess DeGroot and commented:
    Books can raise awareness, create interest, and teach skills in a fun and powerful way.

  7. Pingback: Kids' Books to Remember and Links for Mom and Dad | Red Canoe Reader

  8. reocochran says:

    I enjoy counting books as well as colors or alphabet books. Your featuring “Millions of Cats” by Wanda Gag makes me very happy!
    I like the pen and ink drawings as well as the way the text is written, almost like handwritten. So much goodness and light you spread here.

  9. I think these visuals are a great value to aiding the learning process.. I wish when I was a youngster at school learning Maths had been so colourful.. 🙂 I so disliked Maths I think because it never held my attention..
    I remember in those early years loving fractions.. Why? because we had small bricks which we would build and then divide etc.. 🙂 each unit had a different colour and width.. 🙂 I think when you are interested you learn more.
    Great Post Jennie xx

  10. I agree, Jennie. What a brilliant way to instill a love of math! Love love love this. You are such a great talent for these kids and the way you share that with us. Many blessings, Debbie

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