Solving Math Problems with Stories

When introducing word problems during our addition unit I began thinking about my math students as readers. Word problems reside in stories.  I am asking my students to visualize  the actions in the problem and schema to solve a new situation with a strategy they already know. There must be picture books to contextualize and connect with type of content reading. So I went searching.

screen-shot-2016-09-26-at-1-14-12-pmFirst we read Mice Mischief by, Caroline Stills.  This simple book about 10 mice illustrates different combinations of 10 with the corresponding equation.  We talked about how the pictures and words match the math.

screen-shot-2016-09-26-at-1-14-57-pmThen I read Two of Everything by, Lily Toy Hong.  This Chinese Folktale tells about a pot that doubles everything placed inside.  We learned some books have math inside the story that you have to discover.  We found the math on certain pages and wrote equations to match.

Then the children explored.  As they read from the selection of texts, they work with a partner to identify addition problems in each book.  They talked about the story, built context for the conceptual understanding of joining two parts (usually characters or items in the story) together to make a whole.  They wrote equations and shared their thinking with the class.  As we combined reading skills and math concepts they marveled at the fact that math exists in books.

This text set has a wide range of reading levels and math difficulty for beginning first graders.  I grouped the students based on both their reading and math needs to differentiate the content.screen-shot-2016-09-26-at-1-13-48-pm

After exploring how different authors used math within sorties we set out to create one of our own. Using Mice Mischief  and The Flashing Fireflies by, Philemon Sturges as mentor texts, we explored how the authors use a total amount of 10 to create a stories.  We decide our story took place in the forest with 10 total objects on each page.


Each student wrote an individual page for our class book.  We learned about addition concepts.  We learned about visualizing as readers.  We learned about writing to communicate one part of a collective text.  We blurred the lines between content areas and experienced how reading, writing and math are constructed in the real world as we became mathematical authors.

Book choice, differentiation and the beginnings of goal setting

After I removed the reading levels from my classroom library I taught readers how to make independent book choices based on a variety of strategies. Last week, with daily lessons in selecting texts and focused time to pick books, they could do it. This next week our instruction shifted to increasing stamina and the volume of reading. When the children went to self select books it all fell apart. Without the whole-class scaffolding and attention on the strategies, many struggled to select texts independently.

I did what any teacher does when a lesson flops.  I reflected on the failure. My readers weren’t all making the same mistake. Some picked books they could read but not comprehend. Some picked a huge range of text difficulty. Some were copping out with easy books. Others were independently selecting appropriate books and ready for next steps in instruction. Giving students choice requires me to differentiate more. I have to know what each individual learner needs, group them with similar peers, and scaffold learning based on their needs. And beginning readers have a wide range of needs. I looked through their book baskets and evaluated their choices. I grouped and identified reading goals based on my assessments of their reading levels and abilities and the types of books they were picking.

Before setting goals, readers need to know what they are struggling with and when it feels just right. Giving them sample texts that closely match independent levels, allowing them to read independently and then talking about how that book ‘felt’ as a reader is one way to help them construct the abstract idea of a “just right book”. Asking them to focus on their potential goal – such as read to see if you can clearly understand – is another way to help them recognize what is challenging and what feels right.

For example, one reader commented after reading that the book was too easy, while I knew it was an exact match to her independent level. As we talked, she learned that a just right book shouldn’t feel confusing – it’s a goal to have crystal clear thinking when reading. Another student thought the words were too hard, but in reality he uses limited decoding strategies with unknown words. These readers were assessed at the same reading level, read the same book and had vastly different learning experiences when getting the feel of a just right book and information for what is challenging for them as readers.

Now, as we explicitly set reading goals for learning they will have a sense of the books they need and background knowledge to understand on their individual goals.

Goodbye Leveled Library Part #2

Before school began I said goodbye to my leveled classroom library. I rearranged books to support independent readers – NOT Lexiles and labels.  After a few weeks of getting to know my readers and my readers getting to know books they love, we started the long journey of choosing the right book at the right time for the right purpose.

All readers need books that meet their needs.drminilesson With two volunteers we role play visiting the doctor.  The first student has a broken arm and I (the doctor) put a cast on his arm.  The second student enters with a broken leg, and I put a cast on her arm as well.  All the children erupt “NO, that won’t help! She has a broken leg! Put a cast on her leg!” Engaging, yes.  But my point illustrates that just as doctors treat patients based on their individual needs, the books we choose are based on our individual reading needs. All readers’ book choices must reflect their goals.

Good readers purposefully choose books they can read.  ipickI originally stole this from the background of a Twitter photo and later saw it blasted all over Pinterest. While I don’t generally rip off pre-created anchor charts, this one comprehensively illustrates the mindset of real reading.  As we set the purpose for reading instruction the children immediately recognize it is to become better readers.  Every book they choose is with the intention of growing as readers. As we spent the previous three weeks building interest, they are already familiar with their own reading tastes.  The last two, comprehension and accuracy, go together.  Real reading is reading the words and understanding the text. Read on to see how I spend the next few days teaching specific strategies for accuracy and comprehension.

All readers practice reading fivefingerwith books they can read MOST of the words.  While I hesitate to give children a definitive limit on selecting a text, the Five Finger Rule can help young readers quantify books that really are too hard.  If a reader encounters five (or more) tricky words in the first few pages, a book might be too hard. I was serendipitously away from my class for professional development this day and our reading specialist modeled the strategy for the kids.  Upon my return, I had the children teach it to me and we co-created this anchor chart. Yes, they taught me to “Start with a book you think is just right” and try out the words.  First graders get this – the Five Finger Rule can be one strategy to gauge readability, but NOT the only strategy.

Real reading is reading the words and understanding the text.  In every lesson, I reiterate the main reason for reading is to understand.  Comprehension Connections by, Tanny McGregor suggests using paint samples to monitor comprehension. After reading part of a new text, stop and evaluate.  If your thinking or understanding is fuzzy its like the lighter color on a swatch.  The clearer your understanding of the text the brighter the color. While my students in September don’t have the comprehension strategies or language to fully articulate their thinking, they now have a conceptual tool (and unique bookmark) to monitor understanding.

Readers make plans for books they want to read in the future. As students began to sift through their personal book boxes, select books from our classroom library and make critical decisions balancing interest, purpose and readability they had to let some books go.  They used deep thinking to select books with the purpose of becoming better readers.  I remind them these books are here for the whole year and confer with statements such as “Is this a book you might save for later in the year?” or “Remember that one in a few months, it will be waiting for you.”  More advanced readers could even make a running list of future texts or log them on an Instagram or Goodreads account.

Here are some priceless thoughts from my 6 year old readers.

  • “I really like David Shannon books and I really want to read about math.  I think I’ll save the math book for later because I can’t read all the words yet.”
  • “I am picking these science books because the words (text) are bigger and usually I can read those words better.”
  • “These five books I think I can read.  This other one has lots of tricky words, but I really like it.  I think I’ll keep it for a challenge.”

With that being said, letting go of control in the classroom is hard. Some kids just aren’t developmentally there yet. But keeping the big goal in mind – growing independent readers – means we are headed down the right path.

Up next, helping readers set realistic goals to increase purpose and ways to monitor and informally assess independent reading choices.




#ILD16 Family Reading Matters

International Literacy Day and the publication of my students’ first e-book coincided today.  This year the International Literacy Association reflects upon the Steps to Literacy and the amount students must travel just to make it to school – let alone learn to read.  I am fortunate to work with students who mostly did not step far to find their favorite books and arrive at school.

This week we gathered together each morning as a reading community to share our favorite picture books and memories from home. Using BookMaker app, we created our first book together about books we love.
screen-shot-2016-09-08-at-5-30-52-pmTo prepare, I sent a letter home inviting families to talk about their favorite books and reading memories.  Children shared reasons for loving books from snuggling with mom to enjoying a funny story.  We learned about our classmates’ interests and reflected on our own.  Every single child in my class has strong home connections to books because of their families.

What does this have to do with international literacy?  Everything.  These readers, whose parents have spent countless hours reading with their children, have deep connections to literacy.  Their ability to seamlessly document this in a collective text demonstrates families matter.  Leisurely reading with and to children connects them in ways to books we cannot fully comprehend or replicate in school.

Now, my hope is not to just teach my first graders to read, but to teach them to love reading with purpose.  And to go into the world and spread that love of reading.  For one day, everyone, everywhere can love to read as much as these six year olds do.