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Teaching Mathematics Through Literacy

Updated: Mar 18

Teaching Mathematics through Literature is not a new or a unique concept but it is definitely worth discussing. In particular this blog is focused on the 2 books for which we have created resources – Sir Cumference and The Dragon of Pi and A Place for Zero. Both of these are over 20 years old but are just as relevant now as they were when they were first published and this short 5 minute read will show you why.


Students love to hear books read to them. They get lost visualising the characters, picturing the adventures their new friends are having and the problems they are solving. So a great way to teach Mathematical concepts is to ask students to visualise numbers and teach abstract concepts through parables and stories.

This is such a good method for teaching mathematics that Dr. Natthapoj Vincent Trakulphadetkrai, Associate Professor of Mathematics Education at the University of Reading, has developed a database of over 500 mathematics related stories on his website He has even developed an annual writing prize for young students who wish to write a mathematics inspired story.

So yes, literacy is a great medium for teaching numerical concepts and one of the best books in this genre is Sir Cumference and the Dragon of Pi. Pi is normally a very difficult concept to explain. It is an irrational number which can be written forever without repetition. In fact in 2005, Guinness World Recorder, Lu Chao of China, recited 67,890 digits of pi without error. Yet for many students pi is just π – the number they find embedded in their calculator which they use when they have to calculate with circles.

Sir Cumference and The Dragon of Pi by mathematics author extraordinaire Cindy Neuschwander allows students to understand where pi came from. The idea is to teach students that the circumference of a circle is π or 3.14 times the distance of the circle’s diameter. The story uses a clever rhyming riddle and common images such as cartwheels and a fruit pie to show that a circle’s circumference is 3 and a bit times the diameter and that the “bit” is almost 1/7 the length of the diameter.

Reading the story aloud to your students you will help them to visualise the information before they perform kinaesthetic activities replicating the measuring actions of Radius, the main character from the story. These measurement test allow students to prove that the information is correct and this allows internalisation of the concept of pi and hopefully retention of this information for later use.

The second book this week, A Place for Zero, is a fun book about the number Zero finding his place in society. It is a great way to teach students the fact that adding zero to a number does not change the original number but multiplying by zero causes a number to revert to zero. The story also teaches young students that adding zeros to the end of a numeral will multiply that numeral 10, 100 or even 1000 times depending on the number of zeros used. This book is a fun way to introduce place value or revisit the concept of adding and multiply numbers including zero. Combining literacy and numeracy via mathematical based texts is a wonderful way to cover multiple syllabi simultaneously and blur the line between fiction and non-fiction stories. It is a fun way to introduce and teach abstract concepts and hopefully something you will try with your students in the very near future.