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  • The Role of Picture Books in Young ChildrensMathematics Learning

    Marja Van den Heuvel-Panhuizen and Iliada Elia

    Picture Books as a Didactical Tool

    Many mathematics curricula recommend that early mathematics education shouldendorse a broad range of mathematics covering the big math ideas in areas suchas number and operations, geometry (shape and space), measurement, and patterns,including problem solving and reasoning within these mathematical areas (Board ofStudies NSW 2006; Clements and Sarama 2009; Clements et al. 2004; Hunting et al.2012; NAEYC and NCTM 2002; NCTM 2000; Sarama and Clements 2009; Seoand Ginsburg 2004; Van den Heuvel-Panhuizen 2008; Van den Heuvel-Panhuizenand Buys 2008). Teaching mathematical concepts and processes can be success-fully done as early as kindergarten or even in the prekindergarten years (Ginsburgand Amit 2008). Of course, there is a difference in the methods of teaching youngchildren and older children. A major reason for this dissimilarity is that preschool orkindergarten is for many children between the ages of three and six, the rst place toattend an institutional educational setting. This means that the early childhood pe-riod involves the transition from informal learning in the family setting to the formallearning in school. Therefore, in the early years of education it is essential for thelearning of mathematics to be connected to their everyday experiences. Moreover,like it is the case for students at any age, the learning of mathematics should makesense to them. A didactical tool which has the potential to provide children withan appealing context is childrens literature; it makes the problems, situations andquestions that children encounter in the story meaningful to them (Columba et al.2005; Moyer 2000; Whitin and Wilde 1992).

    M. Van den Heuvel-Panhuizen (B)Freudenthal Institute for Science and Mathematics Education, Utrecht University, PO Box 85170,3508 AD Utrecht, The Netherlandse-mail:

    I. EliaDepartment of Education, University of Cyprus, PO Box 20537, 1678 Nicosia, Cypruse-mail:

    L.D. English, J.T. Mulligan (eds.), Reconceptualizing Early Mathematics Learning,Advances in Mathematics Education, DOI 10.1007/978-94-007-6440-8_12, Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013


  • 228 M. Van den Heuvel-Panhuizen and I. Elia

    On the basis of the Vygotskian and action-psychological approach to learning(Van Oers 1996), the personal and cultural development of a person is enhancedonly when learning is meaningful. On the one hand, meaningfulness of the learningprocess in mathematics refers to the process of acquiring mathematics as an activityinvolving meanings that are historically developed and approved. On the other hand,the learning of mathematics as a meaningful activity encompasses the process ofincorporating personal sense to the actions, techniques and outcomes included inmathematics (Van Oers 1996). Both kinds of meaning in the learning of mathematicscould be encompassed by reading children picture books, that is, books consisting oftext and pictures, in which pictures have a fundamental role in full communicationand understanding (Nikolajeva and Scott 2000).

    Learning mathematics takes place when children are given the opportunity toreconstruct mathematical objects in a meaningful way. To accomplish this, chil-dren need to be assisted by representatives of the community (Van Oers 1996), oras Vygotsky would have called themmore knowledgeable others (McLaughlinet al. 2005), such as parents and teachers. However, this idea of more knowledgeableothers can also be extended by giving picture books the role of more knowledge-able material (Van den Heuvel-Panhuizen and Van den Boogaard 2008) becausethe books can guide the learner toward higher levels of prociency. Picture bookscan be regarded as a community agent conveying culturally developed mathematicalmeanings. Furthermore, Lovitt and Clarke (1992) pointed out that picture books canoffer cognitive hooks to explore mathematical concepts and skills. That is, throughtheir interaction with picture books, children may be enabled to encounter problem-atic situations, ask their own questions, search for answers, consider different pointsof view, exchange views with others and incorporate their own ndings to existingknowledge. In other words, the use of picture books in mathematics teaching giveschildren the opportunity to construct their learning (using similar processes as thoseof scientists), by attaching personal meaning to the mathematical objects involvedin the books and thereby gain a mathematical understanding.

    Reading picture books can have a dual function in the mathematics teaching andlearning process. Firstly, it can be an informal and spontaneous activity that chil-dren engage in, especially when they are reading a book by themselves duringfree play. Secondly, it can be a goal-directed activity, organized and directed by theteacher. Given the meaningfulness of reading picture books in the learning process,the use of picture books in either way in mathematics teaching enables the teacherto open the scope to mathematical concepts which are not belonging to the tradition-ally approved curriculum for young learners such as reading a graph (see Fig. 1),understanding a cross-section, and measuring a long hair tail laid down in a spiralform (see for further elaborations of these examples, Van den Heuvel-Panhuizenet al. 2009). Moreover, reading picture books can be an activity that motivates chil-dren to participate and in which they are able to participate based on their availablecompetencies.

    The connection between reading picture books and early childhood educationhas a long history. It dates from 1652 when Comenius published his picture bookOrbis Pictus for assisting children to make impressions in the mind (Schickedanz

  • The Role of Picture Books in Young Childrens Mathematics Learning 229

    Fig. 1 Page 3 of the picturebook The surprise [Deverrassing] (Van Ommen2003)

    1995) through the visual images included in the book. In line with Comeniuss ideas,the importance of pictures in books for learning has also been supported by recentstudies which have shown that picture books pictures are the focal points of math-ematical interaction while reading picture books to young children (Anderson et al.2005).

    By means of their visual images in combination with the text, picture books cancontribute to initial stages of interpreting and using representations and in this waysupport the development of mathematical understanding. According to Van Oers(1996, p. 109), the improvement of mathematics education by innovations in theearly school years must be based on a general introduction to semiotic activity thatcan be accomplished by giving these children (from 4 to 7 years of age) assistanceand opportunities for practice with the activity of forming, exchanging, and negoti-ating all kinds of meaning within everyday practices.

    In the next sections we will elaborate on how picture books can enhance mathe-matical learning in the kindergarten years. The ndings reported are mainly derivedfrom a research program carried out in the PICO-ma project (PIcture books andCOncept development MAthematics) in the Netherlands.

    Learning-Supportive Characteristics of Picture Books

    There is evidence that different books vary in the amounts and kinds of mathematics-related utterances they evoke in children (Anderson et al. 2005). This means thatsome picture books might have more power than others to provide children an en-vironment in which they can learn mathematics. To gain more knowledge about the

  • 230 M. Van den Heuvel-Panhuizen and I. Elia

    Fig. 2 Framework of learning-supportive characteristics of picture books for learning mathemat-ics; from Van den Heuvel-Panhuizen and Elia (2012, p. 34)

    characteristics picture books can have to contribute to the initiation and further de-velopment of mathematical understanding in young children we made an inventoryof the learning-supportive characteristics of picture books (a full description of thisstudy can be found in Van den Heuvel-Panhuizen and Elia 2012) resulting in theframework shown in Fig. 2.

  • The Role of Picture Books in Young Childrens Mathematics Learning 231

    The framework has two main parts. Part I incorporates the mathematics that isaddressed in a picture book and Part II focuses on the way in which this mathematicsis brought up in the book.

    Part I is based on the fact that a picture book needs to include some mathemat-ical content so as to offer children a setting in which they can learn mathematics.Mathematical content is approached here in a broad sense. In addition to the usualtopics, such as numbers-and-counting, measurement, and geometry, we also con-sider mathematical processes and dispositions, and mathematics-related themes asmathematical content. The themes include phenomena and situations children knowfrom daily life, in which mathematics play a role, such as growth, patterns, fairness,and cause and effect.

    Part II describes how the mathematics is presented in a picture book. We foundthat a distinction can be made between the way of presentation and the qualityof presentation. The way of presentation indicates whether the mathematics is ad-dressed explicitly or implicitly, and whether the mathematics is incorporated in astory or presented in an isolated way, which in itself does not say whether it islearning-supportive or not. Mathematics addressed implicitly (e.g. a nice mathe-matical pattern on the fabric of a characters clothing) can be equally inspiring asmathematics that forms the heart of the story (e.g. the main character is measuringsomething). In contrast to the way of presentation, the quality of presentation hasa more direct relation to wh