Tell Me a Story: Using Children’s Literature with Secondary Students

by Susan Nightingale, A Pass Educational Group April, Contractor of the Month

When I taught ‘at-risk’ middle school math students, I often found myself looking for ways  to engage a group of students that had basically already quit before the school year even began. One such activity involved using children’s books, designed for elementary students, to introduce mathematical concepts to my learners. At the time, I didn’t realize that I was utilizing a learning method. I just knew that everyone loves a story, and a children’s story book looks much less intimidating than the usual explanations and examples in a Pre-Algebra textbook.

In graduate school a year later, I discovered that this method has a name—narrative learning.  Marsha Rossiter defines it as connecting learners with new knowledge through the experience of a shared story (Rossiter, 2002). This method allows the learners to build new knowledge of the subject by incorporating their own experiences in story format.

Humans like to listen to and tell stories, regardless of age. These stories help put our experiences into context and provide a framework for new experiences. Teaching using stories is often effective then, because the stories provide believable, human-like experiences that involve the reader in the characters and actions and engage the reader both physically and mentally (Rossiter, 2002).

This may seem like an odd idea at this point—using a child’s book with older or even adult students, so I want to provide an example of how this narrative learning might work. A story provides the place for the learners to begin, then connect with other stories, and then to build their own.

In my middle school classroom, one of the books I used was called Less Than Zero. This image and description are from Amazon.


Figure 1: Less Than Zero by Stuart J. Murphy

“Perry the Penguin needs 9 clams to buy an ice scooter — but he’s not very good at saving. As Perry earns, spends, finds, loses, and borrows clams, a simple line graph demonstrates the concept of negative numbers.” This children’s story provides a simple example of an often confusing math concept—negative numbers. The story introduces and illustrates the concept and subject matter in a non-intimidating way.

Before reading the story, I showed the students the cover and asked them to predict the topic of the story. I would then ask the students questions like “What does it mean to be less than zero?” I also gave the students a printed number line so they could follow along with Perry the penguin’s line graph in the story. As I read the story, I showed them the pictures and began to facilitate a discussion of negative numbers and how the graph helped Perry to understand what it meant to have less than zero clams. This led into dialogue and stories about similar experiences from the students including other scenarios where ‘less than zero’ could occur i.e. temperature, sea level, distance, etc.

After allowing the students time to connect with the book and with other learner’s stories, I asked them to write and illustrate (if appropriate) their own short children’s story about negative numbers, drawing from their own experiences. Eventually the students would share, revisit, and revise their stories as their understanding of the concept increased.

Utilizing a book like Less Than Zero provides students with a story, pictures, and a little fun to organize the subject into their memory. Starting with a children’s story creates a safe environment for older students to share and create their own stories. According to Leona English, children’s literature “innocently but effectively” raises questions and prompts responses (English, 2000, p. 15). Since the book is an example for writing stories of their own, learners are not offended or degraded by the children’s story.

Stories provide coherence of our experience by creating a narrative around the subject to be learned and fitting the pieces together until they make sense. We remember stories because they put a real face on what can often be fuzzy concepts. My example involved a Pre-Algebra math concept, but this same method can apply to virtually any topic. The children’s story provides the introduction and the context, but when the students connect the story and therefore the concept to their own experiences, that’s when the learning begins. When they write their own story, they build an even stronger connection and understanding.


English, L. M. (2000). Children’s literature for adults: A meaningful paradox. PAACE Journal of
Lifelong Learning, 9, 13-23. Retrieved from ERIC database.
Rossiter, M. (2002). Narrative and stories in adult teaching and learning. ERIC Digests, 241.
Retrieved from

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