Math Out Loud: Math and the Oral Traditions

This article by Carol Otis Hurst first appeared in Teaching K-8 Magazine. ___________________


If you're trying to show that math is everywhere and you were, weren't you, the oral tradition has many examples to prove that you're right. Besides, if you're working with oral language, you'll be without a book in your hand. That keeps you thinking without writing things down and, for some of the children, at least, that's a welcome change. Songs, poems and folktales can be used to inspire math activities with a difference. Keep it light.

The point to all this, of course, is that you can find math all around us, that language and math are natural allies and that you and the children need not be bogged down with endless workbook pages to fill in and correct in order to have math in your classroom.



I love to sing although I don't do it very well. Our home was full of song; it was cheaper than food. As kids we loved the songs that drove the adults crazy: "Ten Green Bottles," "The Ants Go Marching," "Green Grow the Rushes Oh," "Twelve Days of Christmas," "Children Go Where I Send Thee." Why did we love and adults dread those songs in particular,? because we all knew there were so many verses. The adults would sigh and we'd grin and keep singing. They're all counting songs. How about using one of them for a math warm up instead of fact recitation with younger children? You'll be cementing counting forwards and, in the case of most of those songs, backwards.

Other songs with numbers abound. "Over in the Meadow" counts animals and, as a science sidebar, gives their habitat and habits. Even those where numbers aren't accented have math not far below the surface. Any cumulative song is an opportunity for calculation. How many animals in "The Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly?" How big must her stomach get before the horse is one too many?

How many people in the family of "The Farmer in the Dell?" How many creatures all together? What about the concept of size? Does this song go from largest to smallest? Does the previously mentioned "Old Lady" go from smallest to largest? Why? Find others and group them accordingly.

My kids used to like the action song "In a Cabin in a Wood", although I was never that trustful of the man who welcomed in the rabbit so quickly. Now Darcie McNally and Robin Michal Koontz (Cobblehill Dutton, 1991 ISBN 0-525-65035-0) have adapted In a Cabin in a Wood, added some verses and cleared the whole thing up. The little old man who stood in the window was painting a picture. The hunter was a woman with a camera and it's not just a rabbit who begs for refuge. He's followed by a possum replete with hanging babies, a raccoon, a beaver, and a moose. Havoc results much to the dismay of the little old man and the original rabbit. Ingenuity prevails and the little old man uses his paints to disguise the rabbit as a skunk. When he comes inside all the others flee. Predicability is built in as is the comedy. And so are number activities. How many animals in all? If the possum left inside the house is as fertile as her mother was, how many possums will the skunk/rabbit and the little old man be coping with next year? How long is a possum's gestation period?

"Paddy Works on the Railroad" has years enumerated from : "In eighteen hundred and forty one, I put my corduroy breeches on," to "In 1847 I found myself on the way to heaven." Here are bigger numbers indeed.

Use the tunes of these songs to make up other math songs. For instance:

One plus two will get to three
Add two more it's five now
Double five and get to ten
The numbers come alive now.

Goes to the tune of "Yankee Doodle." Well, you try it.



I put poetry into the oral tradition because I think that's where it should start. Some poems, concrete poetry, for instance, is necessarily visual but most others should be heard before they are seen. One poem, "The Ants at the Olympics" from Jack Prelutsky's Random House Book of Poetry for Children (Random House, 1983 ISBN 0-394-95010-0) is the first mathematical one I can think of. The ants compete at every animal olympics and, of course, being outsized and out-strengthed, they always lose. The poem is funny and filled with possibilities for calculation. How long does it take an ant to travel one foot? How far away do these ant competitors live? How fast will they travel? Then there's the real Olympics. Examining records for times, distances and weights will keep math minds running for some time.

Carl Sandburg's poem "Arithmetic" available in many anthologies may provide a chance to talk about the frustrations of math for some students. Send kids searching for other poems dealing with math and devote one math period to sharing their finds. ___________________

Folk tales

When I think of oral language and math, I think of folk tales. It's the storyteller in me that will not be repressed. Folk tales abound with numbers, especially threes. There's a lot of supposition as to why. Some say it's because the number three has been a mystical number since antiquity. Others say it's because of the Trinity. I say it's because those old storytellers knew their stuff. They knew that listeners would sit still for three tries or three characters, but if you get to four, it's overkill and you're pushing it.

Get the kids finding threes in folktales; sometimes it's easy: "Three Bears," "Three Pigs," "Three Billy Goats Gruff." Other threes are more subltly hidden.

You can calculate with folk tales as well. If Cinderella gets to the ball at nine o'clock and the average song the band plays lasts five minutes, how many dances will she and the prince have before the clock strikes midnight? What if they take a half hour out for a drink of punch and conversation?

I've wondered about Rapunzel for years. How does the witch get her up there if there's no way down except her hair? In most of the versions I've seen she looks like a pretty good-sized girl and that witch may be spry but she's no spring chicken. If she'd used magic to get her up there, I think the story would have said so, such feats are seldom ignored. I suspect that such speculation is math in and of itself, but there are calculations to be made. How tall must that tower be? How long must her hair be since Rapunzel's room is not at the top of the tower? And (speaking unmathematically) how does she wash it?

Let the children find and pose other math problems based on folk tales. The amount of time it must have taken for the old woman to get her pig over the style boggles the mind.

Make up some addition, multiplication, division and subtraction problems by combining tales:

Take the number of the pigs who built houses that got blown down by the wolf, add the number of dwarfs, subtract the number of step-sisters Cinderella has to cope with, add the number of people able to spin gold out of straw, divide by the number of dancing princesses and what do you get?

Let the kids take turns making up more of them.

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