Penn State Harrisburg

Professors’ book combines storytelling with math

Jane Wilburne presented "Cowboys Count," co-authored with Jane Keat and Mary Napoli, to the college Board of Advisers.

Jane Wilburne presented "Cowboys Count," co-authored with Jane Keat and Mary Napoli, to the college Board of Advisers.


Three Penn State Harrisburg education professors have combined their unique perspectives on teaching and areas of expertise to create a book that helps to teach math in a new way. In “Cowboys Count, Monkeys Measure, and Princesses Problem Solve: Building Early Math Skills through Storybooks,”Associate Professor of Mathematics Education Jane Wilburne, Associate Professor of Early Childhood Jane Keat, and Associate Professor of Reading Mary Napoli suggest teaching mathematics using literature.

”We wanted to share our strategies for finding mathematics in any storybook, not just those that have numbers and shapes in them.  The book shows teachers how to pose open-ended mathematics problems that can engage their students in problem solving and reasoning,” said Wilburne.

Co-published by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and Brookes Publishing Co., “Cowboys Count” recommends drawing math questions from storybooks and motivating students to help fictional characters solve problems. The book guides teachers in selecting existing storybooks from their classroom, reading them to students, and developing related math problems.

Over time, Wilburne, Keat, and Napoli have observed that early-grade children’s interest and skills in math were falling.  In one study, however, they discovered that children performed better in math when they solved problems using the content and characters of story books. The professors recently worked with three kindergarten teachers to include math in their language arts class, and found the idea to connect math to real life helped to get students enthused about problem solving.

“The opportunity to transform the way teachers view and teach math and literacy was truly one of the most enlightening experiences of my professional career,” said Napoli.

Offered through Brooke’s Publishing Co., the book lists more than 40 popular storybooks that teachers can use in their curriculum.