Mathstart series

2nd June 2000 at 01:00
MATHSTART SERIES:The Best Bug Parade, The Greatest Gymnast of All, Give Me Half, The Best Holiday Ever, Ready, Steady, Hop! Divide and Ride. By Stuart J. Murphy. Collins. pound;4.99 each.

Making young children feel comfortable with mathematics is one of the prime aims of American author, Stuart J Murphy, in his Mathstart picture books series.

With 27 titles in print in the United States, six of the series are now being published for the first time in this country by Collins. The books come in three different levels, for four, five and six-year-olds. Each, by means of an engaging story and lively, characterful illustrations, introduces a basic concept, such as opposites for four-year-olds, dividing, and building equations, for six-year-olds.

The visual impact the books make is all-important to the author, a "visual learning specialist" who has devoted much of his career to studying the ways children learn from visual stimulation. This aspect of learning tends to get overlooked, he believes.

"Our children are growing up in a highly visual society. If you can take advantage of that visual vocabulary and present materials that speak to children in this kind of language, you're helping them."

Stuart Murphy once worked as an art director for the educational publishers Ginn (well-known for their reading schemes). "I found that a great deal of scrutiny was paid to the text, but not as much went into what children were learning visually. My concerns became, how can we make certain that the visuals are communicating as effectively as they can?" One of the cardinal rules with educational books for young children, he says, is clarity of presentation, and making sure that new vocabulary is supported by some visual representation.

In The Best Bug Parade, a story for four-year-olds about comparing sizes and charmingly illustrated by Holly Keller, the text introduces comparative words - big, bigger, biggest - accompanied by pictures that demonstrate their meaning. "Even if the child doesn't understand the words yet, yo can get the idea from the visual diagramming," Stuart Murphy says.

Story is another vital ingredient in his teaching methods. His texts are strong, clear and rhythmic with a humorous lilt, and place maths in the context of everyday life. How many children will not relate to the warring siblings in Give Me Half, illustrated by G. Brian Karas, who battle over half a pizza and half a can of juice, and end up with half each of the clearing up? Divide and Ride, illustrated by George Ulrich, helps six-year-olds with that thorny division problem of what to do with the remainder, by setting it in the context of a group of friends dividing themselves up for rides at the fairground.

"Children are often asked to do maths in ways that are very different from the ways they come across it in their lives. If children see maths within a story, they understand its relationship to their lives, and they can see how the solutions are part of how they think."

Stories and everyday contexts can be useful for older children, too, he says, but this approach is particularly valuable at the foundation stage, before children move on to more sophisticated mathematical ideas. "If you can prepare them by giving them a level of comfort and familiarity with maths so that it is part of their language, they don't put up the barriers and say maths is difficult. If they feel comfortable, they seek to learn more."

These books may be more comfortable for teachers, too, he says. Primary teachers are often ill at ease with maths, but their expertise with language makes stories an ideal medium for teaching the subject.

Parents should also find these books useful in helping their children with maths. Americanisms persist in the text ("I know you want some pizza, sis"), in the interests of rhyme, but the only significant difference from the US editions is that Collins has divided the notes at the back of the books into two sections, one for teachers, the other - with the emphasis firmly on "having fun" - for parents.

Diana Hinds

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