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Connecting Language Arts and Mathematical Problem Solving in the Middle Grades

Author(s): Nancy Armstrong Melser and Annette Ricks Leitze

Source: Middle School Journal, Vol. 31, No. 1 (September 1999), pp. 48-54
Published by: Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE)
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Problem Solving in Mathematics

Connecting Language Arts and Mathematical

Problem Solving in the Middle Grades
Nancy Armstrong Melser & Annette Ricks Leitze

hanging society and expanding technol arts then use that enthusiasm and creativity to further

ogy continue to place demands on mid students' mathematical problem-solving abilities.

The use of children's literature in the mathematics
dle school teachers to teach additional
content in their classrooms. Despite the

classroom enriches students' learning (Gailey, 1993)

increasing demands, most school dis and enhances both language arts and mathematical
tricts have not increased the length of problem-solving instruction. The language arts activities

the school day nor the number of days in the school serve as a springboard for problem solving. The mathe
year. This creates quite a dilemma for teachers: Given matical problem-solving activities build upon and rein
the same number of student contact hours each week,

force reading comprehension in language arts instruc

how can I teach the additional curriculum now

tion. This connection is particularly strong when prob

required by my school district?

lem-solving activities require the students to refer to the

While those same teachers are struggling with how story for additional information that is necessary to
to teach all of the necessary content, they also are strug solve the problem. In addition, this coordination of lan

gling with another dilemmateaching mathematics. guage arts and mathematics helps to open students'
Some middle school teachers even admit that they do eyes to the world of mathematical thinking that sur
not like math or that they are "no good at math." Yet, rounds everyday storybook characters, thereby making
many of them are required to teach middle level math mathematics seem more relevant to their lives.
ematics skills. To make matters worse, one of the most

Similar to what we are proposing in this article, the

dreaded parts of the middle school mathematics cur National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and the

riculum is problem solving. Those two little words National Council of Teachers of English both support
problem solvingstrike terror in the hearts of many stu language-intensive mathematics instruction. According

dents and adults. Unfortunately for students, a teacher's to Charlesworth & Lind (1995), "the whole language

distaste for mathematics is frequently, and perhaps philosophy and the whole language approach to com
unknowingly, transferred to the students, thereby com munication are major elements in the integrated math
pleting the viscous cycle.

ematics and science curriculum" (p. 156).

An appropriate way to simultaneously resolve

these dilemmas is by connecting language arts and

Planning the Integrated Lesson

mathematical problem-solving activities. Many of those

same fifth and sixth grade middle school teachers who Selecting a book
struggle with mathematical problem-solving activities,

To optimize the success of teaching coordinated

experience pure delight in reading and language arts lessons, several factors must be taken into considera
activities. By integrating language arts and mathematical tion when planning the lessons. One of the factors cru

problem solving, we believe we can successfully harness cial to a successful lesson is the selection of an appro
a teacher's enthusiasm for and creativity in the language priate literature book. Appropriate literature books

Nancy Armstrong Melser is an assistant professor of elementary education at Ball State University, Muncie,
Annette Ricks Leitze is an associate professor of mathematical sciences at Ball State University, Muncie, Indiana.

48 Middle School Journal September 1999

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include both picture books and chapter books, begin

ning readers and full-length novels. Due to space con

Writing the problem-solving lesson

How you structure a problem-solving lesson will

straints in this article, we will consider only picture

depend on the grade you teach and the past

books. According to Lobel (1981), some characteristics

problem-solving experiences of your students. Many

of good picture books are that they have simple narra

teachers prefer to focus on only one strategy in each

tives, have drawings that are neither too cartoony nor

problem-solving lesson during the first semester of the

too adult-like and have appropriate artwork. Literature

school year, then combine two or three strategies in each

appropriate for connected lessons on mathematical

problem-solving lesson during the second semester.

problem solving and language arts include mysteries,

Other teachers combine two or more strategies during

fantasies, or humorous books (Leitze, 1996,1997).

every problem-solving lesson.

The book we selected for these coordinated lan

guage arts and problem-solving lessons is The Three
Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig, written by Eugene
Trivizas and illustrated by Helen Oxenbury. This story
book is a fractured fairy tale where the wolves repeated

ly build stronger and stronger homes while the pig con

Literature appropriate for connected lessons on

mathematical problem solving and language arts
include mysteries, fantasies, or humorous books.

tinually destroys them. In a story-ending twist, the

Suppose you want to focus on the work-backward

wolves build a fragile house of flowers that converts the

strategy in a problem-solving lesson using the same liter

big bad pig to a big good pig and all four characters live

ature book used in the language arts lesson. Your first

happily ever after.

task will be to write grade-level problem-solving activities

or gather together grade-level problem-solving activities

Writing the language arts lesson

from teacher's resource books. Some good teacher's

Structuring the language arts lesson will depend on

resource books to find these kinds of problem-solving

the grade level and curriculum that you are required to

activities are The Problem Solver series published in 1987

teach; however, there are often overarching themes in

by Creative Publications and Problem-Solving

literature that are taught in every middle school grade.

Experiences in Mathematics published in 1985 by

Therefore, we have chosen to concentrate on the lan

Addison-Wesley. Depending on the extent of past prob

guage arts skills analyzing character, setting, mood, and

lem-solving experiences of your students and the strate

story pattern. According to Anderson and Lapp (1992)

gy on which you decided to focus this lesson, you will

these are four important skills in the area of literature

need between three and six problem-solving activities to


encompass a 45 to 50 minute problem-solving lesson.

While planning the integrated literature lesson, you

Consider the following collection of four

first consider the background knowledge of the stu

problem-solving activities taken from The Problem Solver

dents with whom you are working. By introducing the

5 or The Problem Solver 6, both highly-acclaimed prob

students to elements mentioned above, they should be

lem-solving resource books. Each activity is appropriate

able to move to more advanced information such as ana

for grades five or six and focuses on the targeted prob

lyzing characters' thoughts rather than simply recalling

lem-solving strategy: work backward.

details about their appearance. We recommend that this

1. Rainbow Robots Inc. was putting on a big demon

analysis of literature be taught through the use of graph

stration. Everyone came to watch colorful robots

ic organizers, which, when completed with the assis

wash the windows at the Miller Building. First the big

tance of the teacher, will increase the basic information

red robot washed one-half of all the windows in the

that the students aquire. The four graphic organizers

building. Then the smaller green robot washed two

which we will use throughout the literature analysis

thirds of the windows that were left. Next the blue

include the web, Venn diagram, t-chart, and story map.

robot washed one-half of the windows that were left.

Each of these organizers is easy to use and model in mid

To the cheers of everyone watching, the tiny yellow

dle school classrooms, and little teacher preparation is

robot washed the last 10 windows. How many win

needed to use them in a literature analysis.

dows did the Rainbow Robots wash altogether

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(Moretti, Stephens, Goodnow, & Hoogeboom,

(Moretti, Stephens, Goodnow, & Hoogeboom,

1987a, p. T-33)?

1987b, p. T-33)?

2. Mrs. Ridingcap's daughter, whose real name was

Each of these problems can be adapted to fit the

Colleen, set out for Grandma's house again. This

setting and characters of the selected literature book,

time she was delivering jams and jellies. First she

The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig. Notice sim

stopped to see Mrs. Parsley, who took in Grandma's

ilarities between the preceding four problems and the

mail while Grandma was at the hospital recovering

following four. The following four problems were

from the wolf. Colleen gave Mrs. Parsley one third of

adapted from the preceding problems.

the jars in her basket. Then Colleen set out again,

and suddenly the wolf jumped out from behind a

1. Following the wolves' and the pig's reconciliation,

the four of them decided to wash the windows in

bush and grabbed one half of the jars in Colleen's

their flower house. First the black wolf washed one

basket. When the wolf ran off, Colleen went on and

half of all the windows in the house. Then the gray

gave Mr. Woodsman two thirds of what was left in

wolf washed two thirds of the windows that were

her basket. After thanking him for getting Grandma

left. Next the white wolf washed one half of the win

dows that were left. Finally, the pig washed the last

By using graphic organizers, teachers can address

the various learning styles of students, while

teaching important skills about selected literature.

10 windows. How many windows in the flower

house were washed (adapted from Moretti,

Stephens, Goodnow, & Hoogeboom, 1987a, p.

2. The wolves wanted to thank the animals who had

generously contributed building materials to them.

out of the wolf, Colleen started off for Grandma's

They decided to deliver some freshly picked berries

house. Colleen had six jars of jams and jellies left for

to each animal. First they stopped to see the kanga

Grandma. How many jars did Colleen leave home

roo. The wolves gave the kangaroo one-third of the

with (Moretti, Stephens, Goodnow, & Hoogeboom,

berries in their basket. Then they delivered one-half

1987a, p. T-35)?

of the berries left in the basket to the beaver. After

3. Keri's father, Bill, was a baker. Out of his usual

leaving the beaver's house, they went to see the rhi

morning batch of chocolate chip cookies, Bill

noceros. They gave the rhinoceros two-thirds of the

burned the first two dozen cookies. He gave half of

berries left in the basket. Finally, they had just six

what was left to Keri to take to school. He wrapped

berries left to give to the flamingo. How many

up half of the remaining cookies and gave them to

berries did the wolves leave home with (adapted

the gas station crew next door. He gave half of what

from Moretti, Stephens, Goodnow, & Hoogeboom,

was left to the policeman on the beat. If Bill had only

seven cookies left, how many cookies were in the

1987a, p. T-35)?

3. The pig felt very badly about the way he had

batch of chocolate chip cookies (Moretti, Stephens,

destroyed the wolves' first three homes. He wanted

Goodnow, & Hoogeboom, 1987b, p. T-35)?

to bake some cookies for each of the animals who

4. Kevin, Barbara, and their mother and father went

had contributed building materials. Out of his batch

backpacking in Yosemite National Park. On the first

of chocolate chip cookies, the pig burned the first

and second days, each hiker had a serving of food

two dozen cookies. He gave half of what was left to

for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. A large noisy,

the flamingo. He wrapped up half of the remaining

brown bear barged into camp the second night, got

cookies and gave them to the rhinoceros. He gave

the food pack down from the tree where they had

half of what was left to the beaver. He had exactly

hung it, and ate one half of the food that was left.

seven cookies left to give to the kangaroo. How

The next morning, after they all had breakfast, they

many cookies were in the batch of chocolate chip

found they had four food servings left. They decid

cookies (adapted from Moretti, Stephens,

ed they had better hike back to their car. How many

servings of food did they begin the trip with

Goodnow, & Hoogeboom, 1987b, p. T-35)?

4. Once the three wolves and the big good pig had

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become friends, they decided to go backpacking

together in the nearby mountains. On the first and

second days, each hiker had a serving of food for

Figure 1

Webbing Activity Used in Analysis of Character

breakfast, lunch, and dinner. A large noisy, brown

bear barged into camp the second night, got the

food pack down from the tree where they had hung
it, and ate one-half of the food that was left. The next

morning, after they all had breakfast, they found

they had four food servings left. They decided to

head back home. How many servings of food did

they begin the trip with (adapted from Moretti,

Stephens, Goodnow, & Hoogeboom, 1987b, p.


Figure 2

Venn Diagram Used in Analysis of Setting

There are four important things to keep in mind in
1st Home 2nd Home

adapting problems. First, change characters, objects,

and settings in the original problem to make the adapt
ed problem fit with the chosen literature book. Second,

retain similar wording style in order to maintain the

same level of readability. Third, keep the numbers in the

problem the same to retain the same level of mathe

matical difficulty. Fourth, the original source should be

cited so that the original authors are given appropriate


After adapting a collection of problems, teachers

should work each problem to learn what the key com

ponents of the solution are. Then spend some time

thinking about (a) the kinds of questions that could be

asked to promote discussion among students and (b)

the kinds of questions to ask when students become

unknown vocabulary to the students. For example,

"stuck." This can be done either by reflecting on their

words battledore, shuttlecock, pneumatic drill, taran

own problem solution or by referring to a teacher's

la, and Plexiglas will need to be taught, or even mode

resource book from which the problems were adapted.

for the students. The next step is to read the book alo

Teaching the Integrated Lessons

to the students and discuss important information ab

the book.

After the book has been read to the students, a les

If possible we recommend that you organize your

son on analyzing literature can be taught. According to

day so that you may teach the language arts lesson and

Anderson and Lapp (1992), there are four ways that chil

immediately follow it with the mathematical

dren can analyze literature:

problem-solving lesson. By using the literature book as

1. Analysis of the character: Using inference from story,

a starting point, you can introduce the vocabulary, story,

students identify what characters value, inferred

and literature components, and then use the same

actions and feelings.

material as a basis for mathematical problem solving.

2. Analysis of setting: How does setting affect actions

and characterization?

Language arts lesson

3. Analysis of mood/feeling/tone: What was the author's

In order to introduce the language arts lesson to

the students, you will need to begin by teaching any

intent? Is the book serious? Humorous? Historical?

Realistic? Fanciful? What gives the author away?

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Figure 3

Part 2: Analysis of setting

T-chart Used in Analysis of Mood/Feeling/Tone

Old story

New story

Another focus for the literature lesson is the analy

sis of setting. For analyzing the setting, the students can

compare and contrast using a Venn diagram to deter

mine the setting's effects on the characters and actions.

The circles represent the various settings in the story

3 Pigs

3 Wolves

Bad wolf

Bad pig

upon which students can list characteristics of the set

Wolf dies, sad ending

Pig changes, good ending

ting for each scene of the story (Figure 2).

Some of these scenes will have overlapping ele

ments and should be placed in the overlapping section
4. Analysis of the story pattern: What is the plot? Who

of the circles. Other scenes will be individualized to spe

is narrating the story? Is there a special theme or

cific settings and should be placed in the non-overlap

purpose? (as cited in Lemlech, 1998, p. 236).

ping sections of the circles. Again, teacher guidance and

questions throughout this activity will enable the stu

By using graphic organizers as modeled in the fol
lowing sections, teachers can address the various learn

dents to better analyze the settings and determine the

effects of setting on a story. For example, how did the

ing styles of students, while teaching important skills

first setting affect the actions of the characters in the

about selected literature. Scheduling will not allow all of

story? How did this compare with the final setting? For

the methods to be modeled in a single day; therefore,

higher level thinking the students could evaluate the

consider teaching one organizer per day.

actions of the characters in each of the settings, and

Part 1: Analysis of character

Based on the characters from The Three Little

between the characters.

Wolves and the Big Bad Pig, a webbing activity in which

Part 3: Analysis of mood/feeling/tone

decide which setting allowed the most cooperation

the characters' traits are written around the edges of a

In order to analyze the tone of the story, students

circle with extensions drawn from the middle allow stu

can discuss the author's intent for writing the story. In

dents to identify the feelings and actions of both the

other words, the students can determine why an author

wolves and the pig throughout the events of the story

would want to rewrite a classic children's story from

(Figure 1).
As the students create the web of actions and feel

another animal's point of view. A graphic aid for this

ings, they may initially come up with recall information

compare-and-contrast chart. By labeling a chart with the

particular lesson would be a T-chart or a

such as how the characters looked or what they wore.

two story titles and comparing the tone and feeling in

However, you can then guide the students about how

each, the students will be able to identify the similarities

the characters in the story felt about certain incidents

and differences between the two stories to analyze the

throughout the reading. For example, how did the

author's intent for each (Figure 3).

wolves feel when the first house was blown away? How

Examining the roles of the characters, the prob

did the pig feel about the same situation? What did the

lems in each, and the various differences between the

wolves value in the story? Was this the same thing that

two stories, the students will be able to visually deter

the pig valued or was it different? Why did the wolves

mine the differences in tone and intent between the tra

continue to build homes, even though they were expe

ditional fairy tale and the updated version.

riencing adversity throughout the building of each

home? By creating the web and adding the characters'

Part 4: Analysis of story pattern

actions and feelings, the students will be able to analyze

The final part of the story analysis is to determine

the literature and better understand the characteriza

the story pattern and theme. As the story develops,

tion used throughout the story.

what pattern is followed by the three wolves? Why is this

pattern an important element of the story? For this step

of the lesson, we recommend a story map as a graphic

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Figure 4

Story Map Used in Analysis of Story Pattern

organizer. Taking the steps in the story and arranging

them in chronological order through a story map (Figure

using any solution strategy they believe to be appropriate.

In the problems previously listed, the most helpful

4) will enable the students to visualize the flow of events

strategy is to work backward. In these kind of work back

to determine the effects of events on the characters.

ward problems, a circle graph can be used very success

A fruitful discussion will focus on the changing pig's

personality and how the events of the story affected the

outcome. By using the story map, students will be able

not only to analyze the literature components of the

fully to help students put together the fractional clues

given in the problem, (see Figure 5)
Students using this strategy will want to begin by
drawing a circle to represent all of the windows in the

story, but they will be able to use brainstorming and

flower house. Since the black wolf washed half of the

organization skills that form the prelude for the prob

windows, the circle should be divided in half and one

lem-solving component explained in the next section .

half labeled "washed by black wolf." We do not yet know

exactly how many windows this part of the graph repre

Problem-solving lesson

sents. Of the remaining part of the graph, label two

Once the language arts lesson is done, students are

thirds as the windows "washed by gray wolf." Of the

ready for the problem-solving lesson. According to

remaining part, label one half as windows "washed by

Charles and Lester (1982), the actions in which teachers

white wolf." Once again, we do not yet know exactly how

engage can be divided into three categories: before, dur

many windows are represented by this part of the graph.

ing, and after problem-solving activities.

Finally, the remaining portion of the graph is the "ten

windows washed by pig." Now, by comparing relative


sizes of the various parts of the circle graph with the

Begin the lesson by displaying the first

known amount of windows washed by the pig (10), stu

problem-solving activity on the overhead projector. Read

dents can determine that the white wolf also washed 10

the problem to the class or have a student read aloud the

windows, the gray wolf washed 40 windows, and the

problem. Encourage students to read the problem sev

black wolf washed 60 windows. Consequently, the total

eral times until they believe they understand what it is

number of windows in the flower house is 10 + 10 + 40

saying. Using wholeclass discussion, brainstorm about

+ 60 = 120.

possible solution strategies (Charles & Lester, 1982),

such as work backward, make a table, act it out, and so

While students are working on their solutions, your

It will be important at this point to be sure that you

job is to circulate around the room observing and ques

have established a classroom environment conducive to

tioning students, as well as providing hints or extensions

problem solving. Such a classroom is one where stu

as needed (Charles & Lester, 1982). As groups begin to

dents' ideas and suggestions are not discouraged, even if

say they are finished, you will want to be sure they have

you are convinced that their ideas and suggestions will

answered the correct question (Charles & Lester, 1982).

lead to an inappropriate solution (Charles & Lester,

Frequently, it is the case that students believe they have

1982). After several solution strategies have been dis

the final answer, when in fact the answer they have is

cussed, the students may begin solving the problem,

only one answer in a series of steps necessary to produce

Middle School Journal September 1999 53

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Figure 5

that case, you should be sure to point out the solutions

Circle Graph Used in Solving First Problem

that are or are not correct. All too frequently students

believe there is only one right way to do mathematics.

In reality, there are numerous ways to achieve a correct

solution. Therefore, it is important to discuss with stu

dents when there is more than one correct solution.

Closing Thoughts
Connecting language arts and mathematics can be

successfully accomplished in the middle grades. Such

coordinated lessons provide opportunities for lan

guage arts and mathematical problem solving to build

on one another, thereby strengthening each lesson.

Using the same picture book for both language arts and

mathematical problem solving, teachers can relate

learning strategies in language arts and mathematics.

Anderson, P. S., & Lapp, D. (1992). Language skills in elementary
education. (5th ed.). New York: Macmillan.

the final solution.

Another situation you may face as students finish is

that they are likely to come to you waving their papers

in front of you, asking "Is this right? Is this right? Is this

right?" You will want to avoid answering such direct

questions. Even if the solution is 100% correct, you do

not want to say so, at least not at this point in time.

Instead, further stimulate students' thinking by requir
ing them to answer one or more of the following:

1. Does everyone in the group believe the solution to

be correct?

2. Explain your solution to another group and see if the

other group agrees with you.

3. Write a paragraph explaining what you did.

Charles, R., & Lester, F. ( 1982). Teaching problem-solving what

why & how. Palo Alto, CA: Dale Seymour.
Charlesworth, R., & Lind, K. K. (1995). Whole language and primary

grade mathematics and science: Keeping in step with national

standards. In S. C. Raines (Ed.), Whole language arross the cur
riculum (pp.156-178). New York: Teachers College Press.
Gailey, S. K. (1993). The mathematics-children's-literature connec
tion. Teaching Children Mathematics, 40,258-261
Leitze, A. R. ( 1996). Connecting problem-solving and literature in

the intermediate grades. Wisconsin Teacher of Mathematics,

47(2), 3-7.

Leitze, A. R. ( 1997). Connecting process problem-solving to chil

dren's literature. Teaching Children Mathematics, 3, 398-406.

Lemlech, J. K. ( 1998). Curriculum and instructional methods for

the elementary and middle school. Upper Saddle River, New

Jersey: Merrill/Prentice Hall.

Lobel, A. (1981). A good picture book should .... In B. Hearne & M.


Kaye (Eds.), Celebrating children's books (pp. 73-80). New York:

After students have completed the activity, you will

want to have a wholeclass discussion of the solutions.

Part of the wholeclass discussion should include show
ing or sharing individual and group solutions, relating

Lothrop, Lee, & Shepard Books.

Moretti, G., Stephens, M., Goodnow, J., & Hoogeboom, S. (1987a).
The problem solver 5. Sunnyvale, CA: Creative Publications.

Moretti, G., Stephens, M., Goodnow, J., & Hoogeboom, S. (1987b).

The problem solver 6. Sunnyvale, CA: Creative Publications.

the activity to previous activities, and discussing special

features of the activity (Charles & Lester, 1982). Ideally,
we would like for the groups to reach a consensus about

what they believe to be the correct solution. However,

students are not always able to reach a consensus. In

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