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Math+Literacy=An Exciting STEM Combo

Podcast cover featuring Dr. Kateri Thunder on the adventures in Learning podcast

In the most recent episode of the Adventures in Learning podcast, I had the pleasure of chatting with Dr. Kateri Thunder, a best-selling author and specialist in early childhood education. She's not only talking about the research, she's living it every day in her practice. In Math+Literacy=An Exciting STEM Combo, Kateri and I unravel the fascinating question of how to integrate math and literacy into everyday learning so that it's FUN for kids and teachers alike.

Often, as educators, we feel overwhelmed when we start thinking about connecting math and literacy and STEM. Kateri, who co-authored The Early Childhood Playbook and Teaching Mathematics in the Visible Learning Classroom, says to start with the idea that every child has an amazing math brain. She suggests spending time observing and really experiencing what learning looks like from a child's perspective. What we learn from those observations can help us enhance what we are already doing as early childhood or elementary educators.

using math+literacy to build critical thinkers -- image of preschoolers engaged in collaborative inquiry

"We love to tell stories or read aloud or experiment with something or do artwork. Anytime we can look at that space that we love and try to see the mathematics in it, then we'll be able to talk about it and notice it and capitalize on it with kids. So that's the other thing I encourage," Kateri says.

What do you love to do? Okay, let's dive into that. Let's look and see where all the math is. When you are painting, is there mixing of colors? That makes all sorts of combinations and that's just like number combinations. And what are you painting? How are you using all these shapes to combine, to make something? Or, if you love a read aloud, read alouds are amazing. There's math across all of them, whether they call it a math read aloud or not, and that's an amazing space to jump into as well.

image of a child sorting ducks and stacking cups at the Eric Carle museum

When you listen to the podcast, you'll see how you can specifically turn any story time into an opportunity for young learners to explore mathematical concepts in a fun and engaging way. Within the conversation, we talk specifically about breaking open The Very Hungry Caterpillar to explore open-ended questions, using Jabari Jumps as a platform for exploring area and engineering, and bringing unplugged coding and mathematical thinking to the Little Red Riding Hood variants.

Kateri shares what happened when she embraced the power of open-ended questions while reading Eric Carle's beloved story, The Very Hungry Caterpillar. 

So what are the unconstrained skills that you're aiming for and how are you doing that intentionally? How are you doing that in your read aloud and the ways that you're playing and the ways that you're talking with kids, and the way you have your circle time and the way you're doing math or science or the way you do your provocations? 

We discuss how letting children's natural curiosity lead can deepen their engagement with mathematical concepts. Kateri shares examples of how to use concrete, representational, and abstract methods—such as cubes and number charts—to foster critical thinking and a strong mathematical identity in young learners, making every moment in the classroom a joyful journey of discovery and problem-solving.

Kateri, who is a self-confessed research geek, shared some of the recent research on the importance of purposeful language and play in early learning.

There's just constantly more and more research coming out about the power of language and the interaction is so incredibly powerful for growing kids' brains, growing their language, growing their reasoning. Often it starts out as potentially nonverbal responses from kids or small little words. But the more you can extend, the more you can talk and have that back and forth exchange, the more impact you'll have.

Finally, we dive into the creative integration of math and literacy using multicultural children's literature, as we discuss strategies for connecting math, literacy, and STEM using books like Jabari Jumps and Jabari Tries. We also explore the profound impact of unplugged coding activities and the significance of including diverse fairy tales that reflect all children's experiences. In the conversation, I share specific teaching and learning examples from recent programs I've done with young learners from preschool to fourth grade, specifically connecting multicultural picture books, folk tales, and STEM experiences.

I love that you're doing it off fairy tales, because I think that's often a space of expertise and comfort for early childhood educators. It's a really great space to look for versions of fairy tales and folk tales that are diverse because there's tons of authors that are recreating or telling another version. That's an incredible space because then all of the things that you've already done with those stories previously to explore all sorts of ideas you can still do, but you can read it in a book where kids can see themselves right and can see all the amazing people in their community or in the world in that book." 

Whether you are an educator or a parent, Kateri Thunder's innovative techniques are bound to inspire you. She not only advocates for a transformation in early childhood education but also offers practical strategies to make every classroom moment a journey of discovery and problem-solving for early learners.

Listen now and join us in transforming early childhood education, one playful moment at a time!

Watch now and share this podcast with your colleagues!

About Our Guest:

Kateri Thunder, Ph.D. is an educator, researcher, author, and coach who collaborates with learners and educators from school divisions around the world to translate research into practice. Kateri has served as an inclusive, early childhood educator, an Upward Bound educator, a mathematics specialist, an assistant professor of mathematics education at James Madison University, and Site Director for the Central Virginia Writing Project. Kateri researches, writes, and presents on equity and access in education and the intersection of literacy and mathematics for teaching and learning. She has partnered with thousands of educators to catalyze change in their classrooms and schools. Kateri is a best-selling author for Corwin, including Visible Learning in Early Childhood and The Early Childhood Education Playbook. You can learn more about her at

Images of the books Kateri Thunder has written

As you reflect on this episode, feel free to share your thoughts on social media using the hashtags #EarlyChildhoodEducation #MathAndLiteracy #Podcast #LearningIsFun #KateriThunder.

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