Monday, November 03, 2008

Nonfiction Monday - From Zero to Ten

Today I spent the the bulk of my day working with a group of enthusiastic teachers on strategies for improving children's number sense and their knowledge of basic facts. We played a lot of games and looked at a lot of books.
One of my favorite books about numbers for older students is From Zero to Ten: The Story of Numbers, written by Vivian French and illustrated by Ross Collins. After a brief introduction that looks at how often we use numbers, the question "So where did numbers come from?" is asked. The first section of the book is entitled "How Did It All Begin?" and starts this way.
Maybe prehistoric men and women sitting in their caves boasted about how many animals they had killed, or told each other how many there were in an enemy attack:
    "I caught so many fish, the river is empty!"
    Ugh! You caught fewer fish than I have noses!"
    The enemy came. They were like a swarm of bees!"
    Ugh! There were as many as the toes on my feet!"
But what if there have been 17 enemies on the mountain? Or 170? What if they had to hurry off to warn neighboring families? How did people begin to count? And then remember how many they had counted?
The cartoon illustrations that accompany the passage are whimsical and a bit quirky. While one caveman writes in tally marks on the wall, two caveman carry on this conversation:
The mammoths are coming!
How many?
I can't say.
How far away?
I can't say.
This isn't working ...
The book goes on to cover counting without numbers (systems using one-to-one correspondence and tally systems), counting big numbers, place value systems, Arabic numbers, measurement and using our bodies to measure, standard measurement, and more.

The section on big numbers covers bases. Readers learn that ancient Egyptians chose a base-10 counting system, and that many others since have followed in their footsteps. The Mayans, however, chose a base-20 system (that's a vigesimal system). While the base-10 system can be connected to counting on fingers, a base-20 system uses fingers and toes. Sumerians and Babylonians used base-60 systems. Can you imagine? I'll bet you can, as we still use a remnant of this system every day when we tell time.

I particularly love the section on Using Our Bodies to Measure. Not only do readers learn about body measurements like cubits (the distance from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger) and spans (the distance from the top of the thumb to the tip of the little finger), but also words used by tradesman for describing quantities, such hogsheads, firkins, puncheons and more. Did you know that many trades developed their own systems of measuring? For example, paper came in sheets, quires, reams, and bundles. It also came in sizes with names like Emperor, Double Elephant and Atlas.

Near the end readers will find sections on lucky numbers and the calendar. Also included is a brief glossary of terms that are not well-defined in the text. Overall, this is an engaging and informative book about the history of numbers. I highly recommend it.

Book: From Zero to Ten: The Story of Numbers
Vivian French
Ross Collins
Oxford University Press
Date Published:
32 pages
Personal copy

This post was written for Nonfiction Monday. Head on over to Anastasia Suen’s blog and check out all the great posts highlighting nonfiction this week.

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