Children’s Literature and Economic Literacy

Many of our books, including this season’s The Can Man deal with economic concepts. We asked Yana V. Rodgers, a professor at Rutgers and head of the Rutgers University Project on Economics and Children, to talk about why and how to teach economics in today’s busy classrooms.

Building Blocks for the Future
Decades of research in economics, education, and early-childhood development have shown that young children enter the primary grades with an experience-based knowledge of economics and that they are quite capable of learning basic economics during the primary grades. The economic lessons that young students learn in their early education form the building blocks toward achieving a solid understanding of economics at higher levels of educational attainment. Students in the primary grades are already gaining a rich exposure to a wide variety of ideas in economics, and they are gaining the skills to apply this new knowledge. The principles taught at a level appropriate for primary-grade students are crucial for a basic understanding of the economic world around them.

Educational reforms since the 1960s have led to the development of formal content standards in economics and the infusion of economics as a central component of social studies curricula in every grade level. Because of the standards movement, even elementary school teachers face considerable pressure to teach economic content that is based on state requirements and is often linked to school accreditation and funding. Increasingly crowded curricula are a common issue, and many teachers feel they are too busy to teach economics. As almost all states have added economics to their state-mandated curricula in the primary grades, teaching strategies have needed to change.

Primary-grade students can gain exposure to a wide range of the economic concepts contained in state standards if teachers use reading strategies that embrace children’s literature—both fiction and nonfiction—with economic content. In the face of crowded curricula, this approach allows teachers to simultaneously teach reading strategies and empower their students to understand economics.

Teaching Strategies
Using children’s literature to teach economics is gaining in popularity. A common approach is for teachers to integrate literature with economic content into classroom time devoted primarily to reading aloud to children or to reading instruction, with a relatively short discussion of the main economic ideas. Primary-grade teachers already read aloud to their students daily, and teachers know they can use high-quality literature for a variety of purposes. Such purposes include demonstrating story structure, teaching author’s craft, building vocabulary, and teaching content areas. Because more requirements are added to the elementary school curricula each year, teachers are looking for ways to achieve more than one objective in the same lesson. Furthermore, because most children enjoy stories, teaching economics within a literature framework can add to student motivation. The visual images and text work together to help students conceptualize how economics operates in the world around them.

While teaching economics through literature may have its intuitive appeal, there are drawbacks. In particular, because the genre is children’s literature and not textbooks, economic vocabulary and concepts are not systematically presented across books or even within books. Closely related, the teaching strategy requires that teachers highlight functional lessons for economic topics that may not be readily apparent in the story. Children’s books about topics such as savings and jobs have obvious economic lessons that are difficult to miss because they relate so easily to children’s everyday lives. However, more abstract economic topics that are found in some picture books and easy readers—such as the operation of markets and investment in human capital—require more creativity on the part of instructors to teach a thorough and intuitive economic lesson.

Teaching Strategies: The Can Man
When using economics-related children’s literature for reading aloud or for reading instruction, it is critical that teachers highlight the economic lesson for their students. Otherwise, students just enjoy the story and miss the economic point. For example, in the newly published The Can Man (Williams and Orback, Lee & Low Books, 2010), a homeless man collects used aluminum cans from around town and redeems them for money. Teachers can introduce the story in the following way: “Boys and girls, while you listen to the story, think about what might cause some people to become homeless. Remember, the can man has a name and an identity. Mr. Peters lost his job at the auto body shop when it went out of business and has not managed to find new work.”

While few children’s books broach the topic of homelessness, this book takes on the topic from a child’s perspective and does so with dignity and grace. Along the way come additional lessons about unemployment, savings, and wants versus needs. These valuable lessons, wrapped in an interesting story line, make The Can Man a noteworthy addition to the body of children’s books dealing with economics. Through its powerful story, this book effectively teaches young learners several essential economic concepts that are frequently found in state content standards and have received much attention in the media with the recent economic recession.

Yana V. Rodgers and the Rutgers Project on Economics and Children

Yana van der Meulen Rodgers is associate professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University, with a BA in economics from Cornell University and a PhD in economics from Harvard University. She researches effective methods for teaching economics.

Professor Rodgers heads the Rutgers University Project on Economics and Children, which has been conducting a comprehensive review of children’s fiction and nonfiction books for their economic content. On the project’s Web site is a complete bibliography of hundreds of books that embrace economic themes. These books are all readily available in school libraries, public libraries, and bookstores and online—they are not specialized teachers’ materials. A selected number of these books are also arranged in groups of “Top Five” by economic concept based on objective criteria and on direct experience in teaching with the books.

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