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Using bibliotherapy to overcome math anxiety.


Math anxiety is a widespread phenomenon. More recently, children's and adolescent literature has been recognized as a means to teaching math to students through the use of stories to make the math concepts relevant and meaningful. Literature can also be used as a form of therapy to reach students who may be frustrated with math and/or who experience math anxiety. Story and picture books, such as A Gebra Named Al (Isdell, 1993), are now available to use in the classroom as forms of bibliotherapy in helping students overcome or come to terms with anxiety toward math. In this article the author proposes using reading and discussion to aid in reducing math anxiety in students via the story of Sarah and her struggle with math anxiety.


Sarah dislikes math. Year after year of drill and practice and being taught math while seeing little or no value in learning it has turned Sarah off to the subject. Sarah has lost her confidence and ability to successfully do math and just plain hates it. Sarah's negative feelings about algebra may be typical of many math-anxious students in middle school. Sarah is not alone in her feeling about algebra or math in general for mathematics anxiety has been a prevalent concern among educators and parents for decades. Educators are noticing more students appearing fearful of math and science classes. Sarah's teacher is well aware of Sarah's math anxiety based on her low performance on assessments, sweaty palms while doing math, and her math anxiety survey which was administered at the beginning of the year which indicated a high level of math anxiety.. Sarah's math teacher and the school counselor are collaborating to address the issue of math anxiety. They have decided to use a combination of psychological approaches including bibliotherapy, counseling, discussion, visualization, and relaxation techniques to help students overcome and/or reduce their frustration with math.

Math anxiety is a growing concern in the U.S. Educators need to apply the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics(NCTM) Standards and check for the mathematical disposition of their students. With declining math and science scores internationally, the United States needs to recognize the fear that many Americans have of math and do something while students are still in K-12 schools to help build their confidence in their ability to do math and take as many math classes as possible to stay abreast of the technological era. If students like Sarah do not feel they can succeed at math or that they are not mathematically able, they may decide not to follow a particular career track due to this belief. Teachers and counselors can make a difference in the lives of secondary level students like the "Sarah's" by working with them in overcoming and reducing their dislike and lack of success with math.

Evidence of poor attitudes and high levels of anxiety toward math is abundant elementary age through adulthood (Jackson & Leffingwell, 1999; Burns, 1998; Furner, 1996; Tobias, 1993; Hembree, 1990). Since math anxiety is widespread and the need for the understanding of math is critical in an increasingly technological society, teachers must play an important role in reducing the levels of math anxiety in their students. Children's and adolescent literature has been recognized now as a means to teach mathematics to students through the use of stories to make the math concepts relevant and meaningful (Forgan, 2002). Literature can also be used as a form of therapy to reach students who may be frustrated with math or who experience math anxiety.

Understanding Math Anxiety in Students

Affective factors play a critical role in math learning and instruction (McLeod, 1991) and causes for math anxiety are varied. Much research has shown that teachers and parents who are afraid of math can pass on their anxiety to the next generation by modeling behaviors of their own discomfort with the subject. Williams (1998) proposed that since people generally are not math anxious before going to school, math anxiety is related to the teaching of math. The notion that math is something to be dreaded begins in the student's first years in school. Teachers and other significant adults model that math is difficult and something to fear, while at the same time indicate mathematical skills are very important for their future success. It is important to recognize that the first exposure children have to math may be by their primary teachers who more than likely, are not well trained in math, and who are also anxious about mathematics themselves (Kutner, 1992).

Some researchers have blamed ineffective math testing techniques as contributors to student math anxiety. Buxton (1991) found that most students were made to feel rushed while doing math whether it was a math test or when working on a stack of multiplication card facts. Students were often asked to perform under pressure and panic resulted. Buxton concluded that math must be contemplated, discussed in class, and students must be provided time to reflect on their feelings about math and how it relates to their lives. Math test anxiety has consistently been identified as a major element of math anxiety (Alexander & Cobb, 1987; Resnick, Viehe & Segal, 1982; Rounds and Hendel, 1980. The NCTM(1995a) views the traditional forms of math assessments such as paper and pencil tests, timed tests, and problem solving through a singular approach, as ineffective. The NCTM report suggested that teachers incorporate more qualitative forms of assessment, as well as portfolios, rubrics, observations and group assessments (NCTM, 1995a).

NCTM (1989 and 2000) recognized that technical changes in society demand that students learn to value math more and become more confident in their math ability as well as become more proficient in problem solving. Through teaching methods such as authentic problem solving, cooperative learning, hands-on activities, using computers and calculators, discussions, authentic assessment, interdisciplinary instruction, reflection and journal writing, the NCTM (1995b) proposed these teaching methods would help prevent or reduce math anxiety in young people. Regardless of what causes math anxiety, researchers contend that there is no math anxiety gene; it is a learned behavior, and consequently can be unlearned (Davidson & Levitov, 1993). However, most middle and high school math teachers are not prepared to deal with students' psychological fears of math, nor are they prepared to deal with defense mechanisms and strategies young people use to protect themselves from failure at math. Most students' success in math is more often determined by attitude and feelings toward the subject than by any innate aptitude for math (Hembree, 1990). Teachers, therefore, can influence students' attitudes in a positive manner by helping young people deal with their feelings about math, because negative feelings and attitudes stand in the way of success (Furner, 1996).

Bibliotherapy in the Classroom

Teachers need to create supportive environments where their students feel comfortable expressing themselves. One approach in helping young people express themselves comfortably is bibliotherapy. Bibliotherapy is the use of reading to produce affective change and to promote personality growth and development (Forgan, 2002 and 2003; Sridhar & Vaughn, 2000; Doll and Doll, 1997; Lenkowsky, 1987). Bibliotherapy can be used as an attempt to help young people understand themselves and cope with problems by providing literature relevant to their personal situations and developmental needs at appropriate times. Classroom teachers using this approach hold a fundamental belief that reading will influence thinking and behavior and that, through guided discussions, selected readings can be focused on specific needs of students.

The bibliotherapy process is not a difficult procedure to understand. The three most recognized stages of bibliotherapy are (1) identification, (2) catharsis, and (3) insight (Forgan, 2002; Halsted, 1994); however, another less mentioned in the literature yet especially interesting for teachers working with math anxious students, is universalization (Slavson, 1950), the recognition that our problems are not alone. The therapeutic experience while reading a book happens to us each time we pick up a good book and say, "This character is very much like me. I can relate to this person." This interaction is known as identification; and the more we have in common with people we meet in our reading, the closer will be the identification process. With that identification comes a sense of tension relief or "catharsis," an emotional feeling that lets us know we are not alone in facing our problems. As we enjoy the book, we learn vicariously through the characters in the book. We gain new ways of looking at troublesome issues we face and insight evolves. With this new insight, changed behavior may occur as real life situations similar to those experienced in the books are confronted. This was the case with Sarah when reading A Gebra Named Al. She related to the character and used her methods for coping with her feelings as well as strategies for better understanding the math material she was learning in class.

Books can help educators guide the emotional development of their students far more than intellectual discussion because stories directly affect human emotions (Forgan, 2002 and 2003). A skillful author can help young people connect with others who have similar problems. Students who are unable to talk about their anxieties often can identify with characters in books strongly enough to experience the catharsis and acquire some important insights (Halsted, 1994). For bibliotherapy to be successful, a meaningful follow-up discussion is required (Forgan, 2002). To simply read a good book with an entire class is not bibliotherapy. It is very important that young people not only read books, but also become involved in discussions, counseling and follow-up techniques such as role-playing, creative problem solving, relaxation with music, art activities and journal writing (Forgan, 2002 and 2003; Hebert & Furner, 1997; Hebert, 1995, 1991). When presented in this way, bibliotherapy can be enjoyable while providing a time for solid introspection by young people.

Researchers in math anxiety propose systematic desensitization (Furner, 1996; Schneider & Nevid, 1993; Hembree, 1990; Trent, 1985; Olson & Gillingham, 1980) as an effective approach for helping people reduce their math anxiety. Systematic desensitization in the context of math anxiety may be defined as a gradual exposure to the math concepts that are causing students to become distressed and teaching them how to cope with that fear. Each time they are exposed to the math they fear, they should improve in their techniques in coping with their anxious feelings. Being able to talk about their past history with math and releasing their anger, hatred and fear of the subject may be therapeutic. Bibliotherapy is one avenue for students to discuss feelings about problems with others who share similar issues, the use of guided reading (Forgan, 2002) therefore, could naturally become one component of systematic desensitization proposed by educational and psychological experts.

A Gebra Named Al, a book by Wendy Isdell (1993), depicts the story of a middle school-aged girl's frustration with mathematical problems. The book presents the reader with a variety of math problems in a humorous yet realistic fashion as they relate to algebra and chemistry. A lesson plan (Hebert & Furrier, 1997) may be designed for teachers at the middle and high school levels which can provide a variety of follow-up activities for use after reading or during reading A Gebra Named Al. Math Curse (Scieszka & Smith, 1995) is another wonderful children's literature/picture book which also addresses the issue of math anxiety and can be used/read in the classroom to promote discussion of student discomfort with mathematics. (Hebert & Furner have consolidated many helpful activities/lesson plans which are appropriate for infusing affective instruction into a math curriculum over the course of a semester or an entire academic year. Forgan (2003) offers many children's books to use in bibliotherapy sessions to help students overcome a variety of problems confronting children in this day and age. Integrating such activities like bibliotherapy and discussion while teaching the content consistently throughout a semester or an academic year would allow teachers to address the anxious feelings of their students as they learn math. Such activities become an affective strand incorporated throughout their math and language arts curricula.


There are many students in schools around the world like Sarah who feel anxious about doing mathematics. Math anxiety has become a widespread problem in today's society. Burns (1998) contends that two thirds of Americans loathe and fear math. Teachers are confronted daily with students who display anxiety toward math. Teachers need to take the time in their instruction to address affective needs of their students since many may never succeed in math without emotional support and confidence building. Reading children's or adolescent literature may be one approach to reach students who feel math anxious. Bibliotherapy is a therapeutic discussion-generating technique which offers caring educators appropriate affective strategies for dealing with mathematics anxiety in classrooms so that students achieve success. It is important to note that as part of the NCTM (1989) Standards, teachers are responsible for assessing students' dispositions toward math. During the bibliotherapy session teachers should also do the math with the students as it is discussed in the adolescent literature book. Bibliotherapy is not just a "warm and fuzzy" approach. It is very serious and this form of psychological counseling should be done to help students overcome or reduce their math anxiety and ultimately gain success at doing math. A student's negative disposition toward math could affect his/her entire life both in career choices and most decision-making that is made on a daily basis. It is the math teacher's job to do whatever possible to reach students like Sarah so that they feel confident in their ability to "do math" and are prepared to successfully function mathematically in the new millennium which has become a high-tech, globally competitive world relying heavily on math, science, problemsolving, and the use of technology.


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Joseph M. Furner, Florida Atlantic University

Furner, Ph.D. is an Associative Professor of Mathematics Education.
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Author:Furner, Joseph M.
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2004
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