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Comparing the Value of Numbers — A Wolf's Story

By Shari Edwards on September 19, 2012
  • Grades: 1–2, 3–5

I have used many tricks for teaching comparison of number value in my years as a 2nd grade teacher. I have used PAC-MAN, alligator heads, and dots. They all worked to help my students recognize the symbols =, >, and <. 

After a few years, when my students began asking, "Who is PAC-MAN?" I realized it was time to move on. At that point I began using alligators every year, until . . . I stumbled upon something that works better for my students and takes them farther in their understanding of these concepts.

Now, I use this strategy every year and am still finding extensions to the lesson.

Stories are powerful for internalizing information, and after my class hears the story of the hungry wolf and the pancakes, they never forget it! I have a reference point for the rest of the year that helps me talk to them about comparing numbers, missing addends, equivalent names of numbers, and other beginning-algebra concepts.

student using wolf picture to practice greater than and less than

In this post, you will find everything you need to try this strategy for yourself!


  • Hungry wolf story.
  • Smaller wolf pictures for each student to use on worksheets and individual response exercises. (You can also give students three small sheets of paper and let them draw their own wolf heads.)
  • Teacher set of large wolf pictures for whole class section (same file as student set).
  • Campfire video on projector (if available). 
  • Whiteboard and markers.

Basic Lesson:

1. Print the hungry wolf story from the link above, and read it until you are familiar with it so you can elaborate or personalize it for your class.  student comparing two numbers

2. Set the stage: Find a good campfire video to project. Gather everyone on the carpet and turn the lights down.

3. Tell the wolf’s story in folktale style as if you were telling a story to campers around a fire. Make it your own.

4. When the story is over and before the students return to their seats, give them sets of numbers of pancakes. Let them decide which stack of pancakes they think the wolf will choose, and then have them tell a partner and share with the class.

5. Hand each student wolf pictures from the student set and place the large set at the whiteboard. Give them time to cut the pictures apart and put their names on the back of each. Have them look at the large set of wolf pictures and write the symbol in front of each wolf that corresponds with that picture.

6. Draw a vertical path on the board with a plate on each side, as illustrated in the written story. Then begin by writing a 14 above one plate and a 15 above the other. Students look at their own wolf pictures and choose the one that lets the wolf open his mouth toward the 15. Talk about why he would choose that stack of pancakes. Students should hold the “less than” wolf toward the board, at arm’s length, so that it appears to sit on the path. (Have them check their answer by holding up the large wolf picture to the path on the board. Not toward you!) Then, have them state the phrase by saying, "14 is less than 15."

Try different, and increasingly difficult, numbers (using the sequence above):

37, 57

98, 98

142, 42

68, 86

372, 273 (when students are ready)

7. Allow students to use their wolf pictures on worksheets and written assignments for added understanding or motivation. Students can store their wolf pictures in a safe place to use as needed.

Extension Activities:

Stronger math students will outgrow the basic numbers very quickly, but . . . the wolf story still lives on!

Below are some extensions for the Hungry Wolf activity.

student working with missing addends

Equivalent Names for Numbers and Math Fact Practice: Sometimes one or more pancakes will fall off the plate when they are placed next to the path. The wolf is allowed to eat ALL the pancakes on one side of the path, on or off the plate. These situations are written like this: "4+2=6 Both plates had six pancakes. We know that because the wolf’s mouth is closed (= symbol)." If two pancakes fall off of one plate, they are still counted in the number for that side. Ask students for different combinations of on and off the plate numbers for 6=6 (e.g., 1+5, 2+4, 3+3).

student trying to outsmart the wolf

Missing Numbers: Play Outsmart the Wolf. If the wolf’s mouth is closed (= symbol), both sides of the path must have the same number of pancakes. On the whiteboard, draw a path and put the large = wolf on it with a magnet. Write missing addend problems on the board and ask students to find the number to write in the blank that will keep the wolf from eating any pancakes. These problems can range from easy (4+_=7) to more difficult (4+3=2+_). When the first students begin to finish their math assignments, they love to try to outsmart the wolf, so I try to have a difficult set of numbers on the board with the wolf sitting in the path with his mouth closed.

outsmart the wolf


I’m sure there must be other uses for this strategy. Can you think of more?

Comments (7)

If anyone is waiting for the corrected file of Stusent Sets of wolf pictures, it has now been corrected! Thanks for your patience!

I have linked the new file with all of the wolf pictures. I'm hoping by Monday or Tuesday, the correct file will appear when you click the link. I'm so sorry for any inconvenience.

Thank you for bringing that to my attention! Please check back later this week. I didn't get the wolf turned on the copy I made. I'll fix it!

Love this lesson - there are no small pictures to show the wolf and less than. Would you please post? Thanks

Love this lesson - there are no small pictures to show the wolf and less than. Would you please post? Thanks

Thank you! They especially enjoy outsmarting the wolf!

This is such a clever idea! I love that you can differentiate the difficulty. The pictures are adorable, too!

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