Do your students often feel frustrated about fractions? Do their eyes glaze over when you bring up numerators and equivalency?
Teachers everywhere are facing the same problem – how can we make fractions more understandable and less daunting for students?
The good news is that it can be done! By following simple strategies, you can make fractions easier for your students. Here are four proven ways to make fractions easy and engaging for all learners.
1. Use real world context
Our students come to us with a plethora of experiences. They’ve been doing fractions their whole lives, they just didn’t realize it.
Kids have such an innate sense of “fairness” that they really get fractions in that context.
One common misconception that students have about fractions is the larger the denominator, the larger the number is. That makes sense because their whole lives, larger numbers meant larger numbers.
So I present it like this. Would you rather share a cake with 5 people or 10 people? The students respond with 5. I ask why? They say the slices are bigger.
After a few examples like this, they see a pattern that when you share with less people (aka the denominator is lesser), the pieces (aka the fractions) are greater.
This is so much more meaningful to students than just telling them “the smaller the denominator, the larger the fraction”. When students make sense of this “rule” on their own, it’s so much more meaningful.
2. Teach the vocabulary
When you think of fraction vocabulary, you likely think of numerator and denominator. Yes, those are vocabulary words specific to fractions and should be taught in context.
However, we often overlook the names of the fractions themselves. One fourth. Three eighths. Nine tenths. Even our native English speaking students don’t hear or practice these words very often. It can be difficult for English learners to hear and say the -th ending.
One way I practice vocabulary is with my bilingual fraction posters. I keep them hanging on the wall for students to reference while we work on fractions. Not only do they have the names of the fractions, but they also include both area models and number lines so students can make the connection between the fraction, the word form, and the representation.
The posters also come with a student handout so they can put it in a binder or folder and reference it whenever they need it. For more about these posters, please read 12 Helpful Spanish Bilingual Fraction Posters.
Another way to practice the fraction vocabulary is to skip count. Just like you can skip count with multiples, we can skip count with fractions too.
I give students a prompt. “We are going to skip count by fourths from 0 fourths to 8 fourths.” Every time we get to a whole number we are going to do roller coaster arms.” Roller coaster arms, by the way, are just putting our arms up like we’re on a roller coaster, which adds a little novelty to the whole thing.
Students count chorally. Zero fourths, one fourth, two fourths, etc. After reaching eight fourths, I tell them we’re going to do it again, but this time when we get to a whole number, we are going to say the whole number. So instead of saying “four fourths” we’ll just say one.
So now we’ve got students practicing the pronunciation of fractions, realizing that you can count with fractions just like with whole numbers, and converting mixed numbers to whole numbers. All in one simple no prep activity.
I often squeeze this in at times when the students are ready, but I’m not. For example, if I’m about to start a lesson but realize I left the book on the other side of the room, I’ll have them count while I get it. If I have to pause a lesson to answer the phone, I ask them to skip count while I take care of that. It’s a great way to use otherwise dead time.
3. Use manipulatives
Whenever beginning something new in math, it’s incredibly important to use manipulatives, and fractions are no exception.
There are many, many kinds of manipulatives available for students to use. You may be familiar with fraction bars, fraction circles, and cuisenaire rods. There are pros and cons to all of them and I don’t think you can go wrong as long as you keep connecting them back to the whole.
As you continue your fraction unit, be sure to continue to make the manipulatives available to students who need them. I think as upper grade teachers, we sometimes remove the manipulatives too quickly. However, some students really do need more time with them, so we need to continue to give them access to those tools.
4. Use number lines and benchmark fractions
In 2013, I had just started with my current school district, and they were putting us through Common Core math training. This was my 6th year teaching, so even though I was new to the district, I wasn’t new to teaching. However, in this training, I saw fractions on a number line for the first time, and it blew my mind. I can’t believe I didn’t learn that way as a student myself!
By the upper grades, students are very comfortable with number lines for whole numbers. By using fractions on a number line, we’re using a familiar tool but adding a more complex layer. In this way, it doesn’t feel like a completely new and alien thing, but rather an addition to something that they already know.
Another benefit of number lines is that they really help with rounding. On a number line, it’s much easier to see if a fraction is closer to 0, ½, or 1.
The one drawback of number lines is that there aren’t typically a lot of resources built into the curriculum for them. Making them isn’t easy, so to save you time, I have a set of differentiated worksheets for fraction concepts, adding fractions, and subtracting fractions on a number line.
In conclusion, fractions are an important and necessary part of math, so teaching them now will benefit students for the rest of their lives. Let’s make a commitment to ensuring our students have the opportunity to understand, and maybe even enjoy, fractions!