Fractions Often Elicit Fear
Ask a random adult what area of math they find most difficult, and they are very likely to say, “fractions.” They were never comfortable with fractions as kids, and this discomfort followed them into adulthood. The pattern continues with many of today’s kids. I’ll never forget the day that my (then) new student, Emmaline, a 5th grader, looked me in the eye and said, “I can’t do fractions.”
Fractions are hard. Fractions are scary. Fractions are to be avoided at all costs. And they can be avoided … at least if you are an adult. All you need is a handy fractions calculator, and the work is done for you.
Unlike adults, kids encounter fractions every day, throughout their school years, and in spite of the near ubiquity of calculators, students are required to perform some exams, or parts of exams, sans electronics. So before you hop over to Amazon to buy a fractions calculator, please read on.
Fractions Can Be Fun
With a little creativity and effort, you can change your child’s mindset about fractions. Yes, you can. The best way to overcome fear is to replace it with fun. Thanks to many of the activities you’ll read about in this post, I’m happy to report that Emmaline now says, “Fractions are fun!” and she means it. Yes, it is possible.
Here are my favorite fun fractions tips.
1) Ditch the pie. Drawing a pie to represent fractions is okay when you’re breaking a whole into halves or fourths, or even eighths. But dividing it into equal thirds is difficult (today’s kids did not grow up with peace signs), and it just gets harder for fifths, etc.
For teaching the parts of a whole, replace the pie sketch with a drawing of a brownie. Rectangles are much better than circles for explaining the idea of dividing a whole into parts. If you want to make it really interesting for your kids, use real brownies.
Healthier option: granola bars (go for soft, not crunchy). Some people like to use apples or other fruit, but it is difficult to cut them into equally sized pieces.
2) Use candy. M&Ms and Skittles are fantastic for learning about parts of a whole group. I covered this in a previous post.
Healthier options: grapes, raisins, and nuts.
Brownies are also great for comparing the concept of the parts of a whole with that of the parts of a whole group. Divide brownies into pieces for parts of a whole. Divide a group of whole brownies into smaller groups for parts of a group. Kids need to understand both ways of thinking about fractions.
3) Use manipulatives. Kids learn better when you combine multiple sensory inputs. So while visuals are great, visuals that they can touch and hold are better. Brownies are a manipulative of sorts, but they can get messy. One really great non-edible manipulative for learning fractions is the Fractions Tower, by Learning Resources. It comes with a hollow bar with “1” stamped on it, and a bunch of smaller bars with fractions from 1/2 to 1/12 stamped on them. Two “1/2″ pieces are as long as the “1” piece. Three “1/3″ pieces are the same length as the “1” piece. You get the picture.
I like to choose a set of pieces appropriate for a given student, say, the 1s, the 1/2s, the 1/4s, and the 1/8s. Then I challenge him to make a whole (equal in length to the “1” bar) in as many ways as he can. I know he is really getting it when he comes up with: 1/2 + 1/4 + 1/4 to make 1. Big high 5!
By the way, the Fractions Tower has fractions on only 1 side of all the bars. One side has the equivalent decimal number, and one side has the corresponding percentage. This is a tool that your child can use through middle school. Oh, and don’t be confused by the packaging. It says both “Fraction Tower” and “Fraction Cubes.” The word “cubes” is used very loosely, given that most of the pieces do not have equal sides in all dimensions. But I digress.
4) Create games with manipulatives. Combine visuals with touch, add a little friendly competition, and you have fun! Here are some ideas:
Give each player an even number of tiles, face down. On each turn, the player must turn over two tiles, and orient them so that they represent “proper” fractions. That is, the upper number (numerator) must be less than the bottom number (denominator). If the top and bottom have the same number of dots, so the fraction equals 1, that’s okay too. Then the player must decide which fraction is the smaller of the two. You can sort out the dominoes before starting, to limit the fractions to values that are appropriate for your child’s level. Also, remember, this is a learning game, and your child may not know the answer right away. Have a whiteboard and marker handy so you can draw brownies to help her figure out which fraction is smaller.
This version of card fractions is similar to the dominoes game described above. Deal cards to each player, in multiples of 4. (Remove the jokers and face cards first.) Then, on each turn, the player turns up 4 cards and makes 2 proper fractions with them. Then he decides which is smaller.
This is my all-time favorite way of teaching fractions. It costs between $15 and $20, but it makes learning sooooo much fun! It comes with several different spinners and instructions for several different games, and you can customize them to accommodate your child’s skill level. For younger students I start with 1/2, 1/4, and 1/8. Once they begin to understand that 2/4 is the same as 1/2, I bring in the 1/3 and 1/6 pieces. There is no end to the fun, or the learning, that is possible with this game.