Creative Ways to Teach Fractions

When I was first asked to teach fractions, I was terrified.

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I wasn’t terrified because I didn’t understand fractions. I was terrified because I had to teach fractions to my special needs students who had not yet mastered the basic operations of multiplication, division, subtraction, and addition.

Does this scenario sound familiar to you? Are you being asked to teach fractions to students who don’t have the basic foundations of math at their disposal?

You’re not alone.

Just think of how frustrating it must be for the students. They’re just trying to decipher all of those word problems, steps in long division, and other multi-pronged tasks, when these weird-looking things called fractions get piled up on top of it all.

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Honestly, it’s probably at the point when they’re asked to do fractions that a lot of our students “give up” on math.

So, it’s extremely important at this juncture—at the time when you first introduce fractions to your students—that you find ways to make them as relevant and tangible as possible.

Your students need to understand what fractions are before you do anything else with fractions.

They have to learn:

A Fraction = Division

You know that “fractions” are alternate notations for division.

Yet, to your students, fractions look utterly different than anything they’ve seen before. Your students might have seen the classic division symbol (÷), along eith the symbol for long division, but they’ve likely never seen the fraction bar before.

You’re reallllly going to have to slow down and get your students familiar with this fraction bar. Before you do anything else, your students will have to completely understand that the fraction bar = division. Otherwise, everything else you teach about fractions won’t make any sense.

Be Dramatic and/or Visual

Make this idea that “the fraction bar equals division” absolutely real.

Use the fraction bar to represent things being divided into two halves. Decorate the bar to look like something else, or describe it as something else, to help it be memorable. Some ideas:

  • The fraction bar is a roof dividing a house into a top and bottom.

  • The fraction bar is cardboard that divides layers of cake.

  • The fraction bar is a dragon breathing fire to divide the Land of Gnomes into Top Land and Bottom Land.

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Whatever you want. You have to appeal to your crew, and your crew’s interests. You just have to emphasize that this fraction bar is something that divides things!

Use Manipulatives

Your memorable lesson won’t stick if you don’t use multi-sensory representations of fractions. As you continue your introduction of fractions, use manipulatives such as these:

Use manipulatives for the duration of the fractions unit. Students should use them to illustrate their in-class practice problems, especially during the first half of your unit.

Host a Fraction Party

Once your students fully understand that fractions = division, you can treat them to a party which celebrates fractions, and demonstrates their real-life applications.

The fractions party should involve food, if permitted by your school. If not, you can use supplies such as play-dough, Legos, and other supplies that can represent division.

If you’re able to use food in your classroom, you can work with the following supplies:

  • A measuring cup

  • A large pie, cake, or pizza

  • Snacks in stick shapes, such as pretzel rods or veggie sticks

  • Healthy multi-colored snacks (Yes, I’m a health nut. That’s why I’m encouraging you to get healthy snacks, to offset the pie, cake, or pizza.)

I promise you, after you have this fractions party, every kid in the school will wish they were in your math class. And even you’ll have fun.

(Wait, you get to have fun as a teacher?!?)

Here’s how you’ll use your supplies:

MEASURING CUP

  • Offer up some interesting form of water, like flavored or sparkling water. (If you use juice, there’s a high probability that a sticky spill will ruin your fraction party.)

  • Put removable tape on the “1 cup” line. Or, tape a piece of brightly colored yarn on the outside of the “1 cup” line to represent the “whole.”

  • Ask students to pour the amount you specify into a measuring cup. (Start with basic measurements, like 1/2 or 3/4 of a cup.)

  • As students pour, use the vocabulary of fractions to talk about the “parts” in a “whole.”

LARGE PIE, CAKE, OR PIZZA

  • Introduce this as a “denominator [pie, cake, or pizza].”

  • A denominator pie, cake, or pizza has lots of pieces. Ask the students to count the total number of pieces.

  • Write the total number of pieces in the denominator on the board.

  • Next, tell the kids that you’re going to give them slices of the numerator. Disperse the pieces and represent that number on the board (it should not be the whole thing!) Keep talking about the numerator slices!

  • Students should also draw fractional representations of this activity to make it a multi-sensory activity.

Stick-Shaped Snacks

  • This activity is messy. Set up a large picnic blanket or something similar, and allow kids to do this activity on the floor, so you don’t get crumbs everywhere!

  • Take the pretzel rods, or veggie sticks, or whatever else you use, and demonstrate. Create your specified fractions by breaking the stick foods into approximate fractions (which you’ve specified ahead of time.)

  • Depending on the fine motor skills of your kids, I would recommend sticking to halves and thirds as they try this activity for themselves.

  • Students can eat the pieces only after you’ve confirmed the accuracy of their fractions!

Multi-Colored Snacks

  • Set up a station with the multi-colored snacks, along with some small plates or little cups.

  • Students will take a handful of snacks and count out the total, as the denominator. Then they’ll write the fraction to represent the specific colors they pulled. (For example: 2/15 orange, 1/15 yellow, and so forth.)

  • Students can only eat the multi-colored snacks after you’ve confirmed the accuracy of their fractions!

Breaking up the Activities into Multiple Days

You might choose to have a week where you do a different “fun fractions” activity each day. For students who might be overwhelmed with too many exciting activities in a short time, make sure to spread them out!

UsING Clay, Legos, and other Toys

If you’re not permitted to use food in your classroom, or if you have a student with a food allergy, set up a toy fraction party instead!

Even older kids typically enjoy the opportunity to play with things during class! You can use Legos instead of the multi-colored snacks, and modeling compound instead of the stick snacks.

If your students really love Legos, you can continue to use them as manipulatives throughout your fractions unit. It’s a great way for students to get their “fidgets out” as well, as they snap together those Legos.

As a teacher of math, you’re in an exciting position to take the fear out of fractions. You can encourage your students to see fractions as what they are: representations of “real-life!”

As we move numbers into reality, we can truly make them into more for our students.