Moans, groans, and physical agony may be seen and heard at the simple instruction of “Please take out your math book.” Adding to the horror is the realization that today’s lesson is on Fractions. Fractions can be one of the most difficult math skills to master, let alone understand. It is the black sheep of the mathematical family, for it breaks the rules many young students have mastered. However, new research and techniques can make learning fractions fun!
The government is doing its best to restructure how fractions are taught to young students. They are taking notice from testing results that students who often do well in math are suddenly and quickly hitting a wall when fractions are introduced. There is a movement to make sure that fractions are taught in a way that builds on conceptual knowledge while also maintaining a sense of fun. Once students have the conceptual foundation in place, they can move easily and with confidence into the algorithms that require them to manipulate fractions.
Researchers are discovering that when students learn fractions using number lines, paper models and games, they are not only having fun but this process allows them to truly gain a stronger conceptual understanding. Gone are the days of the classic pie chart and pizza pictures. Fraction bars and number lines are considered easier for children to cut, draw, and divide than the typical circle. One such game is from BrainPOP, and bases the understanding of fractions in their game Battleship Numberline. The name alone is engaging and brings many of us back to the days when we played “Battleship” for hours with our siblings. Students who were struggling to understand fractions from class were introduced to the game. Within an hour, they had the concept and ability to compare fractions with 100 percent accuracy. Books can be another powerful tool of learning! The Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Fractions Book by Jerry Pallotta requires students to fold and cut pieces of brown construction paper into fractions. They then use these pieces to compare to one another as they move through the story. This is an engaging and hands-on way to develop a deeper understanding of fractions!
Why is learning fractions important? Besides being a key component of the mathematical world, researchers have discovered that understanding the concept of fractions transcends and strengthens other learning modalities as well. Dr. Nancy Jordan, from the University of Delaware, has done extensive research on how this mathematical concept affects learning in general. Her research shows that third graders who can successfully place fractions on a number line have higher successes in mathematical concepts across the board through fifth grade. Students who have this ability also have stronger working memory and an increased ability to pay attention for longer periods of time. Other research done by Dr. Fuchs found that once struggling fourth graders had a good understanding of fractions, their grades went up. More importantly, they were found to be able to maintain those higher grades. Bob Siegler, a professor of cognitive psychology at Camegie Mellon University, found that a student’s knowledge of fractions predicts high performance in high school math classes. His research also states that students gained higher performances in reading achievement, working memory, family income and higher education. Dr. Siegler says “If you don’t understand fractions, it’s literally impossible for you to understand algebra, geometry, physics, statistics, and chemistry.”
According to the new Common Core standards that are being implemented by most states, students will be required to multiply and divide fractions by the fifth grade. Confusion with fractions is the most common reason parents seek math help for their child. Some of our students may never be excited when they hear “Please take out your math book.” But hopefully with a little imagination and the use of the appropriate manipulatives and games, we can take away the horror of fractions. When teachers understand the impact that the conceptual understanding of fractions has on other subject areas, they should be seeking out any modality that helps cement that understanding for their students. So whether it is chocolate, Battleship, number lines, or the simple folded paper, integrating fun as we build students’ conceptual understanding of fractions will serve them well for the remainder of their education and lifetime.
Resources: New Approaches to Teaching Fractions by Sue Shellenbarger in the Wall Street Journal. September 25, 2013