How to Stop Hating Fractions

O Lord, have mercy on us and save us from fractions!

I have never seen a bigger stumbling block in teaching math than those poor God-forsaken fractions.  Kids absolutely recoil at them.  I have even had a parent say to me that he didn’t care that his kid was struggling with fractions because fractions are “effin’ stupid.”  Yeah, and I teach Catholic school.

We make a few major mistakes when we teach fractions.  First, we give to the mind before we give to the hand.  We just don’t let kids have enough concrete experience with fractions before we start dealing in abstractions.  Second, we don’t clearly explain the relationship between fractions and division in the first place, so students see these as a whole new set of numbers instead of what they are: division problems made with those old familiar whole numbers.  Third, we far too often use rectangles to illustrate fractions, which confuses and frustrates students because the proportions are constantly changing with each new rectangle drawn.  They can’t get a solid picture in their mind of what a half should look like because half of a rectangle is just another stinkin’ rectangle.

Simple problems with simple solutions — give kids lots of concrete practice in every fraction concept (equivalent fractions, simplest form, adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing, and so on); stress from the very beginning that fractions indicate division; and please, please, please, use CIRCLES.  Every semi-circle is exactly the same shape, no matter the size of the circle.  This is much clearer for kids to put their minds around.

I have one indispensable teaching tool that addresses all of these issues in a snap: my Pizza Fraction Fun Game.  Many are the recess periods I’ve spent with struggling middle schoolers playing with these gorgeous little pizza slices.  There many different options available for sets like this, but two things I particularly like about this one:

  • It has 13 different pizzas, which provide tons of options for activities using both fractions and mixed numbers.  Some sets only include up to six pizzas — really not as flexible as you’re going to need.
  • The back sides of the slices match the front, but they are not labeled, so you can quiz kids on the various sizes.  This is very helpful for getting them to internalize what a phrase like “one fifth” means.

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What’s one teaching resource you just can’t live without?  Share in the comments!

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