Teaching a Deep Understanding of Fractions: 3 Keys to Getting It Right

By Anni Stipek

Fractions are an important part of the elementary curriculum. Students need a strong conceptual understanding of fractions to successfully move through the grade levels. Yet it’s also one of the most difficult concepts for students to master. There are numerous steps involved in solving fraction problems. They can be difficult to grasp. They can cause frustration—for students and teachers.

In this article, we’ll look at three key skills that will help students succeed with fractions while reducing their frustration and the difficulty they have with fractions. These are the skills children in Singapore possess that enable them to outperform children in any other country in math—skills that can easily be mastered in any classroom.

The ability to visualize the math

In Singapore classrooms, math relies heavily on visualization—a skill not often taught in American classrooms. When a child can “see” the math, they are more likely to remember it. Say, for example, if the day’s instruction is about decomposing and composing fractions, the teacher can bring out physical objects—like egg cartons, pattern blocks, and Legos. By using engaging concrete materials like these, teachers can help a child can see it in their mind’s eye and create a mental picture of the problem, eliminating the need to memorize a procedure.

Good number sense

Number sense is the foundation of all math and absolutely essential to a student’s success with fractions. It can be defined as an intuitive understanding of the relative value of numbers and the relationships among numbers. Students need number sense if they are to succeed at compensation, decomposing and composing, what whole is, and part-whole thinking. Students learn number sense through teacher-created classrooms experiences that allow them to explore, manipulate, and talk about numbers.

The ability to generalize

Learning fractions is about more than just math. It’s also about learning to think. Making generalizations and reasoning are fundamental to fraction success. Forget about memorization. Students who know only the “rules” for fractions have limited ability to extend and apply the knowledge to other math concepts and problems. Teaching children that there is more than one way to solve a problem—in fact, there may be many ways—will make learning fun and engage them in making generalizations. Of course, you need a classroom environment that encourages exploration. A questioning mindset is also helpful: Did this work? Why? Why not?

Beyond instilling these three keys skills, there are other, simple ways teachers can help students develop a deep understanding of how fractions work. They can create and deliver fun, kid-friendly lessons. They can challenge their students with open-ended questions. They can develop and reinforce important concepts with games. And, they can go beyond rules and procedures and find new ways to motivate their children to extend their learning and experience new confidence and true success with fractions.

For more strategies and techniques for helping children “get” fractions, check out SDE’s webinar Success with Fractions: Simple Strategies for Deep Understanding (Grades 3–6) by veteran classroom teacher and Singapore math expert Anni Stipek.

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