Fractions: Thinking with Curricular Competencies

For our district’s Pro-D day, we (our 2 Intermediate Math Liaisons) decided to focus on fractions for Grades 4-7.  We have both tutored students in Grades 8-10 and know that fractions are a huge problem for many students – and are a big reason that students struggle in Math in high school.  We wanted to convince intermediate teachers to spend more time with fraction concepts and to share some ideas of how to address fractions conceptually.

In BC’s redesigned curriculum, a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to fractional understanding is done in Grades 4-7.  They are formally introduced in Grade 3, and by Grade 8, students need to be able to work with fractions (operations with fractions).  As intermediate teachers, it is really our responsibility to help our students develop a deep understanding of fractions in all their complexity.

For today, I just wanted to share some images that we developed to walk teachers through our curriculum’s progression of fractions and focus in on some of the BIG IDEAS that students should be developing in these grades.

A HUGE thank-you to Graham Fletcher whose fraction progression video inspired us to think of the progression of fractions in our own curriculum and whose video inspired our images as well.  (His video is way more spectacular than our images, so go watch it now if you haven’t already).

early-fraction-ideas

At this stage (Grades 3-4 in BC), we want our students to understand:

  • Fractions are built of equal-sized pieces
  • We can partition shapes in different ways
  • Two fractions are the same if the pieces are the same size – even if they are a different shape!

fraction-models

At this stage (Gr. 3-4 and beyond in BC), we want our students to have practice with developing understanding of all three of these models and we want them to have the opportunity to use various manipulatives in exploring them.

comparing-and-ordering

At this stage (Grade 4 and beyond in BC), we want to help students use various number sense strategies to compare and order fractions.  These four strategies are: common numerators, common denominators, benchmarking and missing piece strategies.  We also want our students to recognize that the size of the whole must stay the same in order for us to compare.  For example, ½ can be smaller than ¼ if we are comparing ½ of a apple to ¼ of a watermelon.  

equivalent-fractions

At this stage (Gr. 5 and beyond in BC), students working with different representations and manipulatives will notice that different fractions “line up” and are actually the same size, but they have different “names.”  We want to encourage our students to see and make note of patterns in the numerator and denominator.

fractions-decimals-percents

At this stage (Gr. 6-7 and beyond in the BC curriculum), we look explicitly at improper fractions and mixed numbers as well as decimals and percentages.  Students can use manipulatives to explore what fractions look like when they have pieces that make up more than one whole.  Students will extend their understanding of fractions along the number line.  We want to help our students make connections between fractions, decimals and percentages and to think about how these concepts are related. 


 

As teachers, we can be so immersed in our own grade that we sometimes lose sight of the bigger picture – where our students are coming from and where they need to be several years down the road.  Thinking about the progression of concepts can help us to avoid relying on “tricks” and focus on helping our students develop the conceptual foundation that they need to be successful in the long term.

These pictures/ideas were a small portion of our recent workshop – hopefully I will be able to circle back around to this topic of fractions again in the near future and share some activities that we recommend for using BC’s curricular competencies to help develop fractional understanding.

 

Number Talks Meet Fractions

We had our fourth meeting of our “Making Number Talks Matter” book club last night.  Our focus for this meeting was on Fractions.  We spoke a little bit about decimals and percents, but we spent most of our time looking at how we can support our students in developing conceptual understandings of fractions.

This blog post is meant to serve as a recap for those who were there, a fill-in for those who couldn’t make it, and a record for anyone else who is interested!

We started off our meeting with our usual conversation about how things are going in classrooms with number talks.  Some participants shared their ideas for how they are keeping track of student thinking.  One teacher has tested out incorporating our student self-assessment and another has been using her document camera instead of the whiteboard to record student thinking – she then has a record of strategies being used with student names attached to help inform her Number Talks planning.  It is so inspiring to hear about how excited students are about participating in Number Talks.  I hope you will all continue to carve out time in your class for them!

We then looked at a “Fractions on the Number Line” activity as a group.  We used a double number line for this activity.  We placed the benchmarks of 0, 1/2 and 1 on the top number line and then each participant had a number to place on the line.  First, we had teachers talk in groups to order the numbers at their table and then one-by-one the tables came up to put their numbers on the bottom number line, re-arranging as necessary to make it make sense.

img_1757
The benchmarks (once again a photo re-enactment)
img_1758
The Double Number Line (imagine the cards are hanging on the wall on two pieces of yarn)

From this activity, we moved on to talking about the BIG IDEAS for fractional thinking in the new Grade 4-7 curriculum.  We used this quote from the book as our jumping-off point:

…for success in high school, there is no avoiding fractions.

We talked about: what do our students struggle with in terms of fractional thinking? And: what do we want our students to understand about fractions?

Some thoughts that came up:

  • We want our students to understand that the size of the piece changes depending on the size of the whole.  It is possible to have a quarter that is bigger than a half if the two wholes are different.
  • We want our students to understand that fractional pieces have to be the same size but not necessarily the same shape.
  • We want our students to understand that fractions are numbers that exist on the number line.
  • We want to help our students make connections between their existing understanding of number and their understanding of fractions.

We then looked at the BIG IDEAS from the curriculum from Grades 3 – 9: where are our students coming from in primary, and where do we want them to go in secondary?  Now that all the fraction operations have been moved to Grade 8, we have the opportunity to solidify a conceptual understanding of fractions in elementary school so that students are prepared for fraction operations and linking of fractions to algebra in Grades 8 and 9.

From here, the teachers did another activity that connects a visual representation of a fraction to its place on the number line.  (Activity adapted from this blog –  printable download of the activity cards are available).  Teachers coloured in a section of the given square and determined what fractional part they coloured.  They then placed their fraction on the number line again.

fraction-clothesline

As a wrap-up, we briefly reviewed the other three types of Number Talks for fractions that are described in the book: More or less (give a fraction and have students defend whether it is more or less than a half); Closer to 0, Closer to 1/2 or Closer to 1 (give a fraction and have students decide which benchmark it is closer to), and Which is Greater (give two fractions and have students defend which one is greater).

Last but not least, we had a mini “make and take” – teachers took home yarn for a double number line and a package with coloured fraction, decimal and percent cards.  I will update this post with a link to the printable package as soon as I add some improper fractions and mixed numbers to it!  I will also have these packages at our final meeting for people who were unable to join us this week.

Here are a few useful links that we talked about in our meeting:

Number Lines + Fractions

As a grade 4/5 teacher for the last 4 years, I generally find that my students enjoy working with fractions.  They like working with fraction manipulatives and approach visual representations for fractions with relative ease.  Naming and identifying fractions is rarely a problem.  But then we get to comparing and ordering fractions… and it all falls apart.

With my tutoring students (Grades 9-11), fractions are generally a disaster.  They are chugging along fine with whatever they are working on and then… a FRACTION!!!  Reducing fractions and finding common denominators is sometimes OK, but if a fraction is tossed into the middle of an algebraic expression, they don’t know what to do.  There seems to be no recognition that fractions are, in fact, numbers.

I have been doing a lot of thinking this year about how and why fractions seem to be a place of struggle for so many students as they advance through math.

Many of my students treat fractions as a completely new set of numbers, with no connection to whole numbers.  They are obviously not getting the big idea that all numbers are connected and have their own place on the number line.  Part of me wonders if this is because we (I?) over-use certain representations for fractions (pizzas and chocolate bars) and under-use others (number lines).  So, this year, I have really been trying to help students connect what they already know about numbers with the new information that they are learning about fractions.

One activity that I have used a few times this year – very successfully – is a fraction clothesline activity.  This week, I was invited to visit a Grade 4/5 class to introduce decimals by linking them to what the students already knew about fractions (they have been working on fractions for a couple of weeks).  I thought this was a perfect opportunity for me to combine two great things and I set the fraction clothesline up like a number talk (yes, I am obsessed with Number Talks).

I set up the clothesline at the front and we looked at the three benchmark cards I brought: 0, 1/2 and 1.  We hung the 0 and the 1 on the number line and then… NO ONE could tell me where 1/2 went.  Yikes.  This is the part of number talks that still makes me anxious… the WAITING… letting kids think… and HOPING… that SOMEONE… will come up with something to move the conversation forward.  My patience paid off… eventually someone suggested – “well, if it’s one-half, couldn’t we just put it in the middle?”  And, whew… yes.  Yes, we can.  We were rolling again.

Fraction Benchmarks

So, once we had the benchmarks on the line, I handed out a fraction card to each student.  Because we were looking at connecting decimals and fractions, I gave each student a “tenth” – nothing tricky.  Just 1/10 – 9/10.  I asked the students to think for a moment and give me a thumbs up when they were pretty sure they knew where their fraction was supposed to go.  And I waited.  After a while, a few kids (probably about 1/2) had their thumbs up.  So I invited those students who had an idea to come and place their fractions, and others could just watch to see if it helped them figure out where theirs should go.  And… this is what I got:

Fraction Number Line
This photo is actually a re-enactment… I need to get better at taking photos as I go.

Yikes.  Again.  But mistakes are SUCH a valuable opportunity to pinpoint misconceptions. The first student started by defending the location of 9/10.  He explained that because 9/10 was almost one whole, he put it close to the 1.  Whew.  Good start.

Then, the student who placed 1/10 wanted to explain.  She said she placed her fraction there because 10 is bigger than 2, so 1/10 must be bigger than 1/2.  Cool – good explanation, and a good misconception to tackle.  But, this is where I am still working on my “thinking-on-the-spot” skills, and trying to find the balance between “teaching” and letting the students help each other and wrestle with their own thinking.  I ended up drawing some pictures on the whiteboard behind the number line – I went back to the classic “pizza” shape.  I asked the students to help me draw 1/2 behind the 1/2 benchmark card and then 1/10 behind the 1/10 card.  Gasps all over the classroom.  I asked the student if she was still happy with where her card was and – NO, she was not!  She came and moved it to its correct location.  I asked if any other students wanted to move theirs and several more came up to make adjustments (accurately).  I asked the students to explain why they chose to move their cards and they were able to relate the spot on the number line with what the picture would look like.

I then encouraged the students who had not yet placed their cards to come up and find a reasonable spot for them.  This worked well – most of them were able to be successful in the location and were able to explain why.  We also talked about the spacing between fractions on the number line and how it is hard on a clothesline to be exact, but we know that fraction pieces all have to be the same size.

I was pretty happy with this number talk.  The students were pretty confident with ordering fractions with the same denominator, and I thought we got a good start at thinking about fractions with different denominators.  At the end, I gave a few students some “tricky” cards – 0/10, 11/10 and 12/10 and they were able to successfully place and explain these fractions as well.

This lesson really highlighted (again) for me the power of number talks and having opportunities for students to own and explain their thinking.  The real power of number talks is in giving students these types of opportunities on a DAILY basis.  This is what helps them to build up their number sense over time.

What other activities do you use to help students build a broad, connected understanding of fraction concepts?