How to Explain Fractions to Students in Primary Grades

The term 'primary students' refers to children in grades K-5, i.e., elementary school students. Fractions are commonly taught beginning in third grade. From that point on, students often voice their frustration with fractions. You can make it easier for all of your primary students if they learn the basic concepts of fractions through a variety of ways that cover the different leaning styles (auditory, visual and kinesthetic).

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Explaining Fractions for Elementary Students

Basic Fraction Concepts

A fraction is a part of a whole (a pizza, arm, group of students - whatever you want to use). You write a fraction as two numbers stacked up with a line between them.
How many equal parts the whole is divided into is shown in the denominator, the bottom number.
The number of parts you're talking about is shown in the numerator, the top number.
Comparing fractions
To compare fractions, they must have the same denominator. The one with the smallest numerator is the smallest fraction.

Progression for Learning Fractions

Students often learn fractions the best if you teach by following this progression:

  1. Begin with 3-dimensional manipulatives. You first present the concept using a manipulative that the children can also have, such as egg cartons, candy bars or measuring cups of various sizes. A fun way to demonstrate fractions is with a pizza party at lunch. You can have the children help you figure out how many pieces to divide each pizza into so that everyone gets an equal amount. When you are done with the pizza, you can tell them that they just successfully worked with fractions!
  2. Move into 2-dimensional pictures, including cut-out circles or other geometric paper figures.
  3. Convert the manipulatives and pictures into numeric fractions.

Methods for Explaining or Practicing Fractions

For fun and variety, different methods for explaining and working with fractions can be intertwined with the progression. Note that the below activities cover visual, auditory and kinesthetic learning styles.

Reading Stories

Children love to hear stories and see illustrations. You can find many books that introduce fractions.

  • Funny & Fabulous Fraction Stories by Dan Greenberg and Jared Lee (reproducible stories and matching problems)
  • Full House: An Invitation to Fractions by Dayle Ann Dodds (entertaining poems and pictures)
  • Working with Fractions by David A. Adler (creative approaches to fraction problems)

Writing and Illustrating Stories

Once the children have heard a good story or two about fractions, and have learned at least one of the fraction concepts, you can have them write their own stories. They can illustrate them, too. If you fasten it all together in their own book, they can share it at home.

Playing Games

If your students can work on a computer, individually or in small groups, you'll love the many online games that teach fractions. You can also make a variety of board games and puzzles from online sources.

You can also develop your own games for the classroom, gym or playground. For example, you can group students together to represent a fraction. Create groups of children with two or more students in each group and have them stand in separate areas. Then ask questions like, 'What fraction of your group is wearing a red shirt?' The students must then calculate the fraction.

Singing Songs

You can find songs with movements on CD and on the Internet that will either teach or reinforce fraction facts. The songs may have the students lift their arms halfway up or a fourth of the way up; they may have the students turn a third of the way around. When the students get the song down pat, sing it faster. See how fast they can follow along and still not make any mistakes. A rhythmic chant works just as well, and the children will usually have plenty of ideas for this.

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