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Decomposing Fractions: An Alternative for Struggling Learners

anchor-chart-decomposingI, like many elementary teachers across the nation have found myself teaching math concepts to 4th and 5th grade students that were once taught to middle school students. Truth be told, when I first began teaching these skills I must admit I was very skeptical about teaching multiplying fractions and whole numbers to 4th and 5th graders. As I grew more comfortable with the idea that I have to teach my 4th and 5th graders these complex concepts I decided to find ways that made the transition seamless.

I currently work in Texas but my first encounter with these math new standards took place when I was teaching in Louisiana. I was teaching 4th grade math at an elementary school in Baton Rouge. As with most inner city schools my students were behind in math and reading so teaching these new math concepts to these students was going to be a bit of a challenge, however I decided that I was going to give it my all.

In grades 3rd-5th the fraction units and concepts are massive and complex. So imagine how I felt teaching new standards to  students that  didn’t have a good foundation with fraction concepts….it was a recipe for disaster! To make matters worse I was learning the new Singapore Math strategies along with the students. Around November I began to teach fractions a boy did the unit have a rough start! Over time I began to cover more fraction concepts and I became more comfortable with the tape diagram, area model, and decomposing fractions.

Even though I have very good math content knowledge of fractions, I was very fortunate to have The Story of Units (Eureka Math) to guide me with implementing these new fraction instructional strategies in my classroom. At first I felt like the modules were overwhelming but as began to use the fraction module I began to make so many connections that I was like a kid in a candy store! decomposing-fractions-struggling-learners

My biggest aha! came after I taught decomposing fractions and then began to teach my 4th graders how to convert improper fractions to mixed numbers.  When I taught middle school I used to use fraction wheels as my model and  division as the algorithm to convert improper fractions to mixed numbers. These strategies were okay for middle school but when you have elementary students that struggle with division and the really don’t understand fraction concepts then those strategies become useless.

Converting improper fractions with the tape diagram and the the decomposing  strategy went smoothly because the students were already familiar with the decomposing strategy. So when I used  decomposing  to covert improper fractions to mixed numbers it extended their understanding of how they could decompose fractions instead of using division. It was just absolutely freaking amazing to see how the students could look at an improper fraction and immediately convert it to a mixed number without hesitation!

As a math teacher I know when I have to teach a skill and my students are not proficient with the prerequisite skills it creates anxiety for me and the students. Finding conceptual alternatives to teaching to my students’ weaknesses has become a life saver because it gives the students the time that they need to master skills like division and multiplication.

3 comments

  1. Paula McClendon says:

    Great information! It is perplexing to educators why students have such difficulty with fractions. After all, they have been sharing a sandwich with their sibling since their toddler days and they noticed only a small portion of their milk remained in the cup before they could verbalize it. Fractions have been part of their real-world for years but constructing the idea that two numbers represent one value that is only part of a whole is awkward to their way of thinking.
    This post is fundamental to the important process necessary to construct the BIG IDEAS and develop the key concepts that will mold their understanding. Thanks for sharing!

  2. I don’t know why students have such an issue with fractions but I have high school students who do not have a good grasp of fractions and still struggle. If they have a problem with fractions, they immediately convert the fractions to decimals and away they go. I think they would rather go to the dentist than do fractions.

    • I think that it is an inherited trait from their teachers. When I was taught Algebra my teachers told me to convert all of the fractions to decimals and that’s what I did. I really didn’t begin to understand the depth of fractions until my son hit 4th grade and he struggled with fractions. Then is extended to my classroom. I’ve been on a crusade ever since to help students and teachers with fractional concepts.

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