I have been working with teachers and using manipulatives, both physical and virtual, to help students think about fractions and develop conceptual understanding about fractional operations, versus just memorizing rules or tricks, as we so often do with students. There are fraction circles or fraction strips that work well as physical manipulatives, and there are several virtual manipulatives as well (i.e. DynamicNumber.org for any Sketchpad users out there, and the National Library of Virtual Manipulatives to give just a couple resources).
Manipulatives are a valuable resource in math class as they allow students to visually represent numbers, manipulate them, get hands-on with the math, and make some connections before moving into just the numerical representation alone. When working with fraction manipulatives, from my own experiences and those I have had with students, the manipulatives can constrain the number of possible examples we can provide students (either because a teacher might not physically have enough for all students or the manipulatives themselves only go up to certain values). As an example, most physical fraction circle manipulatives allow you to work with a limited range of fractional values – halves, thirds, fourths, fifths, sixths, eighths, tenths and twelfths. Virtual manipulatives offer more options, which is nice because students should see more than just common fractional pieces or ‘nice’ fractions – sevenths, or elevenths or twenty-fifths as an example. Obviously, the idea of manipulatives is to provide that hands-on experience, visually see what’s happening, and then create conjectures.
Another tool that is often overlooked, particularly at the elementary level, is the calculator. Obviously, when dealing with fractions, you want a calculator that uses natural display, showing fractions in their numerator over denominator form so students recognize the fractional number. I realize many of you might be thinking that the calculator is a bad choice because it provides the answers….but that in fact is an advantage here when trying to help students recognize patterns and develop their own understanding of fractional operations. We want students to recognize what seems to be happening – test it out on many examples before they come to a conclusion. A calculator (like the fx-55Plus shown above) is a great way to do this. If you don’t have manipulatives, you can actually use a calculator like the fx-55Plus to help students understand fractional operations.
Let’s take fraction addition. Obviously, we are going to start with adding fractions with like denominators. You can put several different problems into the calculator and students can observe both the added fractions and the answers. Students can talk and share what they notice about the multitude of fractions they are adding (all with like denominators). They can make up their own addition problems and see if the pattern or things they notice hold true. Fraction and answers showing up quickly help them discern patterns because they can quickly see many examples, and use ‘funky’ fractions, not just the typical ones we tend to always rely on (i.e. halves, thirds, etc.). It’s even okay that the numerator might occasionally end up larger than the denominator – the pattern still holds true (i.e. the denominator remains the same, the numerators are added together).
With a calculator, you can use messy fractions with not your typical denominators and even numerators larger than the denominator. For addition, our focus is on what patterns do the students see with the numerator and denominator and do those patterns hold true no matter what fractions we are adding? We can get into simplifying the answers at some point, but at first, the focus is on the addition.
Once students have the idea that with a like denominator, you add the numerators, you can then switch it up. Let’s add fractions with unlike denominators. You can encourage smaller numbers in the denominator and numerator to start, and then once students think they have the pattern, they can ‘test it out’ with some larger digits in the numerator and denominator. The thing here is the denominators are different and so how does the end result differ (if does) from when the denominators are the same? What might be happening? Test it out.
The beauty of the calculator (again, one like the fx-55plus that quickly and easily shows fractions in their natural display), is that students can create many examples to look for patterns and then quickly test their conjectures on different problems to see if it works. You are encouraging critical thinking, problem solving, and communication using a simple tool that provides much more diverse fraction examples than you can provide with manipulatives alone.
My point – when helping students develop number sense, especially with fractions, don’t rule the calculator out as a tool. You should use multiple tools with students to provide them with different ways to develop their own conceptual understanding. Calculators can be a tool, even at the elementary level.