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204 MATHEMATICS TEACHING IN THE MIDDLE SCHOOL

P E T E R L. G L I D D E N
T
HE NCTMS CURRICULUM AND EVALUA-
tion Standards (1989) called for increased
emphasis on promoting students concep-
tual understanding of fractions and fraction
operations; this call was reaffirmed in Principles and
Standards for School Mathematics (NCTM 2000). Cur-
rently, many manipulatives, including pattern blocks,
fraction circles, fraction squares, geodot paper, and
fraction strips, are available to help teachers promote
this understanding. This article describes another
manipulative, the fraction computer, that I have found
helpful for teaching fraction addition and subtraction.
I first used this manipulative more than twenty
years ago as a classroom teacher with the Peace
Corps. When I began teaching elementary methods
courses about six years ago in the United States, I was
surprised that I did not find the fraction computer dis-
cussed in the literature. I have used it with prospective
teachers, and they tell me that it has increased their
own understanding and proved helpful in their class-
rooms. The fraction computer is not intended to re-
place any of the manipulatives listed above, but it can
be a valuable supplement. Before discussing how to
construct and use the fraction computer, this article
outlines exactly when it should be used to supplement
other fraction manipulatives most effectively.
When to Use the Fraction Computer
IN MY EXPERIENCE, FRACTION CIRCLES, FRAC-
tion strips, and pattern blocks are useful for teaching
PETER GLIDDEN, pglidden@wcupa.edu, teaches mathemat-
ics content and methods courses at West Chester University
in West Chester, PA 19380. He is interested in using mathe-
matical models to promote conceptual understanding.
Build Your Own
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Copyright 2002 The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, Inc. www.nctm.org. All rights reserved.
This material may not be copied or distributed electronically or in any other format without written permission from NCTM.
VOL. 8, NO. 4
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DECEMBER 2002 205
the concepts of fractions (greater than or equal to 0,
that is, positive fractions) and the concept of equiva-
lent fractions. For fraction addition and subtraction,
however, I have had mixed results with these manip-
ulatives. They are helpful for introducing addition
and subtraction of like fractions (e.g., 1/8 + 5/8 and
5/6 2/6) and unlike but related fractions (e.g., 1/8 +
3/4 and 5/6 1/3). For like fractions, students al-
most always see that 1/8 + 5/8 = 6/8 directly from
the manipulatives. Moreover, students can under-
stand this sum even if they have a weak understand-
ing of the concept of a fraction (one red piece plus
five red pieces gives six red pieces altogether).
Although addition and subtraction of unlike but re-
lated fractions (e.g., 1/8 + 3/4 and 5/6 1/3) are slightly
more difficult, such manipulatives as pattern blocks,
fraction circles, and fraction strips are still helpful. For
these problems, students learn fairly easily that the
larger piece should be replaced by some of the smaller
pieces (i.e., each green piece should be replaced by two
red pieces). Thus, although the manipulatives do not
model the solution directly, the solution is not far away;
students only need to figure out how many smaller
pieces make up the bigger pieces. The smaller pieces
themselves represent the common denominator.
Fraction circles, pattern blocks, and fraction strips
are less helpful for teaching addition and subtraction
of unlike, unrelated fractions (e.g., 1/3 + 1/2 and 3/4
1/3). For these fractions, the relationship between the
model and the solution is much less direct. Students
first must find a common denominator, but the manip-
ulatives themselves do not suggest that this strategy
might be worthwhile or give any hint of what the com-
mon denominator might be. Students confronting a
problem like 1/3 + 1/2 often get stuck on the first
step of finding the common denominator even when
they understand equivalent fractions. What is needed,
therefore, is a manipulative that helps students see
the first step of finding the common denominator and
suggests what it might be. Once students get over this
hurdle, finding the sum or difference is accomplished
using the exact same method as used for like frac-
tions. For adding or subtracting unlike, unrelated frac-
tions, I suggest using the fraction computer, which
students can make quite easily and inexpensively for
themselves. I introduce the fraction computer after
students have already used other manipulatives to
learn the concept of a fraction, the concept of equiva-
lent fractions, and addition and subtraction of like frac-
tions and unlike but related fractions.
Building the Fraction Computer
TO BUILD THE FRACTION COMPUTER, FIRST ASK
students to use two sheets of 8 1/2-by-11-inch ruled
notebook paper. Fold both pieces in half length-
wise. Place one of the pieces sideways on the table,
with the fold side up and the wide margin (the top
of the page) at the left. This paper is the bottom half
of the computer (see fig. 1).
Next, ask students to mark off fractions on the
paper. Starting at the top near the folded edge,
mark the left-most line (the first line) as 0, count
over twelve spaces and mark 1, then count over
Fraction Computer!
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Fig. 1 The bottom of the fraction computer
206 MATHEMATICS TEACHING IN THE MIDDLE SCHOOL
another twelve spaces and mark 2. Twelve spaces
are used to represent 1 because that method al-
lows students to mark off halves, thirds, fourths,
sixths, and twelfths easily, but of course, other
schemes are possible. Next, ask students to mark
off halves on the fraction computer. Generally, I
have students figure out that half of 12 is 6, but you
may simply tell them where to place their marks.
The most important point to remember is that stu-
dents should count over six spaces from 0, not
count the first six lines. Continue by asking stu-
dents to mark off thirds (four spaces, which they
may find confusing), fourths (three spaces), sixths
(two spaces), and twelfths (every space). When
done, the bottom half of the fraction computer
should look like the one shown in figure 1.
Before making the rest of the fraction computer,
students should discuss what they have con-
structed. If no students recognize the result as a
number line, some probing questions can draw out
this realization. Next, students should be encour-
aged to find equivalent fractions on the bottom half
of the fraction computer. Students should already
be familiar with the concept of equivalent fractions
from their previous work with fraction circles, frac-
tion strips, and pattern blocks, but having this dis-
cussion is time well spent because equivalent frac-
tions become important later on.
To build the top half of the fraction computer,
have students put the fold of the second paper on the
bottom, put the top to the left, and mark off frac-
tions just as before. However, this time, have stu-
dents start the fraction labels at the bottom (see fig.
2). If students do not make these two halves cor-
rectly, the fraction computer will not work. Students
should put away their first halves while making their
second halves. Then, once they have completed both
halves, they can line them up, fold to fold, to be sure
that the corresponding fractions line up.
Using the Fraction Computer to Add
BEFORE DISCUSSING HOW TO USE THE FRACTION
computer to add, a few general remarks are in order.
How much guidance you give will depend on your stu-
dents and their knowledge of fractions. When I used this
manipulative with elementary school students, I talked
them through the process. Now, when I use the fraction
computer with prospective teachers, I challenge them to
figure out why it works. Determining how the computer
works is easier if students are already familiar with inter-
preting whole-number addition and subtraction as
movements along the number linethe fraction com-
puter simply does the same thing with fractions!
Begin with a few simple like-fraction sums, for ex-
ample, 1/4 + 1/2, to give students confidence in
using the fraction computer. The steps for adding
these fractions are similar to those given in figure 3.
Next, students should use the fraction computer for
adding unlike but related fractions and, finally, for
adding unlike, unrelated fractions.
To add fractions using the computer, for example,
to find the sum 1/2 + 2/3, students should complete
the steps in figure 3. After students complete a num-
ber of similar problems, they should be encouraged to
figure out why the fraction computer works, thinking
back to how they used the fraction computer to add
like fractions. Here, again, teachers should use their
judgment to guide students to find out why the fraction
computer works. When we add halves and thirds, why
do we get sixths? Encourage students to look at the
fraction computer and try to find equivalent fractions
for halves and thirds. Can they find a fraction equiva-
lent to 1/2 that has the same denominator as a fraction
equal to 2/3? Unlike other fraction manipulatives (e.g.,
fraction circles, squares, or strips), the fraction com-
puter explicitly shows the equivalent fractions, thereby
making the step of finding a common denominator
more concrete and easier for students.
Fig. 2 The top of the fraction computer
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VOL. 8, NO. 4
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DECEMBER 2002 207
Fig. 3 Adding 1/2 and 2/3 on the fraction computer
1. Locate 1/2 on the bottom half.
2. Line the 0 on the fraction com-
puter top directly above the
1/2 on the computer bottom.
3. Locate 2/3 on the top.
4. Read the answer on the bot-
tom, directly below the 2/3 on
the top, which for this problem
is 7/6.
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Fig. 4 Subtracting 1/3 from 3/4 on the fraction computer
1. Locate 3/4 on the bot-
tom of the computer.
2. Line the 1/3 on the
t op ha l f di r ec t l y
above the 3/4 on the
bottom.
3. Locate 0 on the top.
4. Read the answer, di-
rectly below the 0 on
the top, which for this
problem is 5/12.
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Using the Fraction Computer to
Subtract
AS WITH ADDITION, STUDENTS
should begin subtraction by finding
the differences of like and unlike but
related fractions. Again, depending on
their knowledge of fractions, you may
choose to give a lot of explanation or a
little. To subtract fractions using the
computer, for example, to find the dif-
ference 3/4 1/3, students should
complete the steps in figure 4.
Again, after students complete a
number of similar problems, they
should be encouraged to figure out
why the fraction computer works,
thinking back to how it worked with
like fractions. The questions to ask
students parallel those for addition.
When we subtract thirds from fourths,
why do we get twelfths? If students
have difficulty with this question, en-
courage them to look at the equivalent
fractions. Does anything on the com-
puter suggest a common denomina-
tor? Students should see that the com-
puter is helping them to restate these
problems as operations with like frac-
tions, which are relatively easy.
Progressing to the Paper-and-
Pencil Algorithm
STUDENTS SHOULD DO ENOUGH
problems with the fraction computer
to become proficient with addition and
subtraction and to become comfort-
able working with unlike, unrelated
fractions. In shifting to the paper-and-
pencil algorithm, the amount of
teacher direction required will depend
on the class. How would we solve
these problems if we did not have our
fraction computers? This question
can introduce the paper-and-pencil al-
gorithm and emphasize the need for
the first step of finding a common de-
nominator. If this step is too difficult,
the teacher can ask, How could we
solve these problems if we had only
one-half of our fraction computers?
Students can then use the computer
to help find a common denominator.
The key is having students see that
the original problem of adding (or
subtracting) unlike, unrelated frac-
tions can be restated as an addition
(or subtraction) problem with like
fractions using the equivalent frac-
tions shown on the computer. Be-
cause most students find adding and
subtracting like fractions to be easy,
this realization shows them that once
they find a common denominator, the
original problem is no big deal.
Next, I generally model how to find a
common denominator by using paper
and pencil to find equivalent fractions
that share a common denominator.
Using the fraction computer helps stu-
dents understand the need for this
first step before adding or subtracting
fractions.
Summary
WHEN USED PROPERLY, MANIPULA-
tives are valuable tools for helping stu-
dents understand mathematical con-
cepts and operations, and their use
should be part of every teachers prac-
tice. Fraction circles, squares, and
strips are excellent for teaching frac-
tion concepts and addition and sub-
traction of like and unlike but related
fractions, but they may be less useful
for teaching addition and subtracting
of unlike, unrelated fractions. In re-
sponse to this shortcoming, I propose
the fraction computer as another ma-
nipulative that teachers may wish to
add to their repertoires. The fraction
computer is useful because it helps
students see the logic of restating the
problem with common denominators,
a realization that teachers can build
on as they teach the paper-and-pencil
algorithm for understanding.
References
National Council of Teachers of Mathe-
matics (NCTM). Curriculum and Eval-
uation Standards for School Mathemat-
ics. Reston, Va.: NCTM, 1989.
. Principles and Standards for School
Mathematics. Reston, Va.: NCTM, 2000.
208 MATHEMATICS TEACHING IN THE MIDDLE SCHOOL