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Fraction Computer

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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

.

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

.

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

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