Learning about Fractions: Why Johnny (Jenny) Can't Do Fractions

One of the most challenging topics in a typical math class is learning about fractions and their operations. Why does Johnny (Jenny) struggle with the concepts of fractions, decimals, and percentages?

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I believe that these learning ideas, including learning about fractions, are not taught correctly in most elementary classrooms. Teachers tend to move quickly through the lessons at this time in elementary school (usually 3rd or 4th grade), and do not realize that they are treating fractions as an abstract idea.

When learning to speak, infants are taught to point to an object and repeat the word that the adult speaks. These nouns become the building blocks of language, and learning about numbers and counting is done the same way.

Primary grade students learn to count objects in their world, moving on to basic number pattern ideas and labels such as multiples of 5 and 3, and the concepts of odd and even. But these are whole number ideas, and partial numbers (fractions and decimals) tend to be introduced on paper as an abstract idea. In other words, teachers should be repeatedly showing students at that age what a third of something is, or how to cut things up into equal pieces, etc.

There are many great elementary teachers out there that understand how to teach these math lessons, but most students don't get exposed to enough of these ideas.

Students should not be doing worksheets when learning about fractions where they practice adding fractions with unlike denominators until they can draw pictures of these fractions, or show how to cut them up into equivalent pieces. The concrete learning idea of manipulating objects to show a mathematical idea needs to be embedded in the minds of young learners before they can practice similar math ideas on pencil and paper. This curriculum piece tends to be skipped or rushed too much in most elementary classrooms.

Students who are not ready to move on to do fraction work (or decimals or percentages) are either unsuccessful for the rest of their math careers, or memorize the algorithms and get stuck later in higher level math classes. Either case warrants extra help to survive high school or college level math courses, because the developmental phases in mathematics cannot be avoided. If a student didn't understand a fundamental concept such as learning about fractions and fraction operations, they will not be successful in learning topics that use these ideas, such as solving equations, graphing linear relationships, or manipulating pre-calculus problems.

So, as a parent of a child who struggles in math, take a look at how your son or daughter expresses the ideas of fractions, decimals, or percents. Ask them to show you what two thirds looks like, or what 8.6 means, or to make a model of what percent 8 out of 10 represents. Can they do it?

If not, find a quality online math tutor who can diagnose the developmental phases of what your child has missed in the classroom. A highly skilled, experienced teacher can help fill in those gaps in learning, make it fun, and help your child in not only learning about fractions but to once again rediscover their math confidence!

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