Hands-on Fractions: The Key to Understanding

When it comes to teaching a true understanding of fractions, concrete models are key.  Students really need to "interact" with  a variety of fraction models before symbolic representations can enter instruction.  However, as we all know, time is a precious commodity in the classroom and teachers (especially in the upper grades) are not always able to carve out enough time to incorporate the hands-on and concrete actives that we know are so valuable to our students.  Here are a few activities that will improve understanding of fractions and that do not take a lot of time or money to implement.  

1. Pipe Cleaner Number Lines

Number lines are so helpful when teaching fractions.  They allow for students to see visual representation of fractions and glean a better understanding of the part-to-whole relationship.  They also illustrate the additive nature of unit fractions.  These Pipe Cleaner Fraction Number Lines are so simple and easy to make!  You can download the template that I made {HERE}.  

*TIP: Use duct tape on the back of the card stock to secure the pipe cleaners.

2. Pattern Blocks

When one of my good friends made the move to upper grades from primary one of the first things I said to her was "Don't give away your pattern blocks!" These "gems" are SO useful with older students, especially when it comes to learning fractions.  Students can explore concepts such as equivalent fractions and greater-than/less-than.  You can present scenarios to your students like: "If a hexagon equals 1, then what does a triangle equal?" or if a hexagon and a trapezoid equals 1, then what does a blue rhombus equal?"
What I also like about pattern blocks is that the "whole" can change, as you can see from the above example; the concept of a "flexible whole" is key for students to understand.

3. Tangrams

Tangrams offer a similar understanding that pattern blocks do.  I like to use both manipulatives to further emphasize the idea of a "flexible whole." Much like pattern blocks, you can present a situation like: "If a small triangle is equal to 1/8, then make a trapezoid that is equal to 1 1/2."

4. Legos

Talk about an abundant resource! Legos are everywhere! You can easily amass a serious collection of these manipulatives for little or no money.  Ask your students to donate their old pieces, check out garage sales, or buy generic "building blocks" which will work just as well.

5. Dominoes

Since these present less of the physical differences of fractions (when compared to the above items), I don't recommend using them first.  They are a great follow-up tool after students have a pretty solid understanding of fractions and fraction relationships.  There are several activities that students can do.  Playing a game of war, where two students lay down a domino and which ever one is greater gets to keep both pieces. The person with the most pieces wins.

Presenting a variety of models is so beneficial for students and even just using two of these ideas will definitely help your students!

Check out my hands-on resources for fractions here:


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