[Rescued from my old blog.]
Paraphrased from a homeschool math discussion forum:
“I am really struggling with percents right now, and feel I am in way over my head!”
Percents are one of the math monsters, the toughest topics of elementary and junior high school arithmetic. Here are a few tips to help you understand and teach percents.
Basic Concept: Percent Means Hundredths
Related topics: Fractions, decimals, converting between them.
Percents are fractions in disguise. The denominator of a percent fraction is always 100, and we use the symbol as a short-cut rather than writing the denominator each time. I usually point out, as a memory aide, that the symbol % is made of the fraction bar and the two zeros in 100. If students can understand that percents are fractions in disguise, they will be able to build on their knowledge of fractions in dealing with percents. They aren’t learning something entirely new; it is just a new way of writing something they have already learned.
Many times, we find that percent problems are easier to do if the percent is changed to a fraction or decimal. That moves the problem out of the less familiar topic onto more comfortable ground. When you see the textbook multiply by 100 or divide by 100, and you aren’t sure where the 100 came from, they are probably converting from a fraction to a percent or from a percent to a decimal. Watch for this, and help your student learn how to do it. Students need to be able to move easily back and forth between all three ways to represent the number.
Basic Concept: A Percent Is a Fraction that Compares a Part to a Whole
Related topics: Ratio, proportion, defining a unit.
Percent fraction = part / whole.
The part is the number that is being compared to another number. The whole is the number we are comparing to, the number that represents 100%. Because in some cases, the part can be larger than the whole, many textbooks prefer the term base for the number that represents 100%. I don’t like to introduce totally new words when I am describing a basic concept, however, so I stick with the part/whole phraseology, while gradually weaving the term base into my discussion. Even in high school, I will still be reminding my students that the base is the number being treated as the whole in this comparison. (Just like I’m still reminding them that the denominator is the bottom number of a fraction and the perimeter is the distance around the rim of a shape.)
We need to be careful in determining which is the part, the number being compared, and which is the whole or base, the number to which we are comparing. Especially when the problem involves a percent increase or decrease, or profit or loss, or a part of a portion of the original amount, this can get very confusing. In complex story problems (and percent problems in Singapore math do get complex), the base may change in the course of the problem. The base for one percent may not be the same as the base for another percent — and then it is like dealing with fractions that have different denominators. You cannot just add up the percents and think that’s your answer, if the bases are different. But if the student can identify the part and the base, he has done the most challenging part of the problem. The rest is merely number-crunching.
I like to use the percent proportion to solve problems:
part / whole = percent / 100
The part is related to the whole base in the same way that the percent number is related to 100. Unfortunately, students often get confused when cross-multiplying, so many textbooks avoid teaching the proportion. Singapore Primary Math 6 uses the proportion on page 47, but it also used the equation:
(part / whole) x 100 = percent
Then the book continues to switch back and forth between these forms with little explanation of how they are connected. If you look closely, you will see that this equation is the same as the percent proportion, but with half of the cross-multiplying done already. Sometimes Singapore math can be nearly self-teaching, but this is a case where your student may need extra help to recognize that these two equations are the same.
Basic Concept: “Of” Means Multiply
Related topics: Multiplication of fractions, story problems, translating from English to math symbols and vice versa, inverse operations.
I will have taught this translation back when I was teaching fractions, if not before, so this is a chance to review and reinforce the concept. If the student knows that the word of means to multiply, he will be able to translate a percent problem into an equation. First, he must restate the problem as a simple question like:
What Is 75% of 160?
The word what is the unknown value, is means the equal sign, percent means hundredths, and of means multiply. The equation becomes:
something = (75 / 100) x 160
It is a little more difficult when the question has the unknown in the middle, such as:
24 is what percent of 96?
Translating into symbols would give:
24 = (something / 100) x 96
Then the student has to know how to use inverse operations to solve the equation, dividing by 96 and multiplying by 100. In cases like this, the percent proportion is easier to work with than the equation.
Inverse operations is a very basic concept which connects to almost everything in mathematics. Students usually don’t think much about inverse operations until they get to algebra. Primary Math 6 uses bar diagrams to help students work through story problems, in an attempt to make the inverse relationships easier to see. I am not sure the text is successful in this, which may be why so many people struggle with this section on percents.
I think I would rather teach my students to manipulate the basic percent proportion. Yes, it is purely abstract, but students at this stage should have a solid foundation in fractions and be ready to handle abstract concepts like this. If the student can understand how to use inverse operations, then that one simple formula will solve almost every percent problem he meets. If not, then he is stuck with memorizing three different equations for the three different situations — unknown part, unknown base, or unknown percentage. I have seen math textbooks which taught percents that way. What a useless hassle!
Basic Concept: How to Find Percent Values Mentally
Related topics: Money, shopping.
This may be less important than the other basic concepts I’ve mentioned, at least for future work in math class, but it is a useful real-life skill. As I see it, the key percent values for mental calculation are:
50% = 1/2 of the base = base ÷ 2
25% = base ÷ 4
10% = base ÷ 10
1% = base ÷ 100
These are usually the easiest percent values to find. Another helpful approximation is:
33% ~ base ÷ 3
When Singapore math talks about solving problems by the unitary method, it just means to find out what 1% of your base is, and then use that to figure out whatever else you need to know. I prefer to call this the Think “One” Method (hat tip to Ed Zaccaro in his book, Becoming a Problem Solving Genius). Unit means one, so the unitary method focuses on using the easy-to-work-with number one. Once you know what 1% is, you can find any other percent just by multiplying.
1% = base ÷ 100
So to find, say, 85%:
85% = 85 x 1% = 85 x (base ÷ 100)
A student who is good at mental math may also be able to calculate:
5% = half of 10%
35% = 1/4 + 1/10
4% = 1% x 4
or tougher percents like: 96% = 100% – 4%
Percents are indeed a mathematical Jabberwock, with jaws that bite and claws that catch many a careless student. But even a monster like percents will fall to a well-swung vorpal sword. With a good understanding of fractions and plenty of practice, your student will be able to forge his way fearlessly through the tulgey wood of arithmetic.
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