The Cookie Factory Guide to Long Division

[Photo by scubadive67.]

Help! My son was doing fine in math until he started long division, but now he’s completely lost! I always got confused with all those steps myself. How can I explain it to him?

Long division. It’s one of the scariest of the Math Monsters, those tough topics of upper-elementary and middle school mathematics. Of all the topics that come up on homeschool math forums, perhaps only one (“How can I get my child to learn the math facts?”) causes parents more anxiety.

Most of the “helpful advice” I’ve seen focuses on mnemonics (“Dad/Mother/Sister/Brother” to remember the steps: Divide, Multiply, Subtract, Bring down) or drafting (turn your notebook paper sideways and use the lines to keep your columns straight). I worry that parents are too focused on their child mastering the algorithm, learning to follow the procedure, rather than on truly understanding what is happening in long division.

An algorithm is simply a step-by-step recipe for doing a mathematical calculation. But WHY does the algorithm work? If our students could understand the reason for the steps, they wouldn’t have to work so hard on memory tricks.

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Prime Numbers Are like Monkeys

[Photo by mape_s.]

I’m afraid that Math Club may have fallen victim to the economy, which is worse in our town than in the nation in general. Homeschooling families have tight budgets even in the best of times, and now they seem to be cutting back all non-essentials. I assumed that last semester’s students would return, but I should have asked for an RSVP.

Still, Kitten and I had a fun time together. We played four rounds of Tens Concentration, since I had spread out cards on the tables in the library meeting room before we realized that no one was coming. Had to pick up the cards one way or another, so we figured we might as well enjoy them! She won the first two rounds, which put her in a good mood for our lesson.

I had written “Prime numbers are like monkeys!” on the whiteboard, and Kitten asked me what that meant. That was all the encouragement I needed to launch into my planned lesson, despite the frustrating dearth of students. The idea is taken from Danica McKellar’s book Math Doesn’t Suck.

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Diagnosis: Math Workbook Syndrome

Photo by otisarchives3.

I discovered a case of MWS (Math Workbook Syndrome) one afternoon, as I was playing Multiplication War with a pair of 4th grade boys. They did fine with the small numbers and knew many of the math facts by heart, but they consistently tried to count out the times-9 problems on their fingers. Most of the time, they lost track of what they were counting and gave wildly wrong answers.

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Subtracting Mixed Numbers: A Cry for Help

Photo by powerbooktrance.

Paraphrased from a homeschool math discussion forum:

“Help me teach fractions! My son can do long subtraction problems that involve borrowing, and he can handle basic fraction math, but problems like 9  -  5 \frac{2}{5} give him a brain freeze. To me, this is an easy problem, but he can’t grasp the concept of borrowing from the whole number. It is even worse when the math book moves on to 10 \frac{1}{4}  -  2 \frac{3}{7} .”

Several homeschooling parents replied to this question, offering advice about various fraction manipulatives that might be used to demonstrate the concept. I am not sure that manipulatives are needed or helpful in this case. The boy seems to have the basic concept of subtraction down, but he gets flustered and is unsure of what to do in the more complicated mixed-number problems.

The mother says, “To me, this is an easy problem” — and that itself is one source of trouble. Too often, we adults (homeschoolers and classroom teachers alike) don’t appreciate how very complicated an operation we are asking our students to perform. A mixed-number calculation like this is an intricate dance that can seem overwhelming to a beginner.

I will go through the calculation one bite at a time, so you can see just how much a student must remember. As you read through the steps, pay attention to your own emotional reaction. Are you starting to feel a bit of brain freeze, too?

Afterward, we’ll discuss how to make the problem simpler…

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Fraction Models, and a Card Game

Fraction cards

Models give us a way to form and manipulate a mental image of an abstract concept, such as a fraction. There are three basic ways we can imagine a fraction: as partially-filled area or volume, as linear measurement, or as some part of a given set. Teach all three to give your students a well-rounded understanding.

When teaching young students, we use physical models — actual food or cut-up pieces of construction paper. Older students and adults can firm up the foundation of their understanding by drawing many, many pictures. As we move into abstract, numbers-only work, these pictures remain in our minds, an always-ready tool to help us think our way through fraction problems.

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How to Read a Fraction

Fraction notation and operations may be the most abstract math monsters our students meet until they get to algebra. Before we can explain those frustrating fractions, we teachers need to go back to the basics for ourselves. First, let’s get rid of two common misconceptions:

  • A fraction is not two numbers.
    Every fraction is a single number. A fraction can be added to other numbers (or subtracted, multiplied, etc.), and it has to obey the Distributive Law and all the other standard rules for numbers. It takes two digits (plus a bar) to write a fraction, just as it takes two digits to write the number 18 — but, like 18, the fraction is a single number that names a certain amount of whatever we are counting or measuring.
  • A fraction is not something to do.
    A fraction is a number, not a recipe for action. The fraction 3/4 does not mean, “Cut your pizza into 4 pieces, and then keep 3 of them.” The fraction 3/4 simply names a certain amount of stuff, more than a half but not as much as a whole thing. When our students are learning fractions, we do cut up models to help them understand, but the fractions themselves are simply numbers.

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