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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Quiz: Those Frustrating Fractions

[Photo by jimmiehomeschoolmom.]

Fractions confuse almost everybody. In fact, fractions probably cause more math phobia among children (and their parents) than any other topic before algebra. Middle school textbooks devote a tremendous number of pages to teaching fractions, and still many students find fractions impossible to understand. Standardized tests are stacked with fraction questions.

Fractions are a filter, separating the math haves from the luckless have nots. One major source of difficulty with fractions is that the rules do not seem to make sense. Can you explain these to your children?

Start with an easy one…

Question #1

If you need a common denominator to add or subtract fractions…

  • Why don’t you need a common denominator when you multiply?

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Reading to Learn Math

[Photo by Betsssssy.]

Do you ever take your kids’ math tests? It helps me remember what it is like to be a student. I push myself to work quickly, trying to finish in about 1/3 the allotted time, to mimic the pressure students feel. And whenever I do this, I find myself prone to the same stupid mistakes that students make.

Even teachers are human.

In this case, it was a multi-step word problem, a barrage of information to stumble through. In the middle of it all sat this statement:

…and there were 3/4 as many dragons as gryphons…

My eyes saw the words, but my mind heard it this way:

…and 3/4 of them were dragons…

What do you think — did I get the answer right? Of course not! Every little word in a math problem is important, and misreading even the smallest word can lead a student astray. My mental glitch encompassed several words, and my final tally of mythological creatures was correspondingly screwy.

But here is the more important question: Can you explain the difference between these two statements?

Continue reading Reading to Learn Math

Trouble with Percents

Can your students solve this problem?

There are 20% more girls than boys in the senior class.
What percent of the seniors are girls?

This is from a discussion of the semantics of percent problems and why students have trouble with them, going on over at MathNotations. (Follow-up post here.) Our pre-algebra class just finished a chapter on percents, so I thought Chickenfoot might have a chance at this one. Nope! He leapt without thought to the conclusion that 60% of the class must be girls. After I explained the significance of the word “than”, he solved the follow-up problem just fine.


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Secret Message

My algebra students could stand to hear this, too:

(2)(-4x2)n is not equal to (-8 )nx2n.

AAAAAARRRRGGGHH!!!!

From Secret Message to My Calculus Students at Learning Curves blog.


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Improper Fractions: A Mathematical Trauma

Feature photo (above) by Jimmie via flickr. Photo (right) by Old Shoe Woman via Flickr.

Nearing the end of Miquon Blue today, my youngest daughter encountered fractions greater than one. She collapsed on the floor of my bedroom in tears.

The worksheet started innocently enough:

\frac{1}{2} \times 8=\left[ \quad \right]

Continue reading Improper Fractions: A Mathematical Trauma

Confession: I Am Not Good at Math

I want to tell you a story. Everyone likes a story, right? But at the heart of my story lies a confession that I am afraid will shock many readers. People assume that because I teach math, blog about math, give advice about math on internet forums, and present workshops about teaching math — because I do all this, I must be good at math.

Apply logic to that statement. The conclusion simply isn’t valid. …

Update: This post has moved.

Click here to read the new, expanded version


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Mathematics and Imagination

Comments by W. W. Sawyer, in his wonderful, little book, Mathematician’s Delight:

Earlier we considered the argument, ‘Twice two must be four, because we cannot imagine it otherwise.’ This argument brings out clearly the connexion between reason and imagination: reason is in fact neither more nor less than an experiment carried out in the imagination.

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Order of Operations

[Rescued from my old blog.]

Marjorie in AZ asked a terrific question on the (now defunct) AHFH Math forum:

“…I have always been taught that the order of operations (Parenthesis, Exponents, Multiplication, Division, Addition, Subtraction) means that you work a problem in that order. All parenthesis first, then all exponents, then all multiplication from left to right, then all division from left to right, etc. …”

Many people are confused with order of operations, and it is often poorly taught. I’m afraid that Marjorie has fallen victim to a poor teacher — or at least, to a teacher who didn’t fully understand math. Rather than thinking of a strict “PEMDAS” progression, think of a series of stair steps, with the inverse operations being on the same level.

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Fraction Division — A Poem

[Rescued from my old blog.]

Division of fractions is surely one of the most difficult topic in elementary arithmetic. Very few students (or teachers) actually understand how and why it works. Most of us get by with memorized rules, such as:

Ours is not to reason why;
just invert and multiply!

Continue reading Fraction Division — A Poem