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Build Your Own


P E T E R L. G L I D D E N

HE NCTMS CURRICULUM AND EVALUA-

tion Standards (1989) called for increased


emphasis on promoting students conceptual understanding of fractions and fraction
operations; this call was reaffirmed in Principles and
Standards for School Mathematics (NCTM 2000). Currently, many manipulatives, including pattern blocks,
fraction circles, fraction squares, geodot paper, and
fraction strips, are available to help teachers promote
this understanding. This article describes another
manipulative, the fraction computer, that I have found
helpful for teaching fraction addition and subtraction.
I first used this manipulative more than twenty
years ago as a classroom teacher with the Peace
Corps. When I began teaching elementary methods
courses about six years ago in the United States, I was
surprised that I did not find the fraction computer discussed in the literature. I have used it with prospective
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teachers, and they tell me that it has increased their


own understanding and proved helpful in their classrooms. The fraction computer is not intended to replace any of the manipulatives listed above, but it can
be a valuable supplement. Before discussing how to
construct and use the fraction computer, this article
outlines exactly when it should be used to supplement
other fraction manipulatives most effectively.

When to Use the Fraction Computer


IN MY EXPERIENCE, FRACTION CIRCLES, FRAC-

tion strips, and pattern blocks are useful for teaching


PETER GLIDDEN, pglidden@wcupa.edu, teaches mathematics content and methods courses at West Chester University
in West Chester, PA 19380. He is interested in using mathematical models to promote conceptual understanding.

MATHEMATICS TEACHING IN THE MIDDLE SCHOOL


Copyright 2002 The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, Inc. www.nctm.org. All rights reserved.
This material may not be copied or distributed electronically or in any other format without written permission from NCTM.

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Fig. 1 The bottom of the fraction computer

the concepts of fractions (greater than or equal to 0,


that is, positive fractions) and the concept of equivalent fractions. For fraction addition and subtraction,
however, I have had mixed results with these manipulatives. They are helpful for introducing addition
and subtraction of like fractions (e.g., 1/8 + 5/8 and
5/6 2/6) and unlike but related fractions (e.g., 1/8 +
3/4 and 5/6 1/3). For like fractions, students almost always see that 1/8 + 5/8 = 6/8 directly from
the manipulatives. Moreover, students can understand this sum even if they have a weak understanding of the concept of a fraction (one red piece plus

might be worthwhile or give any hint of what the common denominator might be. Students confronting a
problem like 1/3 + 1/2 often get stuck on the first
step of finding the common denominator even when
they understand equivalent fractions. What is needed,
therefore, is a manipulative that helps students see
the first step of finding the common denominator and
suggests what it might be. Once students get over this
hurdle, finding the sum or difference is accomplished
using the exact same method as used for like fractions. For adding or subtracting unlike, unrelated fractions, I suggest using the fraction computer, which

Fraction Computer!
five red pieces gives six red pieces altogether).
Although addition and subtraction of unlike but related fractions (e.g., 1/8 + 3/4 and 5/6 1/3) are slightly
more difficult, such manipulatives as pattern blocks,
fraction circles, and fraction strips are still helpful. For
these problems, students learn fairly easily that the
larger piece should be replaced by some of the smaller
pieces (i.e., each green piece should be replaced by two
red pieces). Thus, although the manipulatives do not
model the solution directly, the solution is not far away;
students only need to figure out how many smaller
pieces make up the bigger pieces. The smaller pieces
themselves represent the common denominator.
Fraction circles, pattern blocks, and fraction strips
are less helpful for teaching addition and subtraction
of unlike, unrelated fractions (e.g., 1/3 + 1/2 and 3/4
1/3). For these fractions, the relationship between the
model and the solution is much less direct. Students
first must find a common denominator, but the manipulatives themselves do not suggest that this strategy

students can make quite easily and inexpensively for


themselves. I introduce the fraction computer after
students have already used other manipulatives to
learn the concept of a fraction, the concept of equivalent fractions, and addition and subtraction of like fractions and unlike but related fractions.

Building the Fraction Computer


TO BUILD THE FRACTION COMPUTER, FIRST ASK

students to use two sheets of 8 1/2-by-11-inch ruled


notebook paper. Fold both pieces in half lengthwise. Place one of the pieces sideways on the table,
with the fold side up and the wide margin (the top
of the page) at the left. This paper is the bottom half
of the computer (see fig. 1).
Next, ask students to mark off fractions on the
paper. Starting at the top near the folded edge,
mark the left-most line (the first line) as 0, count
over twelve spaces and mark 1, then count over
V O L . 8 , N O . 4 . DECEMBER 2002

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Using the Fraction Computer to Add

another twelve spaces and mark 2. Twelve spaces


are used to represent 1 because that method allows students to mark off halves, thirds, fourths,
sixths, and twelfths easily, but of course, other
schemes are possible. Next, ask students to mark
off halves on the fraction computer. Generally, I
have students figure out that half of 12 is 6, but you
may simply tell them where to place their marks.
The most important point to remember is that students should count over six spaces from 0, not
count the first six lines. Continue by asking students to mark off thirds (four spaces, which they
may find confusing), fourths (three spaces), sixths
(two spaces), and twelfths (every space). When
done, the bottom half of the fraction computer
should look like the one shown in figure 1.
Before making the rest of the fraction computer,
students should discuss what they have constructed. If no students recognize the result as a
number line, some probing questions can draw out
this realization. Next, students should be encouraged to find equivalent fractions on the bottom half
of the fraction computer. Students should already
be familiar with the concept of equivalent fractions
from their previous work with fraction circles, fraction strips, and pattern blocks, but having this discussion is time well spent because equivalent fractions become important later on.
To build the top half of the fraction computer,
have students put the fold of the second paper on the
bottom, put the top to the left, and mark off fractions just as before. However, this time, have students start the fraction labels at the bottom (see fig.
2). If students do not make these two halves correctly, the fraction computer will not work. Students
should put away their first halves while making their
second halves. Then, once they have completed both
halves, they can line them up, fold to fold, to be sure
that the corresponding fractions line up.

BEFORE DISCUSSING HOW TO USE THE FRACTION

computer to add, a few general remarks are in order.


How much guidance you give will depend on your students and their knowledge of fractions. When I used this
manipulative with elementary school students, I talked
them through the process. Now, when I use the fraction
computer with prospective teachers, I challenge them to
figure out why it works. Determining how the computer
works is easier if students are already familiar with interpreting whole-number addition and subtraction as
movements along the number linethe fraction computer simply does the same thing with fractions!
Begin with a few simple like-fraction sums, for example, 1/4 + 1/2, to give students confidence in
using the fraction computer. The steps for adding
these fractions are similar to those given in figure 3.
Next, students should use the fraction computer for
adding unlike but related fractions and, finally, for
adding unlike, unrelated fractions.
To add fractions using the computer, for example,
to find the sum 1/2 + 2/3, students should complete
the steps in figure 3. After students complete a number of similar problems, they should be encouraged to
figure out why the fraction computer works, thinking
back to how they used the fraction computer to add
like fractions. Here, again, teachers should use their
judgment to guide students to find out why the fraction
computer works. When we add halves and thirds, why
do we get sixths? Encourage students to look at the
fraction computer and try to find equivalent fractions
for halves and thirds. Can they find a fraction equivalent to 1/2 that has the same denominator as a fraction
equal to 2/3? Unlike other fraction manipulatives (e.g.,
fraction circles, squares, or strips), the fraction computer explicitly shows the equivalent fractions, thereby
making the step of finding a common denominator
more concrete and easier for students.

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Fig. 2 The top of the fraction computer


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MATHEMATICS TEACHING IN THE MIDDLE SCHOOL

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1. Locate 1/2 on the bottom half.


2. Line the 0 on the fraction computer top directly above the
1/2 on the computer bottom.
3. Locate 2/3 on the top.
4. Read the answer on the bottom, directly below the 2/3 on
the top, which for this problem
is 7/6.

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Fig. 3 Adding 1/2 and 2/3 on the fraction computer

1. Locate 3/4 on the bottom of the computer.


2. Line the 1/3 on the
top half directly
above the 3/4 on the
bottom.
3. Locate 0 on the top.
4. Read the answer, directly below the 0 on
the top, which for this
problem is 5/12.

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Fig. 4 Subtracting 1/3 from 3/4 on the fraction computer


V O L . 8 , N O . 4 . DECEMBER 2002

207

Using the Fraction Computer to


Subtract
AS WITH ADDITION, STUDENTS

should begin subtraction by finding


the differences of like and unlike but
related fractions. Again, depending on
their knowledge of fractions, you may
choose to give a lot of explanation or a
little. To subtract fractions using the
computer, for example, to find the difference 3/4 1/3, students should
complete the steps in figure 4.
Again, after students complete a
number of similar problems, they
should be encouraged to figure out
why the fraction computer works,
thinking back to how it worked with
like fractions. The questions to ask
students parallel those for addition.
When we subtract thirds from fourths,
why do we get twelfths? If students
have difficulty with this question, encourage them to look at the equivalent
fractions. Does anything on the computer suggest a common denomina-

tor? Students should see that the computer is helping them to restate these
problems as operations with like fractions, which are relatively easy.

Progressing to the Paper-andPencil Algorithm


STUDENTS SHOULD DO ENOUGH

problems with the fraction computer


to become proficient with addition and
subtraction and to become comfortable working with unlike, unrelated
fractions. In shifting to the paper-andpencil algorithm, the amount of
teacher direction required will depend
on the class. How would we solve
these problems if we did not have our
fraction computers? This question
can introduce the paper-and-pencil algorithm and emphasize the need for
the first step of finding a common denominator. If this step is too difficult,
the teacher can ask, How could we
solve these problems if we had only
one-half of our fraction computers?

Students can then use the computer


to help find a common denominator.
The key is having students see that
the original problem of adding (or
subtracting) unlike, unrelated fractions can be restated as an addition
(or subtraction) problem with like
fractions using the equivalent fractions shown on the computer. Because most students find adding and
subtracting like fractions to be easy,
this realization shows them that once
they find a common denominator, the
original problem is no big deal.
Next, I generally model how to find a
common denominator by using paper
and pencil to find equivalent fractions
that share a common denominator.
Using the fraction computer helps students understand the need for this
first step before adding or subtracting
fractions.

Summary
WHEN USED PROPERLY, MANIPULA-

tives are valuable tools for helping students understand mathematical concepts and operations, and their use
should be part of every teachers practice. Fraction circles, squares, and
strips are excellent for teaching fraction concepts and addition and subtraction of like and unlike but related
fractions, but they may be less useful
for teaching addition and subtracting
of unlike, unrelated fractions. In response to this shortcoming, I propose
the fraction computer as another manipulative that teachers may wish to
add to their repertoires. The fraction
computer is useful because it helps
students see the logic of restating the
problem with common denominators,
a realization that teachers can build
on as they teach the paper-and-pencil
algorithm for understanding.

References
National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM). Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics. Reston, Va.: NCTM, 1989.
. Principles and Standards for School
Mathematics. Reston, Va.: NCTM, 2000. 
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MATHEMATICS TEACHING IN THE MIDDLE SCHOOL