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

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

204

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.

IN MY EXPERIENCE, FRACTION CIRCLES, FRAC-

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.

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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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

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.

TO BUILD THE FRACTION COMPUTER, FIRST ASK

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

205

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.

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

207

Subtract

AS WITH ADDITION, STUDENTS

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.

STUDENTS SHOULD DO ENOUGH

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?

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.

208

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