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3 Ways to Make Fractions REAL to Students

Updated: Aug 22, 2021

I love teaching fractions to my elementary students! There are so many ways to do hands-on learning if you have the right tools! I recommend using a variety of fraction models, but my favorite tools to use are fraction strips, real world fraction pictures, and food. Keep reading to see how I use these tools in my third grade classroom!

1. Use fraction strips to model and compare fractions

I have a class set of fraction strips (free from a math class I attended), but you can also get a more affordable personal set of fraction strips from Amazon. It's not as good as the real thing, but you can also find fraction strips online if your child needs help at home or you're still teaching in the world of virtual learning. Here are some activities I like to do using fraction strips with my third graders:

Start with having students model basic fractions. Even 2/5 can be confusing at first--they're not sure whether to grab the 1/2 pieces of the 1/5 pieces so practice several times together! Reassure them that understanding fractions gets easier with time, if they keep using the models their understanding will grow each day!

Once students are able to model basic fractions on their own using the strips, they can start to compare the fractions. Working with a partner is great so students can catch each other's mistakes! I tell each student to draw a fraction card, build the fractions, then compare and decide together which symbol correctly compares the fractions.

Student compares 1/2 and 2/3 using fraction strip models
Comparing fractions using fraction strips

Fraction strips are a great tool for discovering equivalent fractions. In the activity below, students worked in partners to model each fraction and then find which fractions were equal to one another. They can also put the fractions in order from greatest to least or least to greatest.

Students use fraction strips to find equivalent fractions
Using fraction strips to find equivalent fractions

We also use fraction strips in my third grade class to introduce fraction number lines. I like that the strips give meaning to the spaces and provide a concrete visual for the number lines.

Student uses fraction strips to make fraction number lines
Using fraction strips to make fraction number lines

2. Use real world examples

After struggling to come up with examples of real world fractions on the spot, I decided to compile a powerpoint of examples to show my students. There are 24 examples in all, with examples ranging from a crayon collection to sugar cookies to puppies. Most pictures involve fractions of a set, but some show the area model of fractions (apple pie, anyone?). Here are some examples of the questions in the powerpoint: What fraction of the doughnuts has red jelly? What fraction of the puppies has tongues out?

Since there are 24 slides in all, I usually break this activity into two days. I give students the recording sheet and they sit on the carpet with clipboards and pencils. For every slide, we have "think time" where students study the picture and then write down their answer. After students have had time to try on their own, I'll call on a few students to share their ideas. We work through the problem together, drawing and labeling the picture on the interactive board to illustrate the point. Then me move on to the next slide! So for me, the recording sheet is mainly for student engagement. It's also nice to walk around the room and see who "gets it" and who might be struggling.

24 real world examples of fractions

A good follow-up activity would be to have students make their own fraction picture using materials at their desk (crayons, pencils, erasers, etc.). If you are learning virtually, they can find objects around their house to use! Students can write their own question about the picture and then a partner can try to solve it. Here's an example one of my third graders came up with: "What fraction of my erasers are blue?" (4/12)

twelve erasers arranged in two rows of 6, with various colors. four erasers out of twelve are blue
Student-created fraction picture

3. Use food whenever possible!

I know food allergies can limit our options nowadays for using food in the classroom. If you're able to do it, though, food is still an easy way to increase engagement for pretty much any topic you're teaching about, and fractions are no exception!

You can use bread, apples, chocolate bars, graham crackers, etc. to show the area model of fractions. Students tend to have a more difficult time with fractions of a set, however, so that's where I usually bring in food. In this Teachers Pay Teachers resource, students are given a handful of Sour Patch Kids. After sorting them by color, students identify each color using a fraction, determine the least and greatest fraction, and then order them from least to greatest. Once I verify that their work is accurate, students can do what they really want--eat the candy!

One day during snack time I decided to turn our classroom snacks into an opportunity to practice fractions. Students took a scoop of pretzels and goldfish and then filled out this quick sheet before they ate the snack. Do third graders need to know fractions with a denominator of 42? Of course not. But this simple activity shows who can apply their knowledge of fractions to larger numbers. And it's fun!

Student work sample of making fractions out of goldfish and pretzels

Have you done any of these activities with your class? Are you ready to rummage your house and create fraction sets? I hope this post sparked some new ideas for you!

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