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Before students are introduced to fractions in third grade, most children are accustomed to working with whole numbers. The concept of splitting a number into pieces can seem foreign and frightening. Nevertheless, by the end of fourth grade, students are expected to estimate, compare, compose, and decompose fractions and understand fraction equivalence. They are also expected to be able to explain these processes and their meanings and apply this understanding to more difficult mathematical equations.
Learning fractions represents a major milestone in a child’s mathematical education. Studies have shown that an understanding of fractions is a primary indicator of a child’s success throughout high school mathematics. If a child struggles with grasping this material, it’s likely that the child will continue to struggle with math throughout high school.
Teaching fractions with manipulatives is a tried-and-true approach to teaching these math skills. Manipulatives have been shown to increase understanding, reduce anxiety, improve attitudes toward math, and improve the long- and short-term retention of math concepts. This, of course, leads to higher test scores and greater excitement about math in general, as shown in Teaching Math Their Way. Using manipulatives can engage inattentive or easily distracted learners. Manipulatives can also be extremely effective in teaching ESL students and students with learning barriers.
Math manipulatives can be very expensive. Fortunately, LEGO bricks are a convenient, effective, and affordable alternative. Since students are usually already familiar with these items, using LEGOs can also help the child feel more comfortable and excited about learning. Since we typically first teach fractions to 3rd and 4th graders, beginner students are usually at the right place developmentally for mastering new concepts through this hands-on approach.
Five Activities for Mastering Fractions With LEGO BricksTo complete each of the following activities, the child will need the base assembly, the fraction cards, and a substantial number of 1x4 LEGO bricks.
- Divide a base plate into several equal sections. Since each section must provide enough space to create a fraction in 1x4 bricks, the number of sections should be dictated by the size of the base plate being used.
- Stack three 1x6 bricks on top of each other. These bricks will hold the fraction cards upright while the child works the fraction problem. Create one stack for each section.
- Attach each of these stacks at the top of each section.
- Two rows below each stack, attach another 1x6 brick. This brick prevents the fraction card from sliding while the child is working.
- Use index cards and a marker to create the fraction cards. On the back of each index card, write a fraction (such as ¼) that the child can assemble with LEGOs.
Activity #1: Make the Fraction
Perhaps the easiest way to teach fractions with LEGOs is to have the child select fraction cards, insert them into the holders, and build them out of 1x4 bricks assembled flat against the base plate. The child should use two colors for each fraction. For example, in the fraction 2/5, a child should use five bricks – two of one color, three of another.
Activity #2: Vertical Fractions
Encouraging the child to assemble the fraction in different ways can help broaden an understanding of fractions. Explain that a fraction is the same whether the bricks are lined up horizontally or vertically. The fraction is even the same if the bricks are stacked on top of one another or assembled in some other shape. It isn’t the placement, but the division of parts, that matters. Encourage your child to assemble the fraction cards as towers or other shapes.
Activity #3: Find the Opposite Fraction
Every fraction is part of a whole. The remaining, or opposite, fraction is the amount required to complete the whole. For example, the opposite of the fraction 7/8 is 1/8. When the child is challenged to find the opposite fraction, it helps strengthen the understanding that fractions are part of a whole.
Activity #4: Simplify the Fraction
Use large fractions, such as 5/10, and ask the child to reduce the fraction to a smaller but equal number. In this example, it would be ½. If the base plate being used is small, the child may need to stack the bricks or clear the base plate of the original setup so that there is enough room to work the problem.
Activity #5: Vocabulary Test
Ask the child to use a specific color for the numerator or denominator of each problem. Allow the child to pick the color of whichever portion of the fraction you did not specify. As the child works each fraction under these conditions, he or she will build a math vocabulary and strengthen the recognition of these important terms.
Children who understand fractions are more likely to succeed in future mathematics. Repeating these activities often can help strengthen and reinforce these concepts. These activities can be scaled and adapted to accommodate more complex fractions and even equations as the child moves forward with mastering this material.