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Simple Ways to Compare Fractions with Manipulatives

Before I started teaching my third graders to compare fractions, I wanted to assess what they already knew about fractions.   True story.   I asked my students to write in their journal and complete this sentence:  A fraction is. . .

I got some very left-field responses and one good one.  But then I got a gem.

compare fractions with manipulatives

↪ Teacher:  What is a fraction?

↪ Student:  When two bodies are rubbing up against each other.

↪ Teacher:  WTH? Oh, you’re thinking of friction.

——>>> If you’re short on time, pin it for later!

Teaching Fractions is Like a Box of Chocolates

You never know what you’re going to get! From that, you can infer that I had a lot of teaching to do about fractions.  I decided the class needed to have a hands-on approach to this.  So I brought out the fraction strips.

Our math program came with a bag of fraction strips from a whole to twelfths for each student.  I had the students take out the 1/2, 1/3, 1/4, 1/5, 1/6/, 1/8, 1/10 and 1/12.  I also had on hand a recording sheet with three columns:  less than 1/2, greater than 1/2 and equal to 1/2.

compare fractions recording sheet

How Did We Start to Compare Fractions?

It’s important that the students have a benchmark number (fraction) firmly established.  So we first identified the half.  I asked them:  would you rather have a half a bowl of ice cream or one-third of a bowl of ice cream?  Many of the students voted for the one-third (which I knew they would!).  I had them find the 1/3 fraction strip and put it under the one-half.   I asked again, which was larger or more?

At first, I could see that many students were NOT lining up the fraction strips. I said, does it make a difference if the fraction strips are not lined up?  Some said no.

What if I wanted to measure two students to see which was taller and I measured one sitting down and the other standing up?  They understood that was not fair.  So I explained that yes, it is important that when you compare fractions, the strips line up on one side.

comparing fractions with fraction strips

Once we determined (by correctly lining up the strips) that 1/2 was larger than 1/3, I continued with another fraction.  I asked them to compare fractions 1/2 and 1/4.   Again, we talked about which was larger and smaller and why. The students continued to compare fractions 2 more times together. Then I asked them to start over but now record their findings on the paper by tracing the fraction strip in the correct column.

student comparing fractions to a benchmark

Compare Fractions and Record Your Answers

I circulated around while students were doing this to make sure they were lining up the fractions strips on the left side.  There were about 4 students however, that were mightily confused about where to trace the fraction strip.  I saw them tracing it in the greater than 1/2 column.  At that point, I realized what they were doing.

So I stopped the class and then asked these particular students why they thought 1/5 was larger than 1/2.  At first, they were hesitant because they assumed they were wrong (which they were), and I assured them it was ok.  We just wanted to hear their thinking.

Common Misconception

If you’ve guessed by now that the students were thinking that since the denominator was a larger number, it must be larger.  You’re right!  This is such a common misconception with children just learning about fractions.  Of course, I corrected their misconception and we talked about how we know for sure that one fraction is larger or smaller than another.

I taught them to look at the size of the pieces directly and not to worry right now about the fraction numbers.  Once all the fraction pieces had been recorded, we talked about why there weren’t any that were equal or greater than.  They knew now that there are not pieces greater than 1/2 for unit fractions.

student recording fractions strips on sheet

The Denominator is the Key to Compare Fractions

My objective with this guided exploration to compare fractions was to get my students to understand that denominators matter.  The denominator is key to comparing fractions.  Always look at the denominator first.  For example, we tried some hypothetical questions:

? would you rather have 1/2 of a pizza or 1/8 of a pizza?
? would you rather have 1/3 of the money or 1/10 of the money?
? would you rather have 1/4 of an hour of free time or 1/6 of an hour of free time?

With those examples, students started understanding that the larger the denominator number, the smaller the unit fraction or piece!

Then I asked them to line up all the fraction strips together starting with the largest piece to the smallest piece.

Recording Sheet with Fraction Strips

I asked them what they noticed about the denominator numbers and the size of the pieces.  We had a good mathematical conversation about how the larger the denominator number, the smaller the pieces. Objective met!  Now it was time to cement the learning with some writing.  I had these questions on a chart ready for them to answer in their math journals.

Questions for students about comparing fractions

Wrapping it Up for the Day

Once the students had had enough time to write, we shared and concluded the lesson by turning our paper over and now using symbols to show inequalities.  I wanted to end with this because I still had students who are confused about which is which (< or >).  So we practiced recording some inequalities using just unit fractions.

This would then lead to the next day’s lesson about comparing fractions with the same denominator but different numerators, such as the example below.

student compare fractions with inequalities

Understanding that the denominator is key to comparing fractions will guide them on to comparing fractions with unlike denominators as well.

A New Comparing Fractions Resource in my Store!

I have been working and an extensive Comparing Fractions PowerPoint to teach comparing fractions. It’s now available in my store! It has 90 slides in 6 parts.  Check out what’s included!

Support Materials for Comparing Fractions PowerPoint
Presenter's Notes and Teacher Notes for Comparing Fractions PowerPoint
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More Articles on Fractions

Are you ready for PART 2 of Comparing Fractions?

Also, check out how I taught equivalent fractions using the same fraction strips!

Please share your strategies for teaching comparing fractions below in the comments.

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I used simple manipulative activities to teach my 3rd graders to compare fractions with like and unlike denominators. Check out this blog post! #twoboysandadad #fractions #math #commoncore #3rdgrade #thirdgrade #elementary
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Two Boys and a Dad

Hi, I’m Claudio, the dad from Two Boys and a Dad. Whether you’re just starting out teaching or a veteran teacher, let me offer you some ideas, tips, suggestions, resources and a sounding board for your daily classroom struggles (and successes!). This is your place to find information and ask questions about teaching in the elementary grades.

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