Simple Ways to Use Manipulatives to Compare Fractions

Teaching fractions is like a box of chocolates…you never know what you’re going to get!  True story.  To assess what they remembered about fractions, I asked my students to write in their journal and complete this sentence:  A fraction is. . .  I asked them to write whatever they could remember about fractions from what they learned in second grade or whatever they knew.  Then I asked the class to share.  I got some very left field responses and one good one.  But then I got a gem.

↪ Teacher:  What is a fraction?

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

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

From that you can infer that I had a lot of teaching to do about fractions.  Currently, I am teaching comparing fractions.  I decided this class really needs to have a hands on approach with this, so I brought out the fraction strips.  With our math program, each student gets a bag of fraction strips from a whole to twelfths.  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.

Getting Started

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 and tell me 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.

Once we determined (by correctly lining up the strips) that 1/2 was larger than 1/3, I continued with another fraction:  compare 1/4 to 1/2.  Again, we talked about which was larger and smaller and why. We continued this 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.

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.

Denominator is the Key

My objective with this guided exploration of comparing 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.

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 question on a chart ready for them to answer in their math journals.

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 numerator, such as the example below.

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

I have curated a special Pinterest board just on fractions that is full of resources for teaching fractions.  Go ahead and follow me on Pinterest to keep updated with the latest pins I add to it!

If you like the ideas in this post and want to share with colleagues, click HERE to TWEET!

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. 

Don’t forget to come back and visit to read PART 2 of Comparing Fractions!!!


As always, I welcome your thoughts and suggestions!