# How to Use Fraction Strips

Jan 25, 2024Fraction strips are probably the most well-known and used fractions manipulative in math classrooms far and wide. They provide a concrete way to model fraction notation, partitioning, equivalency, magnitude and more. Research has shown time and time again that using fraction strips to teach fraction concepts helps establish a strong foundational understanding of fractions which leads to success in working with fractions to solve problems in elementary math and beyond. Fractions knowledge (understanding and procedural, but especially understanding of the ideas) is critical for success in algebra (National Mathematics Panel, 2009).

It’s no wonder that teachers are encouraged to use fraction strips during instruction and many math textbooks use them as visuals for example problems as well as practice problems for students. However, what we have noticed is that many teachers either have no idea or a limited understanding of *how* to use fraction strips or are using them incorrectly in a way that may lead students to develop a false perception of what fraction names mean.

**Using Fraction Strips in the Classroom**

So, what then is the right and wrong way to use fraction strips in your classroom? First, let’s talk about the wrong way: using fractions strips that are labeled with fraction names and given to students all arranged in neat rows under the whole in descending order. Why? Because using a set of fraction strips that are organized and labeled with the longest strip as “1” (the whole) and other strips labeled with fraction names that correspond to equal parts of that whole does not deepen their understanding of part-whole relationships. That may sound crazy, but it’s true if you think about it. Consider the two scenarios below:

**Scenario 1:**Students have a set of labeled fraction strips in front of them with the 1 whole strip on top followed by thirds, fourths, fifths etc. strips below. The teacher asks them to identify the strip that represents β of the whole. All they have to do is find the strip labeled β , which isn’t that hard given that the strips are all arranged and hold it up. Yes, they found the correct fraction strip, but what did they*learn*? Not much other than to look for the strip that has β written on it and they are done.**Scenario 2:**Students have a set of blank fraction strips in front of them that are mixed up. The teacher tells the class to lay the dark brown strip at the top of their desk and tells them it will represent 1 whole. Next, students are asked to find the strip that represents β of the whole. Students must think this through coming to the conclusion that they need to find the strips that divide the whole into 5 equal pieces. They try different sets of strips until finding that the dark blue strips are fifths and one of the dark blue strips represents β of the whole. This scenario promotes critical thinking, experimenting, perseverance, and a deeper understanding of part-whole relationships.

**How to Use Fraction Strips: 4 Best Practices**

Fraction strips are wonderful for teaching all sorts of fraction concepts: notation, partitioning, magnitude, equivalency and even operations with fractions. Here are some best practices to keep in mind:

**#1: Use blank fraction strips!** You could probably have guessed that this would be our first recommendation based on the example above, but it's worth repeating. Blank fraction strips provide the teacher with more opportunities to reinforce part-whole relationships when *teaching* fractions and promote deeper understanding for students when *learning* fractions.

**#2 Vary the size of the whole.** Don't always use the largest fraction strip as the whole. For example, as a follow up question to Scenario 2 above, the teacher could tell the students to now use the light blue fraction strip as the whole and ask them again to find the strip that represents β
of the whole. Changing the size of the whole, which, in turn changes the size of β
of the whole helps students to see that the name *one-fifth* is not a fixed name for a certain strip, but rather the relationship between the part and the whole.

**#3 Mix up fraction strips before starting an activity.** It's best to avoid always beginning with the fraction strips arranged in order of size. Similar to using labeled fraction strips, having them in order can make it a bit *too* easy for students to find a specific part. For example, if they are asked to find β
of the whole they could just count down to the fifth row. By starting with the fraction strips mixed up, students will learn more by experimenting and trying out different sizes until they find the correct one.

**#4: Vary the way you use fraction strips.** Using fraction strips to identify a given fraction is a great starting point, but you can deepen students' understanding of fractions by using fraction strips in different ways. For example, you might have students identify which fraction strip represents the whole if the pink strip is ¼ or construct their own whole using green strips if one represents β
. Try using fraction strips to illustrate equivalent fractions or addition & subtraction with fractions. You can even use them to help neatly partition a number line!

**Fraction Strips Activity**

If you are ready to get started using fractions strips, you can incorporate them into many fractions lessons. The activity described in Scenario 2 is a great place to start to help build your students’ fraction sense. Want something even easier? We created a fraction strips activity focused on fraction notation and partitioning you can download for free! It is a complete lesson with visuals and guiding questions already planned out for you and includes:

- Fraction Strips lesson/activity in 2 formats: Google Slides and PDF
- Corresponding fraction strips worksheet set (2 pages, 10 problems)
- Printable Fraction Strips that match the set used in the activity

Download your FREE Fraction Strips Activity and you're all set and ready to engage your students with the best fractions manipulatives in a meaningful way that will foster a deeper understanding of fractions and set them up for success!

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