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Using Differentiated Instruction to Teach Fractions to Third Graders

By Afua Saafir

Differentiated instruction is an instructional concept that educators use to reach every student in the class. It takes into consideration each student's academic ability, preferred learning style, personality and interests. You can use this method while teaching fractions to your third graders.

History of Differentiated Instruction

Use differentiation when teaching fractions in mixed-ability classrooms. Differentiated instruction has been around for quite a long time. Special education coordinator, Lee Rutledge of West Virginia State University, points out the fact that teachers in the one-room schoolhouses of yesterday had to find creative ways to meet the needs of all the students, regardless of age or ability. Much more recently, Carol Ann Tomlinson of the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education has become a recognized leader in the area of differentiation. A professor of educational leadership, she sees this educational phenomenon as a way for to teachers to draw on best practices to find ways to reach all learners. This theory makes use of grouping strategies, brain-based learning techniques and current research on multiple intelligences to enhance learning in mixed-ability classrooms. You will find that teaching fractions using differentiated instruction with a third grade class can make quite a difference.

Differences in Academic Ability

Low-Achieving Students

Some students in your class may have difficulty grasping third grade fraction concepts like equivalent fractions, comparing fractions, mixed numbers and adding fractions. This may be in part because of a few gaps in their foundational understanding of fractions in general. Provide opportunities for these students to review material from the earlier grades to help them gain a better understanding of fractions as parts of a whole and fractions as part of a group. Interactive online games can be a great way to review fractions.

Activity Example:

Keep two sets of fraction index cards available for students who need remediation. One set should show examples of fractions as part of a whole, and the other should show fractions as part of a group. Allow students to work in pairs to identify each fraction. Give them blank index cards to draw their own examples of fractions as well.

High-Achieving Students

The high-achieving students in class often finish third grade fraction assignments quickly and begin to show signs of boredom if they are not sufficiently challenged. Differentiate instruction for these types of students by allowing them to participate in lesson extension activities as well as explore more advanced fraction concepts.

Activity Example:

Have high-achieving students use a math journal to write the rules for adding and subtracting fractions with like denominators after they have completed these lessons. Encourage them to make diagrams to help demonstrate each rule.

Varied Learning Styles

Visual Learners

Visual learners learn best by seeing. Provide the visual learners in your classroom with colorful illustrations and graphics while they are learning fractions. Differentiate a lesson on comparing fractions by allowing these students to select from colored pencils or crayons to shade in fraction strips. Use lots of visual aids when working with these types of learners. Sandwich bags filled with colorful candy, snap cubes and counting bears are all useful manipulatives to keep on-hand.

Auditory Learners

Auditory learners learn best by hearing. Help the auditory learners in your class to develop poems and chants that can aid in their understanding of third grade fraction concepts. Be prepared to give oral directions to these types of students and encourage them to verbalize their steps as they complete tasks such as identifying equivalent fractions. Auditory learners may particularly benefit from working in pairs or in small groups where they can speak and interact with classmates.

Kinesthetic Learners

Kinesthetic learners learn best by doing. Give these students plenty of opportunities to participate in hands-on activities like cutting out fraction strips for comparing, adding and subtracting fractions. Allow time for them to physically demonstrate parts of a group using their own bodies. Give them the chance to get up and move in between assignments. Fraction games that involve using manipulatives are great for your kinesthetic learners.

Personality and Interests

Keep the individual personalities and interests of the students in mind when teaching fractions to your third graders. Elementary students often participate in a myriad of after school sports and dance activities, have favorite television shows and cartoon characters and like a wide-variety of music. Use the knowledge that you have about your students to apply themes to fraction lessons. For example, students who are into sports may enjoy learning about fractions that involve soccer balls, footballs and basketballs. Students who like cooking activities may catch on to a fraction concept by actually dividing up a pizza or a batch of fresh-baked cookies.

Finally, take note of the students who seem to prefer to work individually versus the students that seem to need the social connection of working in a group. To reach all the learners in your classroom, differentiate instruction by including large group, small group and independent lessons and activities.

Take note of any increases in the energy of the students when you take the time to teach fractions using differentiated instruction with your third grade class.


Rutledge, Lee; Differentiated Instruction; West Virginia State University; 2003; Staff Development for Educators: Turning Theory into Practice

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