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Wait, What!?! Fractions in a Reading Class?

by Janet Sodell

At The READ Center in Richmond, Virginia; our classes include a mixture of low-level readers—all reading below the 4th grade equivalent. In addition to reading, our classes also incorporate numeracy and digital skills. But how to include math in a reading-focused class which, in addition to a wide range of reading levels, also has a wide range of math skills? In a word: fractions.

Yes, I start with fractions rather than decimals or percentages for a reason. Most of my students have some knowledge of decimals and percentages, but none have any experience using fractions. Fractions level the playing field.

While teaching fractions, I am mindful that some students have a long-term goal of obtaining their GED® credential, but others already have a high school certificate or are retired and just learning to read better because “it’s their turn” after raising children and working. To accommodate all long-term goals, I incorporate the following strategies in all my fraction lessons:

Anticipate Anxiety. Anxiety about math is very real and interferes with how well a person can actually learn. High anxiety does not mean low ability, but more likely that somewhere in that person’s past they had a bad experience with numbers. It is important to acknowledge anxiety and reassure students that they will, in fact, “get math” because you are going to start at the beginning and go slow. It is also important to do what you can to stop the spread of math anxiety because that can happen in your classroom. If you have tutors who are unsure of math or have a negative outlook towards math, put them with your confident students. The students can actually reassure the tutor. Conversely, put your math loving tutors with students with math anxiety. The tutors can reassure the students and help reduce the students’ stress.

Go Slow. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. The same is true with fractions. Start at the beginning, go slow, and incorporate familiar items from life, like squares of a candy bar. Not only does talking about a piece of a candy bar make it relatable to students, but it also helps reduce anxiety level—especially if the class gets to enjoy them afterwards!

Make fractions less abstract. Draw pictures on the board. Have worksheets where students need to color in the correct number of pieces to have the drawing match the written fraction. Bring manipulatives into the class. A set of measuring cups is a great way for a student to see how, as the bottom number or the denominator gets bigger the pieces get smaller (1/1, 1/2, 1/3, 1/4). Use rulers and tape measures along with folded and cut paper plates to demonstrate parts of a whole. Always remember: fractions are more than pizza and cookies! When drawing pictures to demonstrate fractions, use both round and rectangular pictures. You would be surprised how many students understand fractions when you draw a circle but come to a complete standstill when the picture is a rectangle.

Have fun. Life is too short not to have fun! Playing games reinforces learning and helps take students’ minds off their anxiety. Below are links to various game directions as well as a game board template. I print my game boards on card stock and then laminate them to make them last longer.

Game Directions

Game Board

Relate examples to real life. Don’t work on fractions for fractions sake. Rulers, baking, and telling time are three areas to start with and then expand based on your students’ interests. Is there a painter in your class? Use a problem like “It takes half a gallon to paint one wall in a room. How many gallons do you need to paint the entire room”?

Remember that words matter. This is especially true when working with students whose long-term plan includes a GED® credential and those who will never need to know math terminology. Consistently use phrases like “top number or numerator” and “bottom number or denominator” when talking about fractions. The use of plain English words (e.g., top/bottom) aids in the understanding and relatability of fractions for everyone. Always connect the plain English words with the proper term (numerator/denominator) to help prepare your GED® bound students.

Remember that all of this is actually part of a reading class! Word problems are a fantastic way to incorporate fractions and reading comprehension in the same class. Even when not working on fractions, I often start class with a word problem. Students always love it when I make them a part of the word problem. For example, “John has 3 brothers and 2 sisters. What fraction of his siblings are male”? I have no idea if John has any brothers or sisters, but he enjoys being the focus of a word problem.

So, hopefully you now don’t think that teaching fractions in a basic reading class is such a crazy idea after all. Remember the steps and strategies above, and take cues from your students as to what’s working for them. As with everything we teach, the more real we can make it for them, the more connected and engaged they will be as they learn. Probably the best piece of advice is to remember to take your time and be flexible. When you take time for learners to absorb and master information before proceeding, you both reduce their anxiety and you change their lives. At the end of the day, isn’t that why we do this?


Janet SodellJanet Sodell, M. Ed., has been teaching low-literacy adult basic education students to read better for more than 23 years. She is a tutor trainer with The READ Center in Richmond where she also teaches two online, multi-level classes. In 2019, Janet was awarded the Joan E. D. Kushnir Teacher-of-the-Year award by the Virginia Association for Adult and Continuing Education (VAACE).