(This excerpt from Pop Quiz: Why Are Fractions Key To Future Math Success? by Sue Shellenbarger appeared on onlinewsj.com September 24, 2013. To view it in its entirety visit the link below.)
Many students cruise along just fine in math until fourth grade or so. Then, they hit a wall—fractions.
The wall is about to get taller. With mastery of the topic seen as a crucial stepping stone to progressing in math, federal standards are stepping up emphasis on fractions starting in third grade. National tests show nearly half of eighth-graders aren’t able to put three fractions in order by size.
The government is funding new research on more effective ways to teach the often-dreaded subject. The new methods preface early rote learning of complicated fraction rules with more work on building a conceptual understanding of fractions. And instead of traditional pie charts, they rely more on tools like number lines, paper models and games putting fractions in context.
Knowing how to place fractions on a number line in third grade is a better predictor of kids’ fourth-grade fraction skills than calculation ability, working memory or the ability to pay attention, according to a recent study of 357 children headed by Nancy Jordan, an education professor at the University of Delaware, Newark’s Center for Improving Learning of Fractions. The effect continues at least through fifth grade, based on recent research, Dr. Jordan says.
A child’s knowledge of fractions in fifth grade predicts performance in high-school math classes, even after controlling for IQ, reading achievement, working memory, family income and education, and knowledge of whole numbers, according to a 2012 study led by Bob Siegler, a professor of cognitive psychology at Carnegie Mellon University.
“If you don’t understand fractions, it’s literally impossible for you to understand algebra, geometry, physics, statistics, chemistry,” Dr. Siegler says. “It closes a lot of doors for children.” New federal standards known as the Common Core, which are being implemented in most states, require students to be multiplying and dividing fractions by fifth grade.