Tag Archives: mastery

The teaching of fractions

There are certain prerequisites for children to develop a solid understanding of fractions.  First, they must understand, through work on additive reasoning, that a whole can be split into parts and that the sum of those parts is the whole.  There’s a short step into multiplicative reasoning from here – that a whole can be split into multiple, equal parts and that the whole is the product of the size of each part and the number of parts.  Once this is understood, children can begin to think about the whole being worth one and the parts being fractions of one.  The ideas that follow are broadly sequential in terms of conceptual development.

Prior concepts

Children will need to manipulate various representations of fractions, for example making them with fraction tiles (as both bars and circles); taking strips of paper and ripping them in to equal parts; and drawing bars and circles, dividing them into equal parts.  It is worthwhile to get children to do lots of judging by eye and marking equal parts of a whole as well as using squared paper to do so accurately.

Of course, there is a lot of language to work on whilst manipulating these models of fractions.  Children need to be shown clearly the link between the total number of parts and the language (but not yet necessarily the written form) of the denominator: two parts – halves; three parts – thirds; four parts – quarters etc.

With a secure start in the basics of splitting a whole into equal parts, children can work on the idea that fractions always refer to something.  A third, for example, doesn’t stand alone.  It might be a third of an apple or a third of twelve sweets or a third of one whole.  Modelling these full sentences and getting children to speak in this way should solidify their understanding of proportion.  Through the sharing out of objects, even very young children can work on the concept of fractions of numbers – sharing six sweets between three children means that each child has the same number of sweets and that two sweets is one third of six sweets.


Once children are comfortable with the idea that an object or a set of objects or a number can be split into equal parts, and that each of those equal parts can be described as a fraction of something, that object or that set of objects or that number, they can go on to work at greater depth.  By comparing strips of paper or bar models that are the same length yet are split into different fractions, children can look at the relationship between the size of each part and the number of parts.  That is, the greater the number of equal parts, the smaller the size of each part.  Children should be expected to think about how ¼ is smaller than ½ because ¼ of one whole is one of four equal parts whereas ½ of one whole is only one of two equal parts.  Then, questions like this should be relatively straightforward:

Covered strips

The understanding that unit fractions with larger denominators are smaller than unit fractions with smaller denominators will contribute significantly to work in comparing fractions later on.

Children could begin to look at improper fractions and mixed numbers next.  Using ¼ fraction tiles, they could make one whole and then see what happens if you add another ¼.

Mixed number

This lends itself to counting in unit fractions but we should exercise caution.  Children may be able to chant ‘Three quarters, four quarters, five quarters…’ but early conversion to mixed numbers as well should help to secure their understanding of the relationship between them.  Manipulatives like fraction tiles and multi-link cubes are great for representing improper fractions because they can trigger accurate mathematical talk to describe the improper fraction (the total number of cubes as the numerator and how many cubes in each whole as the denominator).  The same can be done to describe the mixed number (the number of wholes, then what is left over as a fraction of a whole).

Returning to additive reasoning, children could generate complements to 1 whole and record them as addition and subtraction statements.


A slight change to the representation used can support children to work with complements where denominators are different:

Complements 2

Placing two bar models of equal length one on top of the other is great scaffold for comparing fractions.  When the denominators of the fractions are the same, the bars should not even be necessary but when they are different, the image can help to structure thinking.


When dealing with fractions with different denominators, the practice that children had earlier of judging by eye to split a whole into equal parts and marking the divisions themselves becomes crucial, otherwise, things like this could happen:

Inaccurate bars

A standard fraction wall is all that is needed to begin work on equivalence and the first step is of course shading one fraction and looking up or down the fraction wall to find fractions of equal size.  When children are comfortable with that, they can begin to look at patterns in the abstract representations, particularly the link between times tables, numerators and denominators.

Fraction wall

Using the language of simplifying or cancelling fractions without first talking more generally about the concept is a mistake.  If children are well versed in using a fraction wall to find equivalents to a given fraction, it is only a slight tweak to talk about finding the equivalent fraction that has the fewest total parts.  It would be tempting to talk about finding the equivalent fraction that is ‘closest to the top’ of the fraction wall but this would be a mistake too.  The language of simplifying or cancelling can be used to attach to the concept of finding the equivalent fraction with the fewest total parts to get children thinking conceptually soundly.

One further aspect of thinking of fractions is to consider them as numbers.  To do this, plotting fractions on a number line directly beneath the bar model is a good way of linking the two representations.

Number line

Representing fractions as a proportion of one, as a part of a quantity and as a position on a number line significantly supports children’s development of proportional reasoning and ensures that future tricky concepts such as calculating with fractions can be built on a secure foundation.

Multiplicative reasoning

If a child understands additive reasoning and the relationship between the whole and its parts, it is a fairly straightforward conceptual step to understand multiplicative reasoning.  Multiplicative reasoning should be modelled as repeated addition in the first instance.  Adding multiple equal parts (for example 5) might look like this:

Array 1

5 + 5 + 5+ 5 is equal to twenty.  Children need to understand that multiplication allows for efficient repeated addition.  You  have your thing to be multiplied (5) and the multiplier (4): 5 +5 + 5 + 5 = 5 x 4.  Creating arrays and deliberately connecting repeated addition with multiplication makes for sound understanding.

How children work out the whole should not be taken for granted.  At first, children might count each item in the array.  Counting in multiples can be achieved by first skip counting.  Children might whisper the numbers while counting except for the last in each row, which is said out loud.  Then replace the whispering with counting in their heads and then simply saying the multiples.  Over time, given sufficient practice, children will internalise these times tables.

Commutativity is important here – the array used above shows 5 x 4 but rotated it shows 4 x 5.  Times tables taught systematically and with such conceptual support should be straightforward for children to learn comfortably before the end of year 4, especially when we consider it like this:

Times tables facts

Of course, children need time to practise well and multiple representations help children to make connections.  Graham Fletcher’s blog post describes the use of pictorial representations on flash cards – an approach that is a great form of low stakes testing to support the learning of times tables.

Flash card

This image supports the understanding of having a ‘thing to be multiplied’, a multiplier and a whole.  With practice, children will be able to subitise from glancing at the flash card, becoming fluent and accurate with times tables recall.

Some children will grasp all this quickly and can work at a greater depth while children that need more practice with the basics get it.  Still using the array, children can easily begin to think about distributivity simply by splitting the array into parts:

array 2

The part above the line is 5 x 2 and the part below the line is 5 x 2:

5 x 2 + 5 x 2 = 5 x 4.

There is lots of scope for systematic thinking about equivalence with a task like this.

Arrays are perhaps not the most efficient of representation so a progression is to get children to be able to represent multiplication in bar models.  First though, Numicon to work on the language of size of each part, number of equal parts and the whole:

Multiplicative reasoning2

Numicon is a great manipulative to represent multiple parts because of its clarity of the ‘size of each part’.  Multi-link cubes could work too, but children would need to organise the parts into different colours to differentiate between them:


Building worded statements using a manipulative will ensure children practise the language needed to internalise the concept of multiplicative reasoning.  Dropping in some of the  inverse relationship between multiplication and division could be useful here too.  Doing it systematically can also help keep times tables knowledge conceptual and not shallow:





Commutativity could be brought in again – showing that 3 groups of 4 is the same as 4 groups of 3 using manipulatives arranged with intent.  Alongside this, comparing the similarities and differences with the worded statements will get children to think with clarity about equivalence between two multiplicative expressions.

Bar models are a versatile representation that can be used to solve a wide range of problems later on, so getting children to sketch out multiplication and division statements using bars enables them to practice a versatile skill.  We should expect great accuracy in their drawings – they should be representing equal parts.  If children also represent the same expression on a number line beneath the bar model, we can encourage links between representations and lay the foundations for trickier calculations and problem solving as they progress through school.

bar and no line


Before, then, now – modelling additive reasoning

One of the parts of the NCETM’s Calculation Guidance for Primary Schools is the ‘Before, Then, Now’ structure for contextualising maths problems for additive reasoning.  This is a very useful structure as by using it, children could develop deep understanding of mathematical problems, fluency of number and also language patterns and comprehension.

The first stage is to model telling the story.  We cannot take for granted that children, particularly vulnerable children in Key Stage 1, will know or can read the words ‘before’, ‘then’ and ‘now’.  Some work needs to be done to explain that this is the order in which events happened.  Using a toy bus, or failing that, an appropriate picture of a bus, we would talk through each part of the structure, moving the bus from left to right and modelling the story with small figures:


Before, there were four people on the bus. Then, three people got on the bus. Now there are seven people on the bus.

The child could then retell the story themselves, manipulating the people and the bus to show what is happening.  For the first few attempts, the child should get used to the structure but before long we should insist on them using full, accurate sentences, including the correct tense, when they are telling the story.

I have chosen a ten frame to represent the windows on the bus, which enables plenty of opportunity to talk about each stage of the problem in greater depth and to practise manipulating numbers.  For example, in the ‘Before’ stage, there were four people on the bus: if the child could manage it, it would be interesting to talk about the number of seats on the bus altogether and the number of empty seats.  By doing so, they are practising thinking about number facts to ten and building their fluency with recall of those facts.   The task could easily be adapted to use a five frame or a twenty frame.

The next stage could be to tell children a story and while they are listening, they model what is happening with the people and the bus.  After each stage, or once we have modelled the whole story, they could retell it themselves.  Of course, the adult would only tell the ‘Before’ and the ‘Then’ parts of the story as the child should be expected to finish the story having solved the problem.

When the child is more fluent with the language and they understand the structure of the problems, we can show them how it looks abstractly.  For the ‘Before’ part, the child would only record a number – how many on the bus.  For the ‘Then’ part, we would need to show the child how to record not only the number of people that got on or off the bus but the appropriate sign too – if three people got on they would write +3 and if two people got off they would write -2.  Finally, for the ‘Now’ part, they would need not only the number of people on the bus but the ‘is equal to’ sign before the number.  Cue lots of practise telling and listening to stories whilst modelling it and writing the calculation.


A more subtle level of abstraction might be to repeat the same problems but rather than the child modelling them using the bus and people, they could use another manipulative such as multi-link cubes or Numicon.  They could also draw a picture of each stage – multiple representations of the same problem provide the opportunity for deeper conceptual understanding.

The scaffolding that the structure and the multiple representations provide allows for some deeper thinking too.  In the problems described so far, the unknown has always been the ‘Now’ stage or the whole (as opposed to one of the parts). It is fairly straight forward to make the ‘Then’ stage unknown with a story like this:

Before, there were ten people were on the bus.

Then, some people got off the bus.


Now, seven people are on the bus.

This could be modelled by the teacher, who asks the child to look away at the ‘Then’ stage.  Starting with ten people on the bus and using a ten frame is a deliberate scaffold – deducing how many people got off the bus is a matter of looking at how many ‘empty seats’ are represented by the empty boxes on the ten frame in the ‘Now’ stage.  A progression is to not use a full bus in the ‘Before’ stage – it is another level of difficulty to keep that number in mind and calculate how many got on or off the bus.

Another progression is to make the ‘Before’ stage unknown.  The child will need a different strategy to those already explained in order to solve this kind of problem.  Then story would have to be started with: ‘Before, there were some people on the bus.’  Of course, the adult would not show the child this with the bus and toy people, but they would show the completed ‘Then’ stage: ‘Then, four people got on the bus.’  Finally, the adult would model moving the bus to the ‘Now’ stage and completing the story: ‘Now, there are eleven people on the bus.’  The child would have to keep in mind that four people had got on and now there are eleven, before working backwards.  They would have to be shown that if four had got on, then working out how the story started would mean four people getting off the bus.  They could be shown to run the story in reverse, ending up with seven people on the bus in the ‘Before’ stage.

This task has the potential to take children from a poor understanding of number facts, calculating and knowledge of problem structures to a much deeper understanding.  The familiar context can be used as a scaffold to build fluency and think hard about complex problems with varied unknowns.

Four add three is equal to two add something

This work came from discussions with the Year 1 team about planning a sequence of ‘Do Nows’ to keep the focus on number during a unit of work on 2D shape.

Could Reception and Year 1 children solve this problem?

4 + 3 = 2 + □

Of course they could.  Here’s how.  First children will need to work on their understanding of 7.  Using a manipulative for 1:1 correspondence such as multi-link cubes, we can show how the whole of 7 can be made up of two parts (in the first instance, 1 and 6):


It is important to model the language that will help children think clearly when manipulating the cubes: ‘One add six is equal to seven.  The parts are one and six and the whole is seven.’  It is equally important to talk about the cubes saying the whole first: ‘ Seven is equal to one add six.’  This will help to prevent the misconception developing that the equals sign means ‘the answer is next’.  Then show them how to systematically make seven with other sized parts, talking about the parts and the whole in the same way:



Children should also use the cubes to write calculations.  A little modelling of turning the language of ‘Three add four is equal to seven’ into 3 + 4 = 7, followed by plenty of practice, will be exactly what is needed.

Lots of quality talking, as well as using pictorial representations, will develop children’s fluency with number facts.  Showing different representations, for example Numicon, could strengthen their conceptual understanding:


Some children will grasp this idea quickly, and some will need more practice to internalise the number facts and recall them more fluently.  Those quick graspers can be challenged to think more deeply about the number facts that they are working with.  We can start by returning to the multi-link cubes and looking at two facts:


Here, we can model the talk required to think more deeply: ‘Three add four is equal to five add two.’  Children could repeat that task with different facts to 7 before we show them how to write that as 3 + 4 = 5 + 2.  When children have practised this and can do it reliably with manipulatives, they could draw a bar model of what is happening:

R Bar

A further challenge is to present cubes where there is an unknown:


We could model how to talk about this as: ‘One add six is equal to three add something.’  To model how to work out what ‘something’ is equal to, we simply fill the gap with cubes to make the second row equal to seven, then counting the cubes to figure out what ‘something’ is equal to.  When children have practised and are becoming more fluent, the cubes could be replaced with bars, at first presented in that way but moving on to children drawing it themselves:

R Bar 2

All the while, children could be shown how this looks written down: 1 + 6 = 3 = □.  When they have seen the abstract alongside the pictorial and the concrete, we can try starting with the abstract and asking children to represent the problem with cubes or by drawing bars.

The sequence described, over time, should be enough of a scaffold for the vast majority of children to end up being able to solve such problems and in doing so, develop a deep understanding of early number.

On teaching additive reasoning

The question was on the screen:


One year 6 child said: ‘The empty box is in the middle so you do the inverse.  You have to add the numbers together’.

This got me thinking about how children build on their early concepts of number to be able deal with problems like this, which I’ll call ‘empty box problems’.


The underlying pattern of additive reasoning is the relationships between the parts and the whole.   Getting children to think and talk about the whole and parts using concrete manipulatives early on should lay the foundations for them to internalise this underlying pattern.  Every time children think and talk about number bonds, they can be practising identifying the whole, breaking it into parts and then recombining to make the whole once more.


Alongside talking about the whole and parts, children should begin to generate worded statements whilst manipulating cubes or Numicon, for example.  At this point it is important to experiment with rearranging the words in the statement.  They should get to know that ‘four add two is equal to six’ and ‘six is equal to four add two’ are statements that are saying the same thing.  Some discussion around what is the same and what is different about these two statements would be worthwhile.

When children are then shown how this looks abstractly with numerals and the equals sign, this would hopefully go some way towards avoiding the misconception that the equals sign means that ‘the answer is next’.


In the examples used so far, the whole and each of the parts have been ‘known’.  Using the same manipulatives and language patterns, children can be introduced to unknowns.  It seems sensible to begin with giving children the parts and using the word ‘something’ to show that the whole is unknown, i.e., four add two is equal to something.  Some modelling alongside a clear explanation followed by plenty of practice should see children get used to the language patterns needed to think about the concept with clarity.  The next step is to show children the whole and one of the parts, using the word ‘something’ to replace the unknown part.  All of this talk and manipulation of objects is intended to support children to develop a concept of additive reasoning where they do not have the misconception that ‘inverse’ means ‘do the opposite’.


More sophisticated additive reasoning is the understanding of the inverse relationship between addition and subtraction.  Children need to fully understand that two or more parts can be equal to the whole.  From this, they need to internalise the underlying patterns: that Part + Part = Whole and that Whole – Part = Part.  From this, they should be able to work out the full range of calculations that represent one bar model.  Again, it is important to vary the placement of the = sign.


One more way to get children to think about the whole and the parts is to use bar models for calculation practice rather than simply writing a calculation for children to work out.  When done like this, children have to decide what calculation to do to work out the unknown.  Children often exhibit misconceptions such as ‘when you subtract, the biggest number goes first’.  These can be addressed using the underlying patterns; adding parts together makes the whole and, when you subtract, you always subtract from the whole.  When unknowns are introduced, they can be substituted into these basic patterns:

Part + Something = Whole           Part + □ = Whole              35 + □ = 72

Something + Part = Whole           □ + Part = Whole              □ + 35 = 72

Whole – Something = Part           Whole – □ = Part               72 – □ = 35

Something – Part = Part                □ – Part = Part                   □ – 35 = 37


Knowing these patterns will help children to able to analyse problem types in order to decide on the calculation needed.  An additive reasoning bar model with one unknown generates both an addition statement and a subtraction statement.  Showing children empty box problems pictorially, they can talk through the calculations that can be read from the bar model, using the word ‘something’ to represent the unknown.  The next step is to show children abstract empty box problems and get them to map it onto a blank bar model.  They should be drawing on their knowledge that the whole is equal to the sum of the parts and that when you subtract, you always start with the whole.  Eventually, the hope is that the language alone should suffice to work out how to solve empty box problems, with children no longer needing the bars.

Which brings us back to that year 6 child.  Of course, children will develop misconceptions as they make sense of what is shown and explained to them.  By expecting them to think and talk about additive reasoning in the ways described above, it should go some way to building sound conceptual understanding.

Story Telling and Talk for Writing

Chris Smith’s session on storytelling during our day at the Story Museum included many ideas that could effectively complement our Talk for Writing work.  The suggestions in this post centre mainly on the imitation stage, although the Storytelling School approach of Tell, Deepen, Shared Writing and Independent Writing span the entire T4W process.  Specific details on each of these steps can be found in the Storytelling School Handbook: what follows is some thinking about how they can be applied in a T4W unit.

Imitation – Internalising the text

Hear it, map it, step it, speak it.

Children’s first interaction with the story is told by the teacher, not read aloud. Teachers should be prepared to tell the story with skill (see the Storytelling School Handbook for Teachers for a toolkit for great story telling).

Get children to map the story from memory.  In the first instance this can be a simply structured map depicting the main things that need to be remembered for the plot to work.  This should be a fairly short activity but it can be added to over time.  Children could have their text map in front of them as they listen to and practise the story during the imitation stage.  Before children use their text map to retell the story, they need to practise recalling the meanings of the symbols.  Try getting pairs to talk through their plans: ‘This is the bit where…’  There will still be a need for a teacher text map for the teacher to model retelling and for some children to use themselves.  It can be used later to support the planning of the innovation.

Stepping the story (details in the handbook) gets children to focus on key moments that trigger memories of the finer details for later retelling.  Each step could include words and actions to trigger those memories.  When children write at a later stage, each step could become a paragraph or a scene.  Consider here the planned repetition of tier 2 focus words to increase the number of interactions that children have with this vocabulary.  Stepping the story could focus on different things.  They could step the settings so that at each key moment in the story, children are thinking about the details of the setting.  They could step the characters so that at each key moment, they are thinking about bringing the characters to life.  They could step the dialogue, thinking hard about the interactions between characters.  Consider the intended effect for the story and the toolkit that will be later co-constructed.  By tweaking the ‘step it’ stage, foundations for great Reading as a Writer can be laid, preparing children for co-constructing the writers’ toolkit(s) later on.

Once children have internalised the main parts of the story through hearing, mapping and stepping, they practise retelling the story.  Paired retelling, taking turns, allows for flexibility which communal retelling may not provide.  The first person tells part of the story and then the other continues before passing the story back again.  This is not to say that communal retelling is not useful – many children, particularly those new to English, will need to hear and rehearse specific language patterns.  Some children may need to be encouraged to speak one idea at a time to get a feel for sentence demarcation which will support later writing accuracy.  Get children to build the sophistication of their story by magpieing phrases from others’ retelling.  One partner can tell the story while the other listens, text map in front of them, adding ideas that improve their version.  Something similar can be done with a group retelling performance: a group pass the telling of the story between them while the rest of the class listen, adding to their text maps.

Reading as a Reader – Deepening the storytelling

The sophistication of children’s storytelling will develop through the imitation stage and will be supported through established aspects of T4W such as shared reading, book talk etc.  The Storytelling Handbook includes other opportunities to deepen children’s understanding of the story.

Reading as a Writer

During this stage, we get the children to analyse how good writing is created.  Children need to have a sound knowledge of the underlying story structure but it is also useful to summarise the structure even more simply, for example, ‘Annoying thing won’t stop so… accept it.’  Boxing up the story helps children to analyse the writing section by section, which then contributes to planning the innovation.  Chris’ plot matrix (see the Handbook) may be an interesting alternative.

Whilst co-constructing the writers’ toolkit, it may be useful to return to ‘stepping the story’ with the intended effect in mind.  If the intention is to bring the character(s) to life, then thinking hard about the language use at each key moment that does this sets children up well to analyse other writing for how it could be done.

Non Fiction

A similar approach can be used with non-fiction writing.  Non-fiction arguably presents a different challenge in that the speaker / writer must have mastered the subject content as well as the appropriate language of non-fiction in order to effectively get their message across.  It is the subject content that must come first, though – children need something to think about before learning and using the language associated with non-fiction writing.

Imitation – Internalising the subject content

Just as the teacher would be expected to tell the story when working with fiction, so too with non –fiction.  The first interaction should be told, not read.  The teacher should tell the text in role in simple language so that children get to know the subject content quickly – informally tell children about the content from memory, making a connection just as for storytelling.

Get children to map the subject content, following the same structure as for fiction, including stepping it.  When children know the content well, the teacher can begin to change their retelling to make it more formal and to include the non-fiction language features necessary.  Children can then do the same throughout the Reading as a Reader stage, so that when they come to Read as a Writer, they would have already been talking some of the non-fiction language that we’d be asking them to analyse in other texts.

Great non-fiction writing relies on the writer knowing the subject content very well.  Sequencing some non-fiction work immediately after some fiction work and using the same subject content contributes effectively to writers’ subject knowledge.  For example, after a fiction unit on ‘Beating the monster’ using George and the Dragon, children could work on non-fiction, informing novices on the different types of dragon, arguing that dragons should not be held in captivity or instructing knights on how to defeat them.