Fractions and Decimals Made Easy

Fractions, Decimals and Percents hanging from a ribbon across a wall.
Hang rational numbers from a clothesline to generate great mathematical conversations about comparing numbers!

If teaching fifth and sixth graders has taught me anything, it’s that fractions and decimals can be ABSTRACT and TRICKY… and that kids have to be developmentally ready to perform operations on them. The good news is- the standards aren’t encouraging us to get kids to add, subtract, multiply and divide 5/32 and 16/71! We make equivalent fractions as a strategy, we multiply and divide to resize, or scale– so there’s more purpose behind the work than there was once upon a time! An activity that never gets old- and grows number sense- is comparing numbers. As a result, we compare fractions and decimals in a variety of ways in the upper elementary classroom. My favorite- is the clothesline. This is super easy to DIY and to differentiate on the fly.

Clothesline Activity

Index Cards, Markers, String/ Yarn for a clothesline

To prepare: fold index cards in half so that they can “hang” on your clothesline. Write a fraction, decimal or percent on each card. String your clothesline across the board or wall and attach with magnets or tape (or tie to something).

Pass 6-8 cards out to students. Tell them they will take turns coming up and placing their card where they think it belongs on the clothesline. In the end, cards should hang from least to greatest. When a student hangs a card, they need to explain to the group why they placed it where they did. This is a great opportunity for communicating our math thinking. It’s also a learning opportunity for everyone listening!

Tent cards with fractions, decimals and percents in red, green and blue on white index cards
Fold index cards in half to create a stack of cards in no time.
Considerations
  • The first cards are awkward to place because the clothesline is empty! Code the first and last cards in the range green, and invite those students first. Then the board is “set up” for play. It’s also an opportunity to differentiate. Strategically hand out those green cards! Maybe you have a student who needs a confidence boost?
  • Set norms around discussion. What do you want students to do if they disagree with a placement? This is where the most growth and learning happens! As students’ number sense develops, the distance between hanging cards will become more important! They will want to “slide” cards over. How should they communicate that they’d like to do this? I usually try to hold “sliding” off until the end- but when it’s a major slide- they can’t contain themselves:)
  • Some cards will be equivalent. I usually have kids stack them. If you have a magnet board you could put them above and below the clothesline.
And Also…
  • Partnerships build communication skills and confidence. Sometimes I send 2-3 kids up together with one card. And other times I pass cards out and have students chat with a neighbor about their card before we start building the clothesline. This helps decrease anxiety and pressure some students might feel and gives students one more opportunity to talk math!
  • Color coding is great for differentiation! So color code the cards for yourself so that when you pass them out- you give kids a green, blue or red card on purpose.
  • 0-1 is a boring range!!! So is -1-1. Kids are always looking at symmetrical number lines. That’s not real life. Mix it up! Try 3-4 or -0.50-2.
  • Reflection. Even if this activity lasts 10 minutes, your kids’ brains will be working overtime. Capture it somehow. A math journal, an exit slip… Post a cellphone picture of the clothesline in your Google Classroom and have students comment. Do something:) There are some reflection sheets here too!

Here are three games that build Fraction & Decimal Flexibility that could be used in centers, small groups or even as a whole class!

Have fun! And get flexible. This is a great Class Opener that has a huge return on investment. Also, “the ones who are doing the talking are doing the learning” so there’s lots of learning going on here!!!

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