At some point, every math student has to learn fractions. And for many kids this can be a real challenge. Math concepts like fractions are difficult — more so than basic math skills like adding and subtracting.
Find out when kids learn fractions, and why it can be a struggle.
A fraction is part of a whole number. Fractions are typically written as one number over another with a line in between — for example, ¼. The number on the top (1) is called the numerator, while the number below (4) is the denominator.
The numerator shows how many parts of the whole are taken. The denominator shows how many parts the whole was divided into. So the fraction ¼ means one part out of the four parts.
When do kids learn fractions?
Kids develop math skills at different rates. Fractions are a difficult math concept, so not all kids pick up fractions at the same time. Understanding and learning to work with fractions is also a process.
Young kids first run into fractions in everyday life. For example, you might offer a toddler half a cookie, or share a drink by pouring it into two equal cups.
Once kids start school, they learn about fractions in stages. Here’s when kids are typically taught:
Grades 1 and 2: The basic concept of fractions is introduced, with examples like cutting a cake into equal parts.
Grade 3: The teaching of fractions becomes more formal. Kids learn about numerators and denominators.
Grade 4: Kids start to work with and compare fractions.
Grade 5: Kids solve problems with fractions. For example, kids are asked to add and subtract fractions with different denominators, like ¾ + ⅝.
By the end of grade school, many kids understand and can do basic problems with fractions. Others are still learning. They may need more time and practice to fully understand the concept. It’s common for students to have a hard time with fractions — even kids who do well in math.
In middle and high school, kids continue to learn about fractions. But the work gets even more complex. Students may be asked to multiply fractions, like ¾ × ½, or use variables.
Why some kids have trouble learning fractions
Kids struggle with fractions for lots of reasons. The most common is that they haven’t mastered basic math skills. These include addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.
So if your child has trouble with basic math, fractions will be hard. That’s because math concepts build on each other. They’re also connected. To add two fractions with different denominators, for example, you have to multiply or divide to make the denominators the same.
Another reason kids struggle is because they haven’t been taught fractions in a way that works for them. Some kids need to see fractions in a visual way to understand them. Others need repetition and practice to let the skill sink in. And some kids benefit from seeing fractions used in daily life.
Keep in mind that trouble with fractions on its own generally isn’t a sign of an underlying difficulty with math. But when kids struggle with fractions because they haven’t yet mastered more basic math concepts, it could be something to keep an eye on.
Ways to help with fractions at home
Practicing at home is a good way to help your child get more comfortable with fractions. The best approach is to use everyday activities to reinforce the concept. Here are things you can do:
Get back to basics. Practice basic math skills by counting, adding, and subtracting. Start with flashcards to build confidence, then look for things in the real world to use math on.
Find everyday fractions. Lots of everyday objects, like pizza slices, come in fractions. Point this out to your child.
Play with food. Snacks and food are fun tools to practice fractions. Cut an apple into equal parts, and ask your child to name the fraction.
Cook together. Recipes often use fractions, like half a cup or a quarter tablespoon. Measuring ingredients is a great way for kids to get better at math.
Use coins. Show your child how four quarters or 10 dimes is the same as a dollar.
Try online games. Websites with math games, like SumDog.com, are a fun way to help your child practice.
If you’re still concerned, take notes about your child’s skills and then connect with your child’s teacher. The teacher may be able to give your child extra attention or practice with fractions — or teach fractions in a different way.
Struggling with fractions is very typical for kids. With more time and practice, kids can understand this concept. But if you’re concerned about your child’s math skills in general, learn more about what can cause trouble with math.