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Teaching Fractions with 3 Act Math Tasks

Have you tried using 3-act tasks to teach fractions? If not, read on because you're missing out on an amazing learning tool!

Teaching fractions usually starts with helping students recognize that a whole can be divided into equal parts. Then they learn how to name those parts by writing a fraction with a numerator and denominator.

Fractions in 3rd grade mostly focuses on recognition and involves little to no problem solving. But by 5th grade, students are expected to manipulate fractions and use them to solve real-world problems. It's a big jump to make in just a couple of years and many kids struggle.

frustrated girl standing at chalkboard

So how can you help your learners understand fractions in a deep and meaningful way? One of the most effective (and FUN) ways to teach fractions is to incorporate three-act tasks into your math lessons.

What is a 3-act math task?

A three act task is a problem-solving activity, first developed by Dan Meyer, that consists of three distinct parts:

  • Act 1: Students are shown a photo or short video that presents an interesting and perplexing situation. This "hook" causes them to ponder and wonder about the situation and create a list of questions. As a group, students come up a focus question that can be answered mathematically.

  • Act 2: Students try to solve their focus question through an information and solution-seeking session. They decide if they have enough information to answer the question and if not, what other new information would help them (which the teacher then provides).

  • Act 3: Students discuss their strategies and possible solutions. The teacher may guide them in comparing their ideas and help them confirm that their answer is correct.

This procedure helps students explore math through real world problems and develop a range of strategies on their own through productive struggle. It can be used in small groups or during whole group mathematics lessons.

No matter what topic you are covering in math or what grade level you teach, you can use 3-act tasks. The complexity of the problems depends entirely on what your students come up with.

3-Act MATH Tasks for Fractions

One of my favorite 3-act tasks for teaching fractions involves CHOCOLATE BARS! This activity can be adapted for 3rd through 5th grade because the students themselves define the problem. Here's how it works:

Act 1: Ask students - What can you observe about this picture? What questions do you have?

pieces of pink chocolate candy bars

Possible responses:

  • There are 4 candy bars.

  • The candy bars are broken.

  • Each candy bar has 3 pieces broken off.

  • Each candy bar has 6 pieces that are not broken.

  • What fraction of the candy is broken?

  • What fraction of the candy is whole?

  • If our class shares the candy, what fraction of a candy bar would we each get?

Act 2: Students decide on a focus question and seek additional information if needed. When I did this activity with 4th graders, they wanted to know:

  • Is this a picture of 4 candy bars or 1 candy bar broken into 4 sections?

Hmm, very interesting!

Act 3: Students discuss strategies and solutions with each other. My 4th graders eventually agreed that:

  • 3/9 of each candy bar was broken if there were four bars.

  • 12/36 was broken if the picture was really showing one bar.

Then someone noticed that 1/3 of each bar was broken. This led to the discovery (all on their own!) that 3/9 and 12/36 and 1/3 are all equivalent fractions. AMAZING!

equivalent fractions anchor chart

Since I teach math intervention, I was able to take the same task to my other groups.

5th Grade Math Group

Through their discussion, my fifth graders figured out that 3/9 x 4 = 12/9 which is the same as 9/9 + 3/9. This led them to realize that the broken pieces shown in the picture are equal to 1 whole candy bar plus 1/3 of a candy bar.

At the end of our group time, we had a little celebration and enjoyed some chocolate as a reward for hard work! (Check out these other great Classroom Reward Ideas.)

3rd Grade Math Group

Next, I went to third grade where we were learning to identify and name simple fractions. I showed them a different picture:

kids feet in tennis shoes

Their math talk went like this:

Act 1: These are kids' feet. They are all wearing different kinds of shoes. They look like shoes we wear. The shoes are different colors. Some shoes have laces and some don't. Some look like girls' shoes and some look like boys'. What kind of shoes are we wearing? Do all of our shoes have laces? If only some of our shoes have laces, that's a fraction.

Act 2: The students in this group decided they wanted to know what fraction of them were wearing shoes with laces. They made a list of questions that would help them arrive at a solution:

  • How many people are in our group? 8

  • How many shoes do we have in all? 16

  • Why kinds of shoes are we wearing? tennis shoes, sandals, and boots

Act 3: The kids decided to take their shoes off (yep!) and sort them into piles. Then they collected data:

girl writing on chart paper

Their data showed that 5/8 of the students in our group had shoes with laces. During their discussion, someone pointed out that 10/16 of the shoes had laces. Although they didn't realize that these two fractions are equivalent, it was a good observation. So, I pointed out that the fractions were different but the shoes had not changed.

Finally, several of the kids noted that more of them had laced shoes than not, so 5/8 must be bigger than 3/8. And we hadn't even started learning to compare fractions!!

Get Started with 3-Act Tasks

Using three-act task lessons in the math classroom is a highly engaging way to get your students to explore mathematical questions and take charge of their own learning. If you want to add more activities like these to your lesson plans, a good starting point is this list of tasks from Graham Fletcher: GFletchy 3 Act Task File Cabinet.

You might also want to check out Kendra Lomax's tasks if you teach primary grades.

Finally, grab this free recording sheet from the Free Resource Library that your students can use as they work through their tasks:

3 act task recording worksheet


Are you looking for some engaging math resources for teaching fractions? I've got you covered! Check out these items from my shop:

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