How You Can Teach Fractions (and ditch the textbook) by Baking a Cake

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Never give your child her first lesson in fractions from a book. It is far too confusing! Instead, bake a cake.

You accomplish a couple of things by teaching fractions this way. Let’s call your daughter “Sal” for simplicity’s sake.

You see, it’s easy for Sal to grasp the concept of “less than the whole” while happily measuring the ingredients to a cake she will soon eat and, second, the happy feeling about the delicious cake she will soon eat transfers into a positive association with fractions.

You are also spared the moans and groans of a child who feels frustrated because she’s struggling to imagine the “pie” in her mind, which will make teaching fractions less frustrating for you too.

Furthermore, learning in a happily excited state and involving multiple senses such as seeing, smelling, and touching is like pouring information directly into the child’s brain rather than fighting to get it in there.

One of the surest ways to recognize real education is by the fact that it doesn’t cost very much, doesn’t depend on expensive toys or gadgets. The experiences that produce it and the self-awareness that propels it are nearly free.
— John Taylor Gatto

I’ll take you through the process of how you would introduce fractions this way. When we finish, I’ll share with you my favorite curriculum choice for practicing fraction problems.

To start, you will need two measuring cups. Bring all your ingredients to the table. Show Sal the recipe and picture of the cake she’ll be making and let her salivation glands motivate her. You’re already off to a good start.

Her first ingredient to measure will be flour. The recipe I’m going to use calls for 2 1/4 cups of flour. Show Sal the measuring glass and the one cup mark. She knows that 1 + 1 = 2, so relate this to the cups of flour.

Except, she will wonder, “What is a quarter of a cup?” Ask her to give you some ideas about how she might find 1 / 4 of a cup. Let her think about this for a minute and then ask her to share her thoughts with you.

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She will probably relate the four quarters that make up a dollar to the flour problem. If not, you can mention the relationship and explain that fractions are a way of working with units whose sum is less than the whole.

Take one cup and measure 1 / 4 of a cup of flour. Pour it into the second cup. Do this four times so Sal can see that when you take 1 / 4 of a cup of flour four times, you get one cup of flour.

Next, you’ll measure the butter. Show Sal that one stick of butter is half a cup. Ask her how many sticks of butter are in a box and how many cups it will make.

Now, work backwards. If you take away one stick, what does Sal have?

Next, you’ll measure the cup of milk. Go through the same process as before, unless Sal’s grasped the concept and then carry on.

Finish mixing the cake ingredients and then bake your cake. While the cake is baking and cooling, you can do some other fun things with Sal like read history or diagram sentences.

When you do make the frosting, let Sal use her new information to do the measuring herself.

The cake is now beautiful and ready to eat. It’s time to give Sal some practice with fractions by adding and subtracting pieces of cake. You’ll want to get a piece of paper and pencil for this part of the lesson.

Training is everything. The peach was once a bitter almond; cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education.
— Mark Twain

Take a knife and use it to show a mark across the cake dividing it into two pieces. Don’t cut the cake; you will just make a very light mark. Talk to Sal about the two halves making a whole and use the paper to show her how she can add 1 / 2 + 1 / 2 to make a whole unit.

Add another line across the cake to make quarter pieces. Repeat the process and show Sal the one-sixth and one-eighth dividing marks.

Write problems on the paper for Sal so she can add different fractions together to make up the whole unit. At this point, only add fractions with common denominators.

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Gauging her concentration level, if Sal still has some brain power left, you can teach her to subtract the fractions. Once she has the picture of the real cake in her mind and the positive association with fractions, learning the more difficult fraction concepts later will be much easier.

And now I ask you, “Who said math had to be boring and difficult!” We have this idea drilled into us from an early age that real learning has to take place in a classroom with textbooks, but when it takes place in the real world it’s far superior.

Instead of just the mind being active while Sal’s baking the cake, she is engaging multiple senses, too, and the more active the senses are, the more likely Sal is to remember what she just learned.

And for your curriculum tip, which I promised you at the beginning: I like the Key Curriculum Press series for unit studies and extra work in fractions. It's simple and straight to the point. 

Before I forget, commemorate the lesson by eating the cake, and you can be sure it’s a math lesson Sal will always remember.

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To receive Elizabeth’s free 27-page booklet on raising excellent readers, please click here.

Elizabeth Y. Hanson teaches parents the secrets and skills to raising brighter children with a focus on getting the early years right. She is the founder of Smart Homeschooler™ and has been a consultant and researcher in children’s education since 2001.

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