Division of fractions may be one of the most abstract concepts in middle school math. Here is an approach to address the concept using a Google Jamboard (you can make a copy which allows you to edit it), which would be a foundation for the ensuing steps. I will preface this approach by stating the obvious. Because this is very abstract and challenging for students, the approach is more complex – no royal road to dividing fractions.

To unpack this concept I start with the concept of division itself. One interpretation is distributing a collection of items into equal groups to determine how many items in each group. That lends itself well to dividing by a fraction. In the example below, I show 6 cookies divided into two groups to get 3 cookies per group. That is the goal, identify the per group amount.

Then we introduce a fraction. 6 divided by 1/2 can be stated in the group context as 6 cookies for half a plate or for half a group.

But we want a whole plate, a whole group. How do we get that? We need another half group which ends up revealing that we multiply by 2. (Keep in mind that the goal here is to unpack the concept and not so much the actual steps yet.)

Now we can turn our attention to the full dividing fractions situation. The approach is the same as the whole number divided by a fraction; we start with the fractional item in the fractional group. Then we build the whole plate (group) which results in building the whole cookies. At the end I take a stab at showing the mathy steps but I am unsure how I would unpack the steps at this point – again, focusing on the concept in this activity. I think I would not show the steps and have the students simply do hands on building a whole group, by manipulatives and subsequently by drawing.

Dakota helped her father bake cookies. They baked 9 sugar cookies and 3 chocolate chip cookies. How many cookies did they bake total?

When solving word problem the focus is often on following steps, e.g. read the problem and identify important information. There is also a focus on identifying key words, e.g. “total.” The problem with both is they rely on rote memorization. How do we identify “important” information? Focusing on the word such as total does not address the concept of total but is more of a signaled command like “sit.” Students see “total” and they know they are supposed to add. The problem is they often don’t understand why.

The entry point to word problems should be a focus on the underlying concepts. For example, present the word problem with cutouts of the actual cookies and physically demonstrate “total” by pulling all the cookies together. Similarly, you can have cutouts of the tadpoles and demonstrate the concept of how many are left.

Words are symbolic representations of ideas. Same with math symbols (below). Addressing the concepts, vocabulary and the process with this approach is a concrete-representational-approach (CRA). The equations below would not be addressed until the conceptual understanding was developed. When word problems presented do not include the term “total” the student can process the context as opposed to being reliant on the signal.