Fractions as Subtraction: An Activity-Oriented Perspective from Elementary Children

Marcy B. Wood, Amy M. Olson, Elizabeth J. Freiberg, Ruby I. Vega

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


A sample of third-, fourth-, and fifth-grade student responses to the question “What is a fraction?” were examined to gain an understanding of how children in upper elementary grades make sense of fractions. Rather than measure children's understanding of fractions relative to mathematically conventional part–whole constructions of fractions, we attempted to understand children's actions and processes. A small but nontrivial group of children used subtraction (takeaway and removal) as a framework for understanding how fractions were created and written. An analysis of the content of their responses as well as a comparison of the performance of these children with that of children who used other ways of describing fractions suggests that the use of subtraction may be a reasonable (or at least not harmful) way for children to begin to access concepts related to fractions. Also, this study suggests that attention to children's understanding through the lens of children's activity might reveal ways of thinking and insights that are masked when we compare children's thinking in more structured research settings.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)390-399
Number of pages10
JournalSchool Science and Mathematics
Issue number8
StatePublished - Dec 2013


  • children's understanding
  • Fractions
  • mathematical activity
  • operations
  • real world context
  • subtraction

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Mathematics (miscellaneous)
  • Education
  • Engineering (miscellaneous)
  • Physics and Astronomy (miscellaneous)
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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