Paving the Way for Fractions: Identifying Foundational Concepts in First Grade (Collaborative Research: Newcombe)

The goal of this project is to investigate the extent to which individual differences in informal fraction-related knowledge in first-grade children are associated with short- and longer-term fractions and math outcomes, and to see whether there is a causal link between level of informal fraction-related knowledge and the ability to profit from fractions instruction that directly builds on this knowledge.

Full Description: 

Although fractions represent a crucial topic in early childhood education, many students develop only a tenuous grasp of fraction concepts, even after several years of fraction instruction that is aligned with current standards. The goal of this project, led by a team of researchers at the University of Delaware and Temple University, is to answer important questions about the informal understandings of fractions young children have before they come to school and what their relations are to fraction learning in more formal instructional settings. Proficiency with fractions dramatically increases the likelihood of students succeeding in math, which in turn increases participation in the STEM workforce. Importantly, large individual differences in fraction understandings are apparent at the start of fractions instruction in the intermediate grades. Early fraction misunderstandings cascade into more severe math weaknesses in later grades, especially when instruction may shift abruptly from whole numbers to fractions. There is a critical need to understand the roots of individual differences that arise before formal instruction takes place. Young children possess important informal fraction understandings before they come to school, but the range of these abilities and their role in formal fraction learning and development is not well understood. The goal of this project is: a) to investigate the extent to which individual differences in informal fraction-related knowledge in first-grade children are associated with short- and longer-term fractions and math outcomes; and b) to see whether there is a causal link between level of informal fraction-related knowledge and the ability to profit from fractions instruction that directly builds on this knowledge. The findings from the project hold promise for informing early childhood educators how fractions can be incorporated in the first-grade curriculum in new and meaningful ways. Though the findings should be beneficial to all students, the project will specifically target members of groups underrepresented in STEM fields, including ethnic and racial minority and low-income students.

The project design includes both an observational study and an experimental study. The observational study will: (1) document individual differences in informal fraction-related knowledge in first grade; (2) determine concurrent relations between this informal knowledge and general cognitive and whole number competencies; and (3) examine whether informal fraction-related knowledge at the beginning of first grade uniquely predicts math outcomes at the end. The experimental study will explore the extent to which first graders' informal and formal fraction concepts can be affected by training. The researchers will test whether training on the number line, which is continuous and closely aligned with the mental representation of the magnitude of all real numbers, will help students capitalize on their informal fraction understandings of proportionality, scaling, and equal sharing as well as their experience with integers to learn key fraction concepts. Together, the synergistic studies will pinpoint the role informal fraction knowledge in learning key fraction concepts. All data will be collected in Delaware schools serving socioeconomically and ethnically diverse populations of students. Primary measures include assessments of informal fraction knowledge (proportional reasoning, spatial scaling, equal sharing), executive functioning, vocabulary, whole number knowledge, whole number/fraction number line estimation, formal fraction knowledge, and broad mathematics achievement (calculation, fluency, applied problems).

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