Have you ever had a math manipulative backfire? Number lines can be really helpful tools when students are learning about decimals and fractions, but they can also cause a lot of confusion and frustration! Today, I’m sharing some ways to support your students when they’re working with fractions or decimals on a number line.
Using Number Lines to Teach Fractions and Decimals
First, why use number lines? Like decimal grids and fraction circles, number lines are a way to visualize parts of a whole. You can use number lines to represent fractions and decimals, compare and order them, add and subtract, and determine equivalencies. They’re also helpful for teaching benchmark fractions.
Younger students may have used simple fraction number lines with halves, fourths, or tenths. In the upper elementary grades, they need practice with number lines with additional denominators (thirds, fifths, eighths, etc.) and mixed numbers.
Number lines are great to use when teaching decimal place value, too – especially when you introduce hundredths and thousandths.
What to Watch Out For
When number lines are labeled, I’ve found it’s easier for students to use them. But when number lines are blank or only partially labeled, they often make mistakes. (As well as when the number lines don’t start at 0.)
In my classroom, students needed a lot of practice with labeling blank number lines and learning how to count the spaces/tick marks. Tip: I’ve had many students accidentally count every tick mark, instead of the spaces between them, so watch out for that!
Providing students lots of practice will help them see fraction/decimal number lines as helpful tools rather than sources of frustration!
Below are some of my favorite activities that can be used for classwork, review, and even assessment.
Decimals and Fractions on a Number Line Activities
Make Giant Number Lines
You can use painter’s tape to make extra large number lines on the wall or floor. Even better, you can make them interactive and have students use sticky notes to label the tick marks or show different points on the line. It’s also really fun to make them outside with sidewalk chalk and have students compare how far they can jump or push a toy car.
I also love having students make a human number line. You can give them pieces of paper with decimals or fractions on them and they can arrange themselves in order. That’s a great way to reinforce comparing decimals and fractions as well.
Complete Number Line Sorts
I’ve found that hands-on sorting cards really help students get comfortable with number lines.
These differentiated printable sorts are great for math notebooks and laminated centers. They include 7 different sets with fractions, mixed numbers, decimals, and a combo of fractions and decimals together.
And what’s nice is that you can use these in different ways – pre-test, spiral review, test prep, and more.
Use Boom Cards
Digital task cards are another way to help students work with number lines. Boom cards are interactive and self-checking, so they’re great to use for stations and other independent/partner work during math class. They’re also nice to use as a refresher once you’ve moved on to other math units.
These fractions on the number line Boom cards have 24 cards for students to complete. And there are several question types so you can identify where students have misconceptions.
I’ve also created a free Boom cards deck for decimals on a number line, which you can grab right here!
Use a Measuring Tape
Finally, giving students some time to explore measuring tapes and rulers is great for making a math-real world connection!
Students need lots of explicit instruction and practice when it comes to representing fractions or decimals on a number line. Once they’ve got it, these make great math tools to use in a decimal or fraction unit. I hope these tips and activities work well in your 3rd, 4th, or 5th grade classroom!