Fraction bars are strips of material -- such as plastic or paper -- that are divided into pieces to represent fractions. The bars take the abstract concepts of a whole and fractions of a whole and put them into a concrete, manipulative form. You can use commercially produced plastic fraction bars or make them from paper strips. The fraction strips work for a variety of math activities that provide the practice necessary to master fractions.
Having students make fraction bars reinforces the concept. Start with halves, fourths and eighths. Each child needs a strip of paper for each fraction plus an extra to represent the whole; in this case each child needs four strips. On the strip that stays whole, students write "1." They cut the next strip into two equal pieces and write "1/2" on each piece. Repeat with fourths and eighths, cutting the strips into four and eight equal pieces, respectively, and writing the corresponding fractions on each piece.
Students use the fraction bars to understand how a whole -- in this case the strip of paper -- can be divided into sections or fractions. Have students place the strips next to one another to compare. When they put the four pieces representing fourths next to the whole strip, they see that they are equal. Give different scenarios to help with comparisons. Ask students how many 1/4 pieces it takes to equal a 1/2 piece, for example.
Fraction bars help older students add fractions. Start by adding fractions with common denominators, such as 1/8 plus 3/8. By using the fraction bars, students learn the answer is 4/8. You can also use the bars to add fractions without common denominators, such as 1/2 plus 1/4. Students use the bars to determine that 1/2 is the same as 2/4. They can then determine the answer is 3/4.