Kids stumped by fractions? I encourage parents to tell stories to their children whenever possible, and to look for stories that can teach and inspire as well as entertain. Here is one that might provide a little spark of interest for the child who is struggling with the study of fractions.

There was once a rancher who had lived a full life and who, though a widower for many years, had managed to raise three fine sons. And when the rancher passed away, he left strict instructions in his will that those boys should receive their inheritance according to the following formula: The oldest boy was to have half of the rancher's estate, the second oldest was to receive one-third and the youngest was to receive one-ninth.The money and the land that the rancher left were easily divided into the portions specified in the will, but the boys were stumped about how to divide the 17 horses. Taking one-half or one-third or one-ninth of the 17 horses would leave each boy with part of a horse, and that would not be very beneficial to the boys, nor was it likely to be very popular among the horses. What were they to do?

It happened that there was a lawyer in town named (here I like to use the name of the child who is hearing the story; let's use Melissa this time). Melissa had achieved great renown because not only was she very smart, but she also knew more about fractions than anyone in the territory. For example, she even knew that the word "fraction" came from the Latin word "fractus," which meant "broken." That is why the whole is broken in parts called "fractions"; a broken bone is said to be "fractured"; breaking a law or a rule is an "infraction"; and a prism breaks a beam of light into its constituent colors by "refracting" it.

Melissa looked over the will very carefully and then told the boys that she would solve the problem to everyone's satisfaction if they would pay a sizable fee in advance. The boys agreed, and that very afternoon Melissa rode her horse out to their ranch, removed the saddle and turned her own horse loose into the corral containing the 17 horses that were to be divided.

"Jamie," Melissa called to the oldest son, "you are entitled to one-half the horses in the corral." Jamie had little difficulty figuring his share because now there were 18 horses to divide, and so he took nine for his own. Then Ken, the second son, easily figured out what his one-third share of the 18 horses would be, and he took 6 horses for his own. Finally Bill, who was the youngest son but by far the most handsome (yes, there are many advantages to being the one who tells the tale), took his one-ninth share and led two horses out of the corral.

Hmmm. Let's see. Of the 18 horses Jamie got nine, Ken got six, and Bill got two. That totals 17, and so one horse was still left in the corral. That horse was Melissa's very own, which she saddled up and rode back to town, having made everyone happy and all because she knew so much about fractions.

There are many math stories like this one to be found in the 510 section of the children's books in your local library and in the children's section of bookstores as well. Among my favorites are two books by Marilyn Burns: "Math For Smarty Pants" and "The I Hate Mathematics! Book," both available in hardcover or soft and published by Little, Brown and Company.

If you have a favorite teaching story, whether about math or any other subject, send it to me at the address below, and I'll try to share it with everyone in a future Family Learning column.