Proportions can seem intimidating, but actually they are one of the easiest kinds of word problems to solve. In this series I’ll offer a number of tips that help you conquer this type of algebra word problem. Search “Conquering Proportions” to see the whole series.

First, a cool shortcut that you can use whenever you have to solve an algebraic proportion …

In working with algebraic proportions, I’m amazed to see that few students know how to do a certain kind of canceling that allows them to find the solution more quickly and efficiently.

So I thought I’d share the trick, for anyone who has never seen it.

Of course, given a problem like: 6/x = 24/32

we all know that we can cancel vertically with the two numbers in the fraction on the right, to get:

6/x = 3/4

Then you can cross-multiply to get:

3x = 24, and then x = 8

In other words, everyone knows that you can cancel vertically when you have a proportion, just as you can cancel vertically for any fraction.

What not everyone realizes is that there’s another way you can cancel when solving proportions — horizontally.

— What? you say.

— Horizontally, I say. And no, I’m not joshing.

For example, in the problem: 7/4 = 21/x

you can cancel horizontally with the two numbers in the numerator: the 7 and the 21. These reduce to 1 and 3.

The problem then becomes:

1/4 = 3/x

Cross-multiplying, you get the answer in one quick step: x = 12.

What’s really convenient is that you can also cancel both vertically and horizontally in the same problem. For example, in

6/x = 42/28

you could first cancel horizontally, to get:

1/x = 7/28

Then you can cancel vertically, to get:

1/x = 1/4

Cross-multiplying, you get the answer in just a step: x = 4

I find that when students cancel before cross-multiplying, they are more apt to get the right answer, and to become less frustrated, for the numbers they deal with remain small.

For example, in the last problem, if the student had not canceled at all, he would have a cross-multiplication mess of:

6 x 28 = 42x

That sort of problem just opens up the door to arithmetic mistakes. But canceling before cross-multiplying closes that door since it makes the numbers smaller and easier to manage.

So now you get a chance to practice.

First use horizontal cancelling to get the answer to these

proportions. Those who’d like an added challenge might like to try them in their head:

a) x/12 = 3/4

b) 3/7 = x/35

c) z/48 = 7/12

d) y/56 = 7/8

Now go really wild. Use both horizontal and vertical canceling to make quick work of these proportions:

e) x/9 = 16/36

f) x/22 = 30/66

g) 32/56 = y/14

h) 13/q = 65/35

And here are the answers to these problems:

a) x = 9

b) x = 15

c) z = 28

d) y = 49

e) x = 4

f) x = 10

g) y = 8

h) q = 7

Hi,

I learned this 45 years ago when I was in school in Bolivia South America.

A teacher at my school has the kids place the numbers in a 4 square box, then simplify then place the results in a proportion and solve. I tried it with students and it helped because kids didn’t get confused with simplifying while multiplying fractions. The directions were to set up the proportion in the box, simplify, then solve. It turns out that most % problems on the CA Stds Test (CST) can be solved using proportions and simplifying in this manner. It usually results in a 1 across from the variable which eliminates division in ost cases.

Tere