Using an Abacus

An abacus is a great tool for making math real for your child. Here I will give you some suggestions on how to use it effectively.

If you've seen my article on learning math, you’ll remember that this subject is full of concepts that may be hard for your child to grasp.  That’s why it’s important to use real life examples that she can touch, see and feel.

For example, the written numeral 5 is really just a symbol. We need to show them what the numerals stand for. These concepts are obvious to you and me, but they may not be so obvious to our children.

This tool helps the learner see what these symbolic concepts mean.

The most obvious concepts to start with are numbers and counting.


giant abacusA clever way to incorporate math learning during recess time...

Numbers and Counting

I used this useful tool a lot when my son was learning to count.  Ours had 100 beads on it, and with it, he learned to count to 100. 

It’s a lot less overwhelming if at first you teach him to count to 10 until he can count that far on his own, then to 20, etc.  In this way, you can work your way to 100.

If your child doesn’t speak, I recommend that you simply model counting for her. Take it slowly for her as you would do for the verbal child.  Model counting from 1 to 10 for a while, then from 1 to 20, and so on.

I also recommend counting other objects as well to help your child generalize this skill (apply it to new situations).


Math Facts

I was concerned that my son would have no idea what I was talking about when I showed him equations such as 2 + 4 = 6, even if he was able to memorize them.  So we spent a lot of time using the abacus.

Here's how we used the abacus to learn addition equations:

  1. Help him or direct him to write the equation down.
  2. Read the equation together. If he is highly distractible, you can take him by the hand and help him point to each number or symbol as you read. This will help him keep his eyes on the task at hand.
  3. Model the equation--count out 2 beads plus 4 beads.
  4. Then count out all 6 beads.
  5. Finally, read the equation again.

You can, of course, use this tool to model subtraction, multiplication and division equations as well.

As with counting, it’s a good idea to model some of these equations using other objects as well to help him generalize this skill.


What Kind of Abacus We Use

100-Bead Abacus

I prefer the kind with ten rows, each with ten beads.  This should get him thinking about numbers in groups of 10:  1 through 10, 11 through 20, 21 through 30, and on up to 100.  It’s also useful for learning to count by 10’s.

If you can’t find one in a store, you can always find an inexpensive one on Amazon.

Or you can check out this nifty online abacus that's fun to use and also helps you learn how to use one.

This instrument is a truly valuable tool for teaching math.  But be sure to use other techniques as well.  To help your child learn more effectively, use various methods to present these concepts in different ways.


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