How to Use an Abacus to Teach Kids Math

How to teach math with an abacus
How to teach math with an abacus

There are many ways to teach numbers and math to kids. Some can be fun and exciting and some can be just plain boring. The abacus is a calculating tool that may be as old as 2700–2300 BC. It has been used for centuries and is still widely used by merchants, traders, and clerks in Asia, Africa, and elsewhere. It also happens to be a great tool to teach numbers and arithmetic to kids. It has colorful beads to make learning exciting and fun while reinforcing concepts through the child's sense of touch.

The abacus is also great because it can be used to teach simple math—like counting, addition, and subtraction—as well as more complex operations like multiplication and division. It can even be used to work with fractions and to find square and cube roots. Below you will find various techniques to teach math with an abacus.

Classic abacus
Classic abacus

Things you need:

  1. Abacus tool
  2. Your eager-to-learn child!

It's best if, in each row, the beads are divided by color into two groups of five as they are in the picture above. If not, the Melissa & Doug Classic Wooden Abacus, which you can purchase below, works perfectly too.

Each abacus contains 100 beads andis appropriate for children ages three and up. Children love to play with the abacus because of its amazing color and texture. You can buy one at any toy store or online.

How to Teach Counting with an Abacus

There are a number of games to play on an abacus that can help develop a child's numeracy.

  1. Match My Move. Begin in a "starting position," with the beads on every row all on the same side. Then, on the top row, move any number of beads to the other side of the frame and aks your child to match your "move" on the row below. You can mix this is up with repeating pattern arrangements, in which the 10 beads are arranged in different groupings (e.g. 2 beads, 3 beads, 1 bead, 4 beads) that your child also matches.
  2. Counting Game. From the starting position, move a number of beads from one side to the other. Then ask your child to count how many beads you moved, and then how many beads you left.

Both of these games help kids become better counters and help them grasp the principles that will help them with addition and subtraction.

Check out the video below, to see the abacus in action!

How to Teach Addition to Kids With an Abacus

Treat all the beads as if each were worth one. So, to teach simple addition problems, like "4+3=?", you would move four beads over to the left (Fig. 1). Then, place a finger after those four beads and add three more (Fig. 2). Remove your finger and have your child add the quantities by pushing the beads together and counting (Fig. 3).

Addition the abacus way.
Addition the abacus way.

Addition Strategies

For addition problems that are more complicated, you'll want to teach your child how to do them without counting. You can have them practice these simple methods on the abacus.

The 10 Strategy

For instance, if you want your child to add 9 + 6, enter 6 and 9 on the first two rows. Then move a bead from the 6 to the 9 so that the 9 becomes a 10 and the 6 becomes a 5. So, the child learns that 9 + 6 = 10 + 5 = 15. Once your child practices this strategy on the abacus, you can have her try doing it in her head.

Addition on the Abacus.
Addition on the Abacus.

The Two 5s Strategy

To add 6 + 7, enter 6 and 7 on two wires. The two fives make ten, while the remaining beads add up to three, giving a sum of 13. This strategy works in any problem where the two numbers being added are more than five.

Abacus and arithmetic.
Abacus and arithmetic.

Teaching Money

It's very easy to teach money with an abacus. The 100 beads equal one dollar. Each individual bead is a penny, five beads is a nickel, a whole row of 10 is a dime, and you can even arrange the beads into four groups of 25 to represent four quarters.


To demonstrate how multiplication works, ask your child to enter 6 on the abacus 4 times. Explain that the abacus shows the number 6 taken 4 times, which is written 6 x 4. Have the child find the product. The purpose here is not to have your child memorize the product of 6 and 4, but to begin to grasp the underlying principles behind multiplication: that 6 x 4 = 6 + 6 + 6 + 6 = 24.

multiplication on the abacus
multiplication on the abacus

Teaching Place Value and Adding Larger Numbers with an Abacus

An abacus can be a great way to help students understand place value: that 10 ones is 1 ten, that 10 tens is 1 hundred, that 10 hundreds is 1 thousand, etc.

To help them with that and help your child use bigger numbers, show them that each row of beads represents a higher register of numbers. For instance, the first layer represents 0-9, while the second row represents 0-90, and the third row 0-900, etc. In each row, a single bead represents, respectively, 1, 10, and 100.

Step 1 - Model How to Count to a Number Greater than 10

Place value is easy to learn on the abacus.
Place value is easy to learn on the abacus.

Begin by modeling counting up to the number 14.

  1. Count out all ten beads on the first row.
  2. "Trade" those 10 beads for one bead from the second row by moving the 10 beads in the first row back to their starting position.
  3. Then move one bead from the second row over to the right.
  4. Then count out the remaining four beads in the first row.

Once your child has mastered the basics, you can then practice by asking her to enter various numbers on the abacus like 8,457 or 783 or, if you want to get really big, 1,863,093! This part of the activity can be really fun. You can also switch off and enter numbers and have your child read them off the abacus.

Step 2 - Subtracting Two-Digit Numbers

Subtracting is a cinch with an abacus.
Subtracting is a cinch with an abacus.

Once your child is familiar with the place value system, you can use this knowledge to practice adding and subtracting larger numbers. For instance, try having her subtract 65 from 89.

  1. She will need to represent 89 on the abacus.
  2. The bottom row will have 9, while the row above will have 8. (Fig. 1)
  3. Then, beginning with the first layer, she will count 5 beads from the group of 9 and move them back to the other side. (Fig. 2)
  4. Ask her to count how many beads are left and what number those beads represent. Write her answer down.
  5. Then, in the second layer, she will count out 6 beads from the group of 8 and move them back to the other side. (Fig. 3)
  6. Ask her to count how many beads are left and what number those beads represent. Write her answer down.
  7. Finally, ask her to add the numbers from the two rows to arrive at the answer: 24. (Fig. 4)

Step 3 - Adding Two-Digit Numbers

You can add some pretty big numbers on an abacus!
You can add some pretty big numbers on an abacus!

Try it again with addition. Ask her to add 65 to 89.

  1. She will need to represent 89 on the abacus.
  2. The first layer will have 9 and the second layer will have 8. Start with the first layer and add 5 to 9. In this instance, the result is 14.
  3. "Trade" the 10 beads on the bottom row for one bead on the row above to put it at nine.
  4. Enter 4 into the first row to represent the "4" in 14.

Done! The abacus is a great tool to help kids learn math.
Done! The abacus is a great tool to help kids learn math.
  1. Add "6" from the 65 to the second row, which should add up to 15.
  2. "Trade" the ten beads in the second row for one bead in the third row.
  3. Enter 5 into the second row to represent the "5" in 15.
  4. The resulting number represents 154.

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Comments 5 comments

KoffeeKlatch Gals profile image

KoffeeKlatch Gals 5 years ago from Sunny Florida

I use an abacus at school with my students. It really helps them with their math.

QudsiaP1 profile image

QudsiaP1 5 years ago

Abacus always fascinated me, though I have never come across one.

Thank you for explaining it.

Sarah A. 4 years ago

When I was a kid I never used an abacus and after I had read this I now think that if I had used an abacus it would have been much easier to learn addition, subtraction, fractions, multiplacation, and division. Also I think that abaci are very interesting because they have been used for a long time. When I am older I want to teach my kids math using an abacus because they seem easy to work with. Thank you for explaining what an abacus is! This website is amazing! Everyone should use this website to find out math!

dinesh kangabam 4 years ago

This is very helpful.As I don't have much time I search for the online tutorial and found this.

sandy 3 years ago

my grandson aged 6 ,loves school ,english & maths seem to be favourites of his ,i got him a junior thesaurus ,which is quiet adept at using,so an abacus is next on the list

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