Manipulatives are a great tool for teaching homeschool math, especially when your goal is helping your child understand math. I’ve developed quite a collection over the years, but there’s only one manipulative that gets used daily in my homeschool: the AL Abacus. (If your budget is tight, make sure to read all the way to the end for a $2 abacus app option that you can get today!)
What is the AL Abacus?
The abacus is deceptively simple. It’s just ten rows of ten beads each, with alternating colors to emphasize groups of five. To enter a number on the abacus, you just slide over the correct number of beads.
AL Abacus with 23 entered
When you flip it to the back, the wires are labeled 1000, 100, 10, and 1 so that you can use it to represent 4-digit numbers.
Why the AL Abacus is my favorite manipulative
1. It encourages kids to think of numbers as groups. Every time you enter a number on the abacus, it shows you that number in relation to other numbers. For example, if you enter nine on the abacus, the contrast between the blue and yellow beads immediately shows you that nine is four more than five. Plus, the one yellow bead remaining on the right side of the wire shows that nine is one less than 10. This helps kids internalize number relationships much more quickly than when they’re only counting out piles of counters.
2. It’s versatile. You can use it to teach pretty much everything through third-grade math:
- Addition and subtraction fact strategies
- Multi-digit addition and subtraction
- Single-digit multiplication
For example, here’s how to use the abacus to show a helpful addition fact strategy. This abacus shows 9 + 6. You can “trade” one bead by removing it from the 6-wire and adding it to the 9-wire. Then, it’s easy to see that 9 + 6 is really 10 + 5, or 15.
3. It helps you use your math time efficiently. This example of 9 + 6 might seem familiar, since we used a similar strategy with ten-frames. I love ten-frames and other manipulatives, but it takes a lot of time to lay out all the counters and then collect them up again. With the abacus, a quick swipe of the finger enters the correct number of beads. You can do a lot more math in a lot less time.
How to get an AL Abacus
This is only an introduction to the abacus, but you have a couple different options if you’d like to give it a try. You can buy it directly from Rightstart for $15 plus shipping, or you can get it at Amazon for slightly cheaper. (Disclosure: I receive a small commision if you buy it from Amazon through this link.) You’ll also receive a small brochure explaining how to use the abacus.
Or, if you’d like to give it a try before spending that much, you can get the AL abacus app. It’s currently only $1.99 at either the App Store or Google Play Android store. (Just make sure you search for AL abacus to make sure you get the right one–there are also Asian-style abacus apps, but they’re not as effective for beginning math students.)
An abacus isn’t necessary for teaching homeschool math, but I sure find it helpful. You can use it along with any curriculum to make your math time more effective. As my kids have used the abacus more and more, they’ve developed an “abacus in their heads” that gives them terrific number sense and mental math skills. Even my four-year-old is starting to be able to use her “mental abacus” to solve problems. (The other day, she was able to figure out that 50 is half of 100, just by imagining the abacus and thinking about the groups of 10!) If you buy one math manipulative for your younger math student this year, the AL Abacus is the one to get.