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
- Place-value
- 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.

Janine says

I’m so glad I found your website! 🙂 We mainly use multi-link cubes, but I have a toddler that likes to put things in her mouth, so this would be a great alternative!

Kate says

Janine, I never thought of that before as a benefit of the abacus, but you’re totally right! And the abacus can’t spill either. 🙂

Maria W says

The abacus on Amazon has several negative reviews saying that it’s flimsy and doesn’t stand on its own. Do you have an alternative suggestion, or do you still think it’s worth it?

Kate says

Hi Maria, I haven’t directly compared the version that RightStart sells with the version that Amazon sells, so I don’t know about the quality of the plastic. My guess is that people are comparing it to the Melissa and Doug-type wooden abacuses. Those look sturdier, but the groups of 5 on this abacus make it far superior since they allow kids to visually see the groups of 6, 7, 8, and 9 without having to count each bead one-by-one. My abacus, which I bought years ago from RightStart, has held up fine to a lot of use.

Dr. Cotter (the author of RightStart) actually meant for this abacus to be used flat on the table, so that reviewer just wasn’t understanding how to use it. I went in to Amazon and left a comment to that effect, so hopefully she’ll be able to lay down her abacus-holding responsibilities soon!

Mollie says

I can’t imagine life without our abacus. It’s an invaluable tool. Thank you so much for your Math Blog. We love math and I am often here reading your articles over and over again. I have a struggling math learner and an accelerated math learner so I am constantly trying to balance myself between the two children. One manipulative that is a constant in our home is that abacus. We love RS Activities for the AL abacus book (and corresponding workbook) and we love Cotter’s Card Games book/games, too. I use Math U see for one child and Math Mammoth for my other child. We are currently waiting for Beast Academy to come out with the rest of Level 2. Have a great day!

Michael says

I did a hack on our Melissa and Doug abacus to replicate this (it has the added bonus of letting you use different colors for place values). I have a question about that flip side (place value) – are there some ground rules or something about how you approach it? Is the idea that you use both ones columns, but only use the top five beads? Even with that, what about that tenth bead? In the world of the soroban there is no way to have 10 without using a ten bead, and that makes perfect sense to me. But we like to use a couple of different manipulatives to solidify concepts, so I’d like to get my mind clear about this one.

Kate says

Hi Michael,

On the flip side, RightStart uses 2 wires per place value and encourages kids to move the beads in pairs up the wires. So, for example to put 7 in the ones-place, you move up 3 pairs of beads plus one more bead.

The main benefit of having 20 beads available in each place value is that you can see the trades made when regrouping. For example, if you’re adding 6 + 7 in the ones-place, you put 6 on the 2 wires, then 7 more. Then, you slide 10 of the ones-place beads down while you simultaneously move one bead in the tens-place up.

I hope this clears it up, but let me know if you have more questions. Happy Math!

Kate

Michael says

Interesting! I will ponder this. Seems like it might be a good approach to introduce prior to doing this on the soroban, where the regrouping is invisibly done in the same moment. The only thing that is a little frustrating is that the 10 ones you *want* to slide down are easily seen (since they are all the same color), but they are at the top and are now blocked by 3 so you can’t slide them down! So I guess you just remember the 3 at the bottom and switch the 3 over to the top color. But I suppose with this method, speed isn’t the main objective anyway.

Kate says

Hi Michael,

Yes, the sliding the ten down is definitely a little clunky. The RightStart author tells kid to grab 5 pairs of 2 and slide the ten down that way. It’s a little unsatisfying. But, since this is simply a transitional step, usually kids don’t use the abacus in this way for too long.

KAte