Mastering Math with an Abacus: How to Use it for Calculation - Sharp Brains Education

An abacus is a simple tool that helps you do math. It’s an ancient tool, and it’s still used in many parts of the world today. We will examine the history of the abacus, its various types, and its practical applications in contemporary life in this guide.

History of the Abacus

Around 3000 BC, the Sumerians in Mesopotamia used the first version of the abacus that is known to exist. The earliest version of the abacus was a straightforward counting board with sand marks or pebbles.

Around the 2nd century BC, the Chinese began using a more advanced version of the abacus called the suanpan. This version of the abacus was used for both arithmetic and accounting because it had beads on wires that were strung across a wooden frame. The Romans also developed their own version of the abacus, known as the abacus of Cossus, which was used for accounting and bookkeeping. The Soroban abacus, which is still in use today, was created by the Japanese. Throughout history, the abacus was utilized in numerous cultures, including Europe and the Middle East.

Types of Abacus

There are a number of different kinds of abacuses that have been used in the past and are still used today. The most typical types include:

  • Chinese abacus: This type of abacus, also known as the suanpan, has a wooden frame with beads strung across it on wires. There are two decks on it, one for tens and one for units.
  • Japanese abacus: Similar to the Chinese abacus in that it has a wooden frame and beads strung across the frame, it is also known as the Soroban. Additionally, it has two decks—one for units and one for tens—but typically has more beads on each deck than the Chinese abacus does.
  • Russian abacus: Similar to the Chinese abacus, but with only one deck and beads on wires strung across the frame, it is also known as the schoty.
  • Roman abacus: It is also known as the abacus of Cossus, and it is a board for counting that has sand marks or pebbles on it.

How to use an abacus for calculation

Using an abacus for calculations involves understanding the layout of the abacus, setting up a problem by moving beads to represent numbers, performing arithmetic operations by moving beads up or down, carrying and borrowing as needed, and reading the final answer by looking at the positions of the beads on the abacus. Although mastery may require some practice, it is a useful skill to have.

Once you know how the abacus works fundamentally, using it for calculations is relatively straightforward. The fundamental steps to using an abacus are as follows:

  • Recognize the abacus’s layout: Beads are strung across the wooden frame of the abacus, which is typically made of wood. In most cases, there are two decks, one for the tens and one for the units. The beads on the units deck represent ones, while the beads on the tens deck represent tens, and each bead on the abacus represents a specific value.
  • Creating a sum: You will need to move the beads on the abacus to represent the numbers you are working with in order to set up a problem. You could, for instance, move the bead on the tens deck to the “3” position and the bead on the units deck to the “5” position to represent the number 35.
  • Performing operations in math: On the abacus, you will move the beads up or down to add or subtract numbers. For instance, you would move the bead on the unit deck up by five to add “5” to “35.” You would move the bead on the units deck down by five to subtract “5” from “35.”
  • Lending and carrying: You may need to carry or borrow between the units and tens decks when performing arithmetic operations. For instance, if you add “5” to “35,” the unit’s bead will move up by five, but if it reaches the top, you will need to carry 1 to the tens deck. If the units bead reaches zero while subtracting, you will need to borrow 1 from the tens deck.
  • Divide and multiply: The repeated addition method can be used to multiply numbers; for instance, to multiply 3 by 5, you would add 3 five times. To divide, subtract the first number multiple times until you reach the second number, then count the number of times you subtracted.
  • Examining the outcome: By examining the positions of the beads on the abacus, you can read the final result once you have completed the arithmetic operation. The ones place is represented by the beads on the units deck, the tens place by the beads on the tens deck, and so on.

The Benefits of Using an Abacus :

Especially for children, using an abacus can be a useful tool for improving mental math skills.

  • Visualization: Students can visualize the numbers and arithmetic operations they are working with by using an abacus, which can help them better understand the concepts.
  • Speed: Students’ mental math speed can be improved by using an abacus to perform arithmetic operations more quickly and effectively.
  • Memory: Because students must remember the position of the beads and the numbers they represent, using an abacus can help them improve their memory.
  • Confidence: Because students can see the outcomes of their calculations in a tangible way, abacus training can boost their confidence in their math abilities.
  • Solving Problems: Because it teaches students to solve math problems in a systematic and logical way, abacus training can help them solve problems better.
  • Focus: Students can improve their focus and concentration by using an abacus, which can help them in other areas of their lives.
  • Enhanced Cognitive Function: Children’s cognitive abilities, such as memory, attention, and concentration, may benefit from abacus training, which has been shown to improve brain function.

It’s important to remember that the abacus isn’t a replacement for traditional methods of math; however, it can be a useful tool for improving children’s mental math skills. It can help with mental calculations, visualization, and comprehension of mathematical ideas.


Overall, the abacus is a useful tool for improving children’s mental math skills. It can help students develop important cognitive abilities like visualization, memory, problem-solving, and attention, and it is an effective method for teaching arithmetic and mathematical concepts. Students’ confidence and overall math abilities can be enhanced by becoming proficient with the abacus and performing calculations quickly and accurately with practice.

If you’re interested in learning how to use an abacus, my personal recommendations are as follows:

  • Begin with the essentials: Learn the names and positions of the beads, as well as the abacus’s structure and layout. Recognize the significance of place value in relation to the abacus.
  • Practice regularly: Consistency is crucial when learning to use an abacus. Even if you only have a few minutes to practice each day, set aside a specific time.
  • Join offline/online abacus class: You may have the opportunity to practice with other students and receive instruction from an experienced instructor by enrolling in an abacus class.
  • Gradually increase the difficulty: Start with easy calculations and work your way up to more difficult ones as you get better at using the abacus.
  • Make mental calculations like these: Start practicing mental calculations using the methods you’ve learned once you’ve mastered using the abacus.
  • Have patience: It”s not too difficult to learn how to use an abacus, but patience and perseverance are essential. You will be able to master it with time and effort.

Keep in mind that consistent practice and repetition are necessary to master the abacus. Although mastery may take time, you can acquire the confidence and skills required to use it effectively with patience and dedication.

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