Accessing Chinese at your school: Maths using the Abacus (Updated)

Wanting to improve Maths skills in your school?     

Bored of how you teach Maths?

Looking for motivational cross-curricular opportunities in your planning?

Why not use the Chinese Abacus (Suanpan) in your class.



How do you teach maths in your school? Mathematics is after all the most international of subjects. It is a language and a way of representing relationships. Debates as to how best to teach maths include how you might know about maths but that knowing is different from using maths, how to make maths relevant to children given their own culturally specific environment, and how curricula devised by the same government policy can be conflicting. Other authors of maths pedagogy papers explore the  need to make the underlying pedagogy explicit to the children/pupils.

 A PhD has been written investigating the pros and cons of using the Chinese abacus to improve standards! The PhD reports on whether children of non-Chinese heritage can benefit from learning to use the abacus and if so how. In particular the method of first oral abacus, written abacus and then mental (imaging the abacus) can work within non-native Chinese schools. Native Chinese children able to use the abacus do well in mathematics assessments and exams. All top 5 countries known to excel in maths when tested in secondary/high school used the abacus in primary/elementary school.

It seems that, like the learning of Chinese, teachers worry that the learning of the abacus will be difficult, but in fact it is easier. Advantages seem mainly to lie in enabling mental arithmetic, enabling right to left reading and understanding bases and decimal places. It is the sense of how digits relate to each other that seems to work well. Here too is a Times Educational Supplement article about its use.  

In this article, we explore the use of the Chinese abacus to teach mathematics in Western schools. We draw on general information about the use of the abacus, experiences in China and the experience of a UK based school New Line Learning Academy, Kent, UK where an innovative pilot is exploring the use of the abacus to improve pupil numeracy. We supply some useful websites to get started. 

What is a Chinese abacus?

The Chinese Abacus, dating back to the 14th century, is a tool for counting and performing basic arithmetic. Most often constructed of a wooden frame with beads sliding on wire or wooden pegs.  The traditional Chinese abacus consists of a frame divided into upper and bottom parts with 13 columns of beads. The abacus can be used for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.  In modern work with the abacus the style used has 5 lowers beads and one upper bead .
How do you use an abacus?

For more information and tutorials on how to use an abacus visit here.  We recommend the following textbook by Paul Green How to use a Chinese Abacus – it starts off gently with learning numbers then moving on to addition and subtraction.  For experts the book closes with a lesson on cube roots!  

Hua Hsia Chinese school in London have also just started offering abacus lessons.  For more information visit HERE.

The New Line Learning Academy experience

At New Line Learning, the Chinese Abacus has been introduced to improve numeracy skills of lower ability students aged 12-13.   Students receive 5 half hour sessions a week taught by 2 teachers from NLL’s partner school in Shanxi province.  The teachers have both previously taught Maths in China. 

After just 3 months, Executive Principal Chris Gerry reports that many of the students’ numeracy skills have improved remarkably.  Students already have a grasp of the Chinese number system from their Mandarin classes. The use of the abacus, they say, is an extension of how to count in Chinese.  Once they have grasped the basics of using an abacus, students say that they even start ‘picturing’ the abacus in their head and can make a calculation using that image.   The abacus method therefore favours students with kinaesthetic learning styles and very much enable mental arithmetic.

Students, who have previously struggled with Maths, quickly gain confidence to tackle problems that previously were too challenging.   The use of the Chinese abacus is therefore clearly benefitted many students and if the success of the pilot continues its use may be extended throughout the school in the future. 

The only downside, whilst calculators are permitted in Maths GCSE examinations, Chinese abacuses are not!   Maybe this will change if use of this innovative practise becomes more widespread.

The Academy is also experimenting with using the abacus in children as young as 5-6 years old.

What might work in your school?

Learn to use the abacus yourself and/or discuss with a native Chinese (or Japanese) teacher how it could be used in your school.  If you are self-learning buy Paul Green’s book detailed above.

Sourcing a Chinese Abacus

Chinese educational abaci tend not to be available in Western countries.  We recommend you source them as follows:

·         Talk to your local Confucius Institute/Classroom who may be able to source them for you.

·         Buy on Ebay – typically available from Taiwanese or Hong Kong sellers though occasionally UK based sellers are available.  Look out for robust educational plastic versions.  Search on ‘educational plastic Chinese abacus’ for instance.  

·         Remember generally you will require the simple format with two beads at the top and five underneath

In the classroom you could also use an online version of the abacus to teach with.  Many are available such as Mandarin Tools

Useful websites

1. that details the abax, the precursor of the abacus.

2. for the basics of using an abacus in a teaching environment.

3. Simple advice on how to get started.

4. again advice on teaching and some worksheets.

If in the USA, contact the Chinese American Abacus Association or mail them at caaa [dot] us [at] gmail [dot] com.


Do you have experience you want to share? Then do contact us at The Chinese Staffroom.




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