How to Use an Abacus or Counting Frame

An abacus is physical counting, a bit like counting on your figures, but with the abacus the scores are always visible. An abacus was the first calculator!

Each row of the abacus has 10 beads.  The bottom row is denoted for single figures, 1, 2, up to 10.  As you move up the rows the numbers get bigger so the second row up is the 10s, the next row the 100s, next row 1000s and the top row the 10,000s.

Start with all the beads on the left hand side. Count out the singles on the bottom row by moving a bead from one side of the abacus to the other ie left to right.  When you reach 10 all beads on the bottom row should be to the right of the abacus.  To record this move one of the beads on the second row to the right to count as 10.

Move all the singles on the bottom row back to the left of the abacus and start again.  As you hit 10 singles again, move another bead on the 10s row to the right so that there are 2 on the right and 8 on the left.

To add or subtract just move the beads and then count the beads on the rows.

So, to count 25, for example, there should be 2 beads on the second row, which means you have counted 20 beads in total, and 5 beads on the first row.

In Japan the abacus is called a sorocan and is still used in schools to aid mental calculations.


Each culture has used a version of the abacus and the exact origin is unknown, but is first recorded by the Mesopotamians around 2500BC.  Using stones in lines in the sand was probably the first ‘abacus’ and then developed as needed by subsequent cultures. The Egyptians, Greeks, Persians and Chinese all had their own versions of the abacus. The Romans are known to have used pebbles on tables.

Abacus is a Latin word derived from the Greek word Abax meaning table or tabular form.

Top Tips

* If your child is struggling with learning numbers the abacus may help as it is a visual aid. Children learn in different ways (visual, aural, writing, kinetic) and use different routes to the reach same goal. The abacus helps kinetic and tactile learners, sliding beads and counting at the same time.

* Use your abacus in a way that suits you. If you want the top line of beads to be the singles and move down the abacus or to the move the beads from right to left, do so!

* The plural of abacus is abaci!