The Secret to Speed Math: Fun with Abacus

Sunday, June 9, 2019

As a child, I had always loved Math but something made me dread it -- The mental computation of huge numbers. Back in Primary school, my Math teacher used to drill us so much on model-drawing as well as mental sums, I became fearful of not being able to match up with the speed which my teacher had expected. Then one day, over on Channel 8, I saw a show teaching its audience how to improve mental calculations using the abacus! At 10years old, I was intrigued and glued myself to the TV every afternoon at 4pm, taking down notes on how to operate the beads. However, the explanations were too fast, the formulae were too many and I didn't even have an abacus to do a practical. Hence, I gave up.

Fast forward decades later, it was time for me to drill my kids in mental calculation. Big K aged 7+ is honestly not too bad in her Mathematics. However her bane was her speed at calculating. At age 6, she was so slow at even giving me the answers for making 10, I thought I wasn't doing it right. I did explore the possibility of introducing abacus then, but procrastinated as MOE took abacus out from the curriculum. A million thoughts ran through my mine: Was abacus deemed as useless hence the ministry took it out?

This was when I was introduced to Fun with Abacus. It is a school founder by Joy Tay, who started teaching abacus to the young by adopting syllabus from Taiwan. After a while, she created her own workbooks to fit the local crowdUsing her expertise as a certified Abacus Mental Arithmetic Trainer and her knowledge of the local education curriculum, Joy came up with the solution to help a child learn Mathematics during the challenging stages. She believes that a systematic structure in the teaching program not only help the child but also give parents and schools a firm foundation to assist in a child’s learning curve.

Below was a short interview I had with Joy:
Me: Why was abacus taken out of the curriculum? Is it still relevant?

Joy: Of course it is. It was taken out naturally because the school teachers had a million other things to handle and were short of time even for their core curriculum, let alone enrichments such as abacus. There are also many steps involved in abacus and it's tough for a teacher to be teaching this to a class of 40 young children. The focus will just not be there.

Me: How many years has Fun with Abacus been around?

Joy: We have been teaching for 15years, mainly at preschools. Hence, the relevance is still very much recognised.

Me: There seems to be different types of abacus. What's the difference?

Joy: Yes. Abacus has been around for ages. There are different types of abacus used in different countries. They vary according to the number of beads. Some with fewer beads may require more formulae.

At this juncture, Joy whipped out her abacus and explained to me. Fun with Abacus uses the one below, where you have 4 yellow beads, 1 orange bead on top and 4 yellow beads below.

After her explanation, I found that this type of abacus makes the most sense. Each bead represents a unit. Just like how addition and subtraction are taught in Primary schools.  Let me share with you my findings on an abacus used by another abacus school. Some other schools make use of the abacus which is divided into 1 bead (representing 5) on top and 4 beads at the bottom. For such abacuses, one will need to memorise many formula 口诀 in order to solve higher order addition and subtraction.

Photo credit: Kiasu Parent forum

For instance:
In a question of 7-4, the child needs to apply the 口诀 of "-4=+1-5" So the child is conditioned to first position the "7" (top" 1 bead down; bottom 2 beads up), followed by thumb up 1 bead (bottom) and flick 1 bead (top) up to derive the solution of such a simple equation. This seems redundant to me. 

However, in the 9 bead abacus which we are using, it makes a lot more sense as one bead represents one unit. When they do their vertical addition and subtraction in school, they will then see that both are parallel. With that, I was convinced that this was the school for us!

 Also, I had made a comparison with their worksheets. In another school, they actually made used of cartoon pictorial to represent the beads versus Fun with Abacus which uses actual circles. This allows less confusion for the child in future. 


Big K being older, managed to grasp the concept really fast. Right after our first session, she was so excited that she insisted on doing her homework the moment we reached home. I was really surprised but glad that abacus could ignite her love for Math. In fact, midway through the term, our teacher felt that she was ready for the Anzan which will eventually bring her to mental calculation. Anzan is the Japanese method of doing Mental Math by using a mental image of an abacus.  No physical abacus is used. This has been part of the compulsory curriculum in Japan for many years until the focus on the use of computers in daily life came along. Subsequently, due to the increase in usage of technology, there had been concerns that the general population is losing valuable skills, hence in 1989, the Japanese Ministry of Education reintroduced it into their elementary school curriculum. With such history, it's not difficult to be inclined with the notion that we are becoming too reliant on technology to perform simple tasks for us. 

In fact, I have personally seen how using the calculator is part of a muscle memory for young kids. I witnessed a child aged 12, using the calculator for 1/2 + 1/2 and yet another, aged 16, reaching out for the calculator naturally, to tabulate 1+1. Muscle memory, thanks to the usage of calculators officially for their Math papers at Primary 5. Way too young if you ask me!

After less than 3 months of weekly classes, I noticed that Big K's ability to count fast is improving. Despite the fact that I know she isn't using abacus or Anzan in her mental calculations yet. I believe the course has ignited her love for the subject.


When it comes to this boy, it's a little trickier. At age 4, he is rather fidgety and unfocused. Especially when it came to abacus which were all beads beads beads, nothing but beads. It did however helped that his sister was in the same class as him. You see, different levelled students can be grouped together and still receive individual attention from the teachers. But of course, as far as possible, the level of the class will not be too varied and is also kept small with a maximum of 6 students for effective learning. I'm pretty happy to note that now, he is talking less and working more and his butt is always on the chair! His concentration span is definitely longer now!

Small K wasn't competent for the number bond for 10 but after a few short sessions, he was able to shout out the answer immediately. Getting him to do his homework wasn't too tough also as he deems the abacus as a toy. The only thing is during lesson, I have to constantly remind him to get more work down and to have less talk as he was really having a good time with the teacher. He has made wonderful progress and is in fact catching up on Big K fast and furious After a few months, he too, had been introduced to the Anzan. I was initially very worried as to how he would take to it. I mean there are now no beads! You will have to visualise it yourself! To my surprise, he was superb at it! So much so, I believe he will catch up with Big K in no time.

Abacus may seem a little dry to some, so the teachers at Fun with Abacus always try to incorporate an element of fun. For instance, while teaching the number bonds, to assist them in remembering how to make tens, they turn it into a clapping game and calls the corresponding number for the bond a "buddy". Small K found it cute and was most willing to practice with me. Occasionally they also played games.

Here's Small K having fun fishing for the respective number bonds

At a certain level, the children will be given timed practice. Now this really excites Big K. She likes the adrenaline when she breaks her own record! They are each given a little timer to time themselves and hence, she can do her work independently without much help from me. Now that Small K is also getting the hang of doing his homework, he can also do most of the work independently. I just need to use eye-power on him.

Fun with abacus regularly sends their students for competitions overseas. Namely for the LCT Mental Arithmetic competition in Malacca as well as the International Mathematics Association Competition in Korat, Thailand. And these little brains all did very well! They managed to attain 1st to 5th placings for the respective competitions and they may be as young as 9years old! Hopefully one day, my little tots will be able to attain those standards too!

So with the advancement in technology, why am I still embarking my children on this journey. Well, the reason is simple, calculators and computers are all invented by mankind. It goes to show that the brain is far more superior if we tap on it. If we don't exercise it enough, it will go into solitude. While it is easy to reach out to the calculator in time to come, note that you are only allowed to use the calculator for Paper 2 at the primary level. Also, if the child is able to calculate fast enough, perhaps the time spent on fumbling with the calculator can be used wisely on solving other questions. Foundation in Math is very important in my opinion. It starts as young as when the child is in preschool or maybe even prior to that. If it isn't built well, trouble will start to surface predominantly when they hit Primary 5. By the, it may be too late to salvage. It takes time and effort to build. Similarly, abacus isn't a miracle pill. The child will not become quick in mental calculations overnight. It takes time and effort but I believe the rewards are real.

Fun with abacus accept children as young as 4 years old. Give them a call to check on their scehdule and head on down for a free trial and if you like it, Quote "JANICE WONG" and take $100 off their term fees.

Katong Plaza
West Coast Centre
Seng Kang West

or call: 97865383
Instagram: @funwithabacus