Making Math Approachable Using the Soroban

Building strong mathematicians takes patience, courage, and sometimes a little creativity. In Jennifer Biscardi’s sixth and seventh grade math classes, students have been using an ancient tool—the Japanese abacus, also known as the Soroban—to make a traditionally intimidating subject fun and approachable.

“During the first week of classes, I introduced the Soroban to my sixth and seventh graders and they loved it!” she said. “It is easy for students to understand since we use the base-10 number system to perform mathematical calculations—99 is expressed on the Soroban as a nine on the first rod and nine on the second rod.”

After only three days of working with this tool, Jennifer’s students excelled at their first in-class Soroban contest. First place went to Tristan Griffin, who scored 100 percent. Emily Austopchuk, Dennef Chiriboga, Emily Costello, and Carrie Wu tied for second place; third place went to Alex Saunders, Georgia Briere, Karsten Chan, Elie Dombrowski, Amanda Li, Amanda Stuart, Annie Sun, Carley Wooton, and Ke Cheng Yu; and fourth place went to Johan Back, Sophie Griffin, Valentina Monsalve, Marco Marsans, and Katie Powell. Everyone received a certificate.

Aside from boosting math confidence, the Soroban lessons also complement the seventh grade’s cultural history study of the Maya, who used the base-20 number system to count. “We compared the base-10 and base-20 number systems, and the students discovered on their own what a base-20 abacus looks like,” said Jennifer. “We made base-20 abaci bracelets and will be practicing a little every day using our bracelets.”