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  • Writer's pictureHiroko Aspi

”Read, Write, Abacus"

Updated: Sep 4, 2021

This is modus operandi of Japanese math education. The first question you may have is "what is an abacus?" It's an ancient calculation tool which was in use in ancient Far East, Europe, China, and Russia centuries before the adoption of the written Arabic numeral system. Before delving into the use of abacus, let me bring your attention to the importance of reading in math.

Comparing to Kindergartners in the U.S. learning 26 letters of the alphabet, Japanese children learn how to read and write 100 phonetic letters before learning addition in first grade. By grade six, they learn 1,006 Chinese characters. No wonder Japanese educators and parents give utmost priority to reading before math.

Digressing a bit, let me provide an analogy to music. The Suzuki method is an acclaimed tool for teaching perfect pitch. Trained children can identify the pitch without knowing the distinct sounds of 88 piano keys. Like music, ears can be trained by hearing the sounds of pronounced words. Students who hear the text intuitively learn to identify the context by hearing the text before learning to read the words.

Pythagoras, a 6th century B.C. Greek mathematician, is best known for Pythagoras' theorem. Legend has it that Pythagoras listened to the blacksmith’s hammer striking the anvil and realized that the tones produced by the hammering was related to the weight of hammer. He realized that consonant sounds, tones that sound “pleasing to the ear” when played together, are all in simple ratios to each other. The current music scale system that we know of is credited to the eponymous mathematician.

All of this is not to suggest you enroll your children in Suzuki method class by second grade. Reading aloud to young learners reaps the rewards more than mastering the perfect pitch. Once they have learned how to read words on their own, they should like to read before liking math. The students with poor reading comprehension often fall behind around third grade.

Back to abacus. Abacus is a counting device with beads. Researchers from Harvard to China have studied the device, showing that abacus students often learn more than students who use more modern approaches. While the modern calculator shows only the results of calculation, abacus decomposes the steps of calculation by shifting the beads in place values. For an actual math problem, consider 5 plus 8. On the abacus, you would not add those actual figures. Instead, you would "decompose" the numbers and add 10 to the 5 and take away 2 — or the partner of 8 — in order to get to the answer: 13. Abacus gives students a framework to work in in order to understand the system. This idea extends well past math. Today a growing number of experts believe that understanding systems knowledge is key to richer forms of learning.

Math is not a subject to study by using short-term memory such as memorizing the outcome. The most important learning in math is to learn the framework and understand the system. It's never too early or too late to learn how to read.

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