# Abacus Finger Theory: How It Improves Mental Arithmetic

8 min read · Aug 12, 2024

## Table of contents

Hi there!

Welcome to the twelfth chapter in my mental math series.

Last chapter, we talked about what is abacus math.

In this chapter, we'll talk about **abacus finger theory**.

### What is Abacus Finger Theory?

Abacus finger theory, also known as "chisanbop" or "finger abacus," is **a way to do math in your head using your fingers (basically mimicking the functionality of a physical abacus).**

Originating in Korea during the 1970s, they took the old abacus idea and mixed it with counting on your fingers. The result? A way to do calculations anywhere, anytime, without needing anything but your own two hands.

Now, this isn't exactly like using a real abacus or a soroban. But it's close enough, and the big advantage is you always have it with you. Can't say that about an abacus, can you?

### Why Use Finger Abacus?

First off, it's great for memory. When you're using your fingers to represent numbers and do calculations, you're burning those math concepts into your brain.

Kids love it, too. There's something about moving your fingers around to show different numbers that just clicks with them. It keeps them focused, keeps them engaged. And when kids are engaged, they learn better.

But it's not just fun and games. This finger abacus business is serious stuff for developing thinking skills. It teaches kids how to break down problems and how to think step by step.

It's good for the brain and body, too. All that finger moving, combined with the mental calculations? It stimulates both cognitive processes and fine motor skills.

But here's the best part: it can make kids actually like math! You heard me right. This finger abacus method can turn math from a chore into something fun 🤩

## Understanding Finger Values and Combinations

### Finger Significance and Values

Alright, let's get down to brass tacks. In this finger abacus business, every finger has a job. It's like each one is holding up a sign with a number on it. Your right and left hands are different, though. Together, they can show any number from 0 to 99.

On your right hand, it goes like this:

- Thumb: 5
- All other fingers: 1 each

So if you want to show 7, you'd stick up your thumb (that's 5) and two more fingers (that's 1+1). Simple, right?

Now, your left hand is where the big numbers live:

- Thumb: 50
- All other fingers: 10 each

Want to show 30? Just raise three fingers on your left hand. Easy as pie.

When you use both hands together, that's when the magic happens. You can show any number up to 99.

Let's say you want to show 37. You'd

- Raise three fingers on your left hand (that's 30)
- And on your right hand, you'd raise your thumb and two fingers (that's 5+1+1, which is 7).

The beauty of this system is that you can see and feel the numbers. It's not just abstract symbols on a page. It's right there on your hands. That makes it stick in your mind better.

### Creating Combinations

Now, let's talk about how to make different numbers with your fingers. This is where the rubber meets the road.

For the small stuff (1–10):

- To show 1, just stick out your right index finger.
- For 6, it's your right thumb (5) and index finger (1).
- 9 is all fingers on your right hand up.

Once you've got that down, you're ready for the big leagues.

For the bigger numbers (11–99):

- 11 is your left index finger (10) and right index finger (1).
- 54? That's your left thumb (50) and all fingers on your right hand (1+1+1+1).

Now, don't expect to be a whiz at this overnight. Like anything worth doing, it takes practice. Here's how to get good at it:

- Get someone to shout out numbers between 1 and 99. You show them on your fingers as fast as you can.
- Start with a number on your fingers, then add another number to it.
- Same thing, but with subtraction. Start big, then take away.
- Set a timer for a minute. See how many different numbers you can show. Try to beat your record.
- Practice moving smoothly from one number to another. Make it look easy.

The more you do this, the better you'll get.

**Sidenote:** Would you like me to build a tool to help you with this? (cause you know... might be nicer than having someone shout numbers at you) Let me know!

## Practical Applications of Finger Abacus Theory

### Addition and Subtraction

For adding small numbers, start with one number on your fingers and add more. Let's say 5 + 3:

- Raise your right thumb for 5.
- Add three more fingers.
- Count 'em up: 8.

Subtracting? Start big and lower fingers. 8–3:

- Raise your right thumb and three fingers for 8.
- Lower three fingers.
- What's left? 5.

Now, for the big leagues - double digits! Use both hands. 52 + 41:

- Show 52: left thumb up (50), two fingers on the right (2).
- Add 41: four fingers on the left (40), one on the right (1).
- Count it up: left hand has 90, right has 3. That's 93.

Subtracting big numbers? Same deal, just backwards. 89–43:

- Show 89: left thumb and three fingers (80), right thumb and four fingers (9).
- Take away 43: lower left thumb and one finger (40), lower three right fingers (3).
- What's left? Two fingers on each hand. That's 46.

Regular practice with these techniques can significantly improve mental calculation speed and accuracy.

## Benefits of Learning Abacus Finger Theory

### Cognitive and Academic Benefits

Here's the deal: Most kids (about 90% of them), mostly use the left side of their brain for figuring things out and understanding language.

But this abacus training? It kicks the right side of the brain into gear too (that's the side that handles imagination and visualization).

So you're getting both sides of your brain working together!

Also, it does wonders for concentration. Kids who practice this stuff can focus like laser beams. That's going to help them in every part of their life, not just math class.

This finger abacus method helps kids actually understand calculations, not just memorize them. It's not like learning times tables by heart, which can be a real pain. No, this gives kids a way to see and feel the math. And when they get it, really get it, their math scores go through the roof.

But it's not just about acing tests. This method teaches kids how to think straight, how to look at a problem and figure it out. That's gold, pure gold, for their future.

### Building Confidence and Fluency

You know how some kids freeze up when they see a math problem? This finger abacus stuff can fix that.

For instance, Ulrich Boser, an education researcher, noted that after taking abacus classes, he felt less intimidated by mathematical tasks. He observed that "*math seemed a little less frightening*" and his "*numerical trepidations [were knocked] down a notch*".

And he's not alone. Studies show that kids who learn this are almost 30% less likely to get nervous about math tests. That's huge.

And speed? These kids can calculate faster than a calculator sometimes. There's this high school kid, Serena Stevenson, who can add five-digit numbers in her head. In her head!

But the best part? The confidence. Boser talks about how his youngest kid would light up every time she got a math problem right. His older one was so proud she took her abacus to school to show off.

And it's not just about being fast with numbers. These kids start to really get math, deep down. They become problem-solvers.

## Transitioning from Finger Abacus to Traditional Abacus

### Moving to Physical Abacus Tools

First things first, you need to get your hands on a real abacus. We're talking about those wooden frames with beads sliding on rods. You've got your Chinese suanpan or your Japanese soroban. They're both good. The idea is the same as your fingers - each rod is like a finger, representing a different place value.

**Sidenote:** If a real abacus isn't an option, try my free abacus simulator.

Now, here's the thing about those beads. The ones on top? They're worth 5 each. The ones on the bottom are worth 1. Sound familiar? It's just like how your thumb is 5 and your other fingers are 1 in the finger abacus.

To make this transition smooth, try using both methods at the same time. When you're adding 5+3 on your fingers, do the same thing on the abacus. Move one upper bead (that's your 5) and three lower beads (that's your 1+1+1). It'll help you connect the dots between your fingers and those beads.

Using a real abacus has some perks:

- It helps you see the numbers better in your head. You're not just imagining anymore, you're seeing it right in front of you.
- It's good for your fingers. Moving those beads around takes some skill.
- You can do bigger numbers. Your fingers tap out at 99, but an abacus? Sky's the limit.

Here's a pro tip: Start picturing the abacus in your head. When you're doing calculations, imagine those beads moving. It's like having a supercomputer in your brain.

### Advanced Techniques and Mastery

Now, let's talk about the big leagues. Once you've got the basics down, you can start doing some real magic with this finger abacus stuff.

Take multiplication. Here's a neat trick for multiplying 7 x 8:

- Think about how far 7 and 8 are from 10. (That's 3 and 2)
- Multiply those numbers: 3 x 2 = 6
- Subtract that from 100: 100–6 = 94
- Now subtract 40 (that's 4 x 10): 94–40 = 54

Boom. 7 x 8 = 56. And you can do all that just by moving your fingers around.

Division? It's all about subtracting over and over.

Want to divide 72 by 9? Just keep taking away 9 from 72 using your fingers. Count how many times you do it. That's your answer.

Now, here's the secret to getting good at this stuff: Practice. Every day. Do speed drills. Start with easy stuff and work your way up. Use it when you're out shopping or cooking. The more you use it, the better you'll get.

## Conclusion

Here's the bottom line: this finger abacus stuff is the real deal. It's not just some fancy trick - it's a powerhouse for building math skills and beefing up your brain.

Think about it. This method started in Korea, and now it's making waves in schools all over.

Why? Because **it works**.

It's not just about crunching numbers faster. It's about understanding math at a gut level, building confidence, and training your brain to think in ways you never thought possible.

Give it a try, and let me know what you think.

See you in the next chapter 🙂 Be well.

### About the author

#### Richard Reis

Founder of Mental Math Pro! Also currently doing a fun little "25 AI Startups in 50 Weeks" challenge.