Learning Math Using the Anzan/Soroban Method

I have always regretted not starting Doman’s Red Dot Program early enough with Aristotle. By the time I learned about it, he was too opinionated about what he wanted to learn about and Math was not it. Thankfully, I started Hercules on Little Math early and now he loves numbers and Math.

To help Aristotle along, I considered various Mental Math programs and finally settled on Anzan – the Japanese method of teaching Mental Math using the Soroban (Japanese abacus). Although there are a couple of schools that teach this program in Malaysia (Aloha Mental Arithmetic and CMA Mental Arithmetic), I elected to take the online program Math Secret instead because it gave us the opportunity to work at our own pace. Given Aristotle’s unenthusiastic response towards Math, I’m sure having to attend regular classes weekly would not have sat well. Thankfully, we’ve discovered a mutually agreeable arrangement – Cheezels for every lesson he takes. It’s surprising how much enthusiasm he can muster for his Math lessons with the promise of a few Cheezels…

Teaching Aristotle Math has not been easy. Given his resistence towards the subject, I do wonder sometimes why I keep persisting with it. Oh I give him long breaks from the subject to see if it might help spark some interest but so far he has remained steadfast in his disinterest in the subject. Okay, so maybe I do know why I keep persisting – it is because I view arithmetic as one of the three essential subjects my boys must learn (the other two being reading and writing). They can forego anything else, but these three, they must learn because they are pervasive in everyday life. Technology may have taken over the world, but until the pen and paper become obsolete, being able to write is still a requirement. Reading opens the doors to learning – if you know how to read, you can learn anything. Math and numbers are also an inherent part of our lives – from the calculation of change at the supermarket to stock taking to measurements for a new home.

And so, like it or not, we persist with Math. While I’m sure there are other ways to teach Math other than the Anzan/Soroban method, an article I read recently on Soroban and the Right Brain reassures me that this is a good method to follow. You can click on the link to read the article in its entirety, but here is the gist of it:

Abacus Learning has a Ripple Effect

  • It improves numerical memory
  • It improves memory in spatial arrangement
  • It improves the ability to solve general Mathematical problems taught in elementary school including the four fundamental arithmetic calculations and word problems

Abacus Learning and Brain Development

Learning the abacus provides stimuli that helps to develop the brains in young children. For this reason, learning the abacus from an eary age can be beneficial to a child’s brain development. And because abacus training eventually leads to visualisation of a mental abacus in the mind, it also helps to develop the right brain which is important for creativity and artistic sense. Additionally, the practice of visualising a mental abacus trains the photographic memory function of the right brain as some individuals have shown the ability to recall whole pages from books.

Abacus training has also been known to help stave off mental decline that occurs with age, so it is not only beneficial for young children, but the elderly can also benefit from it.

Mathematical Skills and Confidence

Last but not least, the ability to excel in a subject can increase confidence which can positively affect success rates in other subjects.

Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of Figur8.net (a website on parenting, education, child development) and RightBrainChild.com (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

14 thoughts on “Learning Math Using the Anzan/Soroban Method

  1. Besides maths, I think the other subject that requires due consideration is to encourage the child to pick up one musical instrument, to my humble opinion, piano is better than others, particularly when the child is required to do sight read to musical notation with hand-and-eye coordination and I observe by doing that exercise constantly it has also “broaden” while strengthening their visionary power for having to read two lines in a short given time.

    Both too have one thing in common : both need imperative and instantaneous output the moment the child plays with it, i.e. the child needs to use their brain to work something out within a short given time, a rather challenging exercise.


    1. Fz – Yes. I like the piano especially because of the two handed part, and music because it does so much for the children’s development. Aristotle seems to be opening up to the idea, but we’ll see. Hercules has good potential. Right now we just continue to work on his theory and listening.


  2. Shen Li,

    What is the difference of CMA Mental Arithmetic and Soroban? Can you point me to the right direction of where to look/read if it require to much explanation.

    Thank you.


    1. Hi Pei-Lin,

      CMA is a program that is a program that is available locally in the form of classes. As far as I understand they teach mental arithmetic using Soroban (the Japanese Abacus). Anzan is the name for mental arithmetic using Soroban (or rather an imaginary soroban). So in that respect, I think CMA is done using the Anzan method. However, to be sure, it might be best to call them to check.


  3. Hi Shenli & Pei Lin,

    I opined every abacus school does mental arimethic besides abacus itself i.e. after the child is able to do abacus then an experinced and good teacher would slowly graduate them to learn abacus the mental way, that is in total discard of abacus itself.

    I think I wouldn’t let my child join any abacus class if there is an omission in the part mental arimethic, who would? For simple reason I can bring my brain to anywhere including exam hall but I dont think I can’t also bring abacus to such place.

    I digress a bit on how to progress in abacus after talking to a mother who has few kids who did successfully with abacus learning, she said whether the child is good in abacus depends substantially on if the child is able to do the sum the mental way and also the incorporation of training by the real experienced teacher himself.

    She said further timing is important to measure child’s progress in abacus i.e the teacher needs to take effort to time the kids in each and every lesson, ie 3 minutes to finish 10 questions and so on, as it is the speed that drives the child to do/act/calculate/think faster. ( because not many teachers would time the child so).

    The other observation she mentioned was once the child is able to do the sum in that level with very minimum mistakes, then she advise to constantly challenge the child with harder mental/abacus exercise to a higher level instead of letting them to do the usual step-by-step way.

    Wish this help and Merry X’mas!


  4. Fz and Shen Li,

    Thank you very much for the information. I have been researching for abacus school in Singapore for my daughter. So far, I like CMA and Soroban school since they are using the 2 hands approach.


  5. Hi Pei Lin,

    A favour to ask! May you share if you have already found any good soroban school in Singapore run/conducted Japanese? Well it might slip my mind after checking the said with Kiasuparent.com.

    Happy New Year!


  6. Fz,

    I read through kiasuparent.com and I am learning towards CMA abacus. I am currently aware that there are 3 abacus schools in Singapore CMA, 3G and Soroban. CMA is using 2 hands approach and have slightly more formula while 3G is using one hand approach. Soroban will only start accept student at age 5. Therefore most likely I will sign up of CMA abacus school since they are using 2 hands approach and take in students at age 4. I also found out that many parents did not let their children complete the abacus program because in school the child would need to show workings instead of doing mental calculation. Parents stop the program when the child start primary one. What is your view on this one? The child also need practice after they complete the program, if not they will forget what have been learn.

    Do you mind sharing how is V doing in her abacus program? How often does she practice with her abacus ?

    Happy New Year


  7. Hi Pei Lin,

    Yes I heard that too, but that doesn’t raise any of my concern cause at end of day, to be able to work out sum and doing accurately is also important then to working procedures, only need to remind her to work out the procedures in school.

    Abacus is a practice makes perfect activity,  is worth to explore because it opens up another perspective  to perceive math in different way with mental imaging of dots  and I personally feel it would definitely leave long lasting effect in the brain after daily’s practices.

    V is doing well with her abacus and mental arithmetic, so I encourage her to discard abacus and to use only with/out picture cards.  Her teacher is also very surprise she could do so within short time.

    Here are my observations after 4 months in the class since inception with her:

    (1)  need to check the exercise books yourself  because not all exercise books are essential, some only with 10 questions in 1 page, ( a waste of money), so make sure you read the contents and select carefully;
    (2) CMA has 2 essential books on place value, 116-8 & 116-9 or books in this nature,  you may  copy the original, let her do from the ori and the photocopy at home to enhance child’s sense of value, thus creating sensitivity to numbers especially big numbers such as 123,456,789 and so on;
    (3) if the child is familiar with timetables, may also encourage to do both division and times simultaneously, or shortly after,  no point wasting times;
    (4)  once the child is very good with principles and could do all sums  with abacus perfectly with allowance of I/2 mistakes then should slowly encourage her to use substantially with/out picture cards;
    (5)******** of course, to help the child is to speed read the principles of abacus everyday, let her know every number has 2 formulae, like getting into a maze, if one route is blocked, certainly the other is open to her to walk through;
    (6) advisible if the parents knows the slight working of abacus too;
    (7) advise not to do the abacus course online when abacus school is so pervasive in the country, in particular when the parents have little knowledge on abacus’s finger stirring. (I notice abacus experts are very particular on fingering),  familiar with the basic, then cut back time to do online is perhaps more ideal;

    I could see she improves tremendously in terms of speed…..so after the exam I would start  her w level 5/6. V is a very active girl, she too doesn’t like to sit long to  do abacus, so to interest her is  to download the excellent young abacus students worldwide in YouTube for her to emulate. This way works for me. She does “at least” 80/160q  a day ( take her 45 mins approximately, breakdown the working time) and she is happy to do this sum compared to doing See’s math with oral approach.

    I am pleased to learn up both systems  the correct sequence since 3,  she doesn’t have question on understanding of simple math to do borrowing, decimal, power, algebra, negatives, place value or doing problem solving in TT,  division, ratio n so on because See’s math DOES effectively give solid ground and gentle approach to teach child concept of “quantity” profoundly, so right now she does almost everything paperless, while anzan provides speed.

    Hope this helps! Happy New Year.


  8. Hi Pei Lin,

    I am serious with abacus study  and would likely follow the activity during primary, because what she learns now is only the very superficial, after browsing the whole course,  they have many many good stuffs to explore,  however all said and done under premise that she still has “passion” to this subject.


  9. Fz,
    I find your post very helpful. How many levels are there in the program? Is the child working at their own pace i.e if the child is advance then he/she will advance to the next level?

    Thank you for the information.

    Pei Lin


  10. 13 levels. Yes, certainly so……that is why parents need to be observant what the child is capable of. If a level appears easy, then may move vertically one or few levels up, as this is only a calculating skill, to be able to use abacus is only a preliminary, not an acheivement, and an achievement should be to posesse the anzan’s ( mental arithmetic) skill that many students perceive hard to come with lack of prcatice. The child who has passion to this subject would certainly move faster.


  11. Will this mental abacus, be useful for old/middle aged people who has memory loss in a minimal way..Will the abacus learning, or sudoku be of much use in increasing the memory of oldies..


    1. Hi Nandakumar,

      Rather than limiting to just mental abacus, I would recommend brain training programs like “lumosity” that have been shown to be beneficial to people with aging mental decline. There are lots of brain training programs available these days. The brain is like your body – it needs exercise to keep it healthy and sharp. Activities like Sudoku are also good. A couple of other activities to do daily that are also good are reading aloud, and doing lots of simple math equations rapidly. Any activity that trains memory is also good.


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