A Math Teaching Aid: How to String Counting Beads


As a former elementary grade teacher, at the end of a school year, I would often send summer math drills home with my first graders, along with a recommendation to do lots of reading over vacation time. I knew how quickly early grade students get rusty on the basic but important skills they need to transition smoothly into another year of school. Still, no matter how dedicated their parents, vacation is vacation, and when school time rolled around in autumn, everyone always seemed to need a good review. While we waited for their math skills to catch up to their curriculum level, math could be a tedious task, especially for students who found it difficult to memorize facts. First graders, of course, were just learning math concepts and needed substantial coaching before their skills knob turned to automatic.

When I was in first grade, my teacher found a solution to this difficulty by telling her students that if we couldn’t remember a math fact, we should get out our box of crayons and count with them to find the answer. Crayons worked well as a teaching tool for her—but maybe her natural organizational skills and disciplined classroom atmosphere rubbed off on her students. I could only envision, if I gave my first graders the same suggestion, crayons rolling all over the classroom. They couldn’t seem to hold onto their pencils, let alone successfully arrange handfuls of crayons across their desks. And they brought the BIG boxes of crayons—because I’d never had the heart to tell their parents, as my teacher did mine, that more than 24 crayons are unnecessary for a first grader.

So I invented counting beads. They work even better than crayons, in my opinion. A first grader can easily use them to learn counting or to figure out new or difficult math facts. The beads work well as an aid to second or third graders in pulling up facts they’ve forgotten. They can be used to teach multiplication and division as well as addition and subtraction and make a worthwhile aid for a struggling learner.

My third grader at the time especially loved the beads. She was a hands-on, dyslexic learner who found it hard to hang on to those slippery math facts, especially after having the summer off. She never seemed to get the hang of mentally counting up or down to find an answer, but using the beads, she could find the answer in a whiz. We practiced flashcards to gain instant recognition, but the beads helped her get through her daily work without frustration. Since they were both visual and kinesthetic, I believed they would l help her remember the facts better in the long term.

If you want to try math counting beads with your students, here are the supplies you’ll need:

  1. Pony beads
  2. Round cord elastic (or substitute some other high-endurance string)
  3. Scissors

If the child can create their own bead string, they will like it better, and stringing the beads will help them become familiar with how to use them.

First, tell the child to choose three colors. Cut off a length of elastic—30 inches is about right—and tie a knot at one end.

Show the child how to string four beads of color 1 and then add a bead of color 2.

Next, show them how to string four more beads of color 1 and then add a bead of color 3. The child should repeat this pattern ten times for a total of 100 beads.

When the child is finished, tie a knot at the open end of the elastic. I like to leave a little bit of extra space for sliding beads up and down the string or for dividing them into groups.

Since every fifth and tenth bead is a certain color, the counting beads work well for teaching how to count by fives and tens. And when the child can count by fives and tens, they will have no problem finding numbers on their string very quickly. Be sure they understand that their counting bead string starts at a certain end—bead number 100 will be a different color than bead number 1.

Your counting beads are finished! Enjoy.

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