What the heck is a rekenrek?

Never heard of a rekenrek? You’re not alone, but I’m here to tell you, it is one of the best manipulatives for developing number sense in early primary, and you can make it yourself! Originally developed in Holland, it looks like a mini-abacus, but functions quite differently. Although you can have many rows in a rekenrek, it usually comes with just 2 as seen below.



There’s an app for that!


Why do I think it is the best manipulative out there? Well, let’s start with pre-school. It is a great instrument for working on one-to-one correspondence, counting and cardinality. Watch how Oliver (3 years old) easily subitizes a group of 5 on his first try with a rekenrek!

Not convinced yet? This math model offers teaching opportunities ranging from pre-school all the way to grade 2! Here’s a list of the other math milestones you can use it for:

  • Counting strategies: count all, count on, see groups.
  • Visualize numbers 1-20.
  • Develop benchmarks of 5 and 10.
  • Commutative property.
  • Number conservation.
  • Decompose and recompose numbers.
  • Subitizing.
  • Addition – subtraction relationships.
  • Math facts to 20.
  • Visualize doubles and doubles plus one, one or two more and one or two less .

Here is a video of Rory and I exploring some of these things on our home-made rekenrek.

Are you still thinking to yourself: “I can do all of this using 10 frames or unifix cubes” so what’s the big deal?” I’m definitely not saying: ditch the others; children should be exposed to many different manipulatives, but here’s a few reasons why rekenreks should be one of your first choices:

Rekenreks are concrete. There is often this push to move students to think abstractly too soon despite Piaget’s theory which states: children may remain in the pre-operational stage, and thus not able to mentally manipulate information, until the age of 7! Rekenreks are a concrete model that children can use to do their work, to communicate about their work, and to assess their work. Worksheets should be a method to RECORD their work. If you move too quickly to worksheets without giving the developmentally-appropriate materials to complete them, you may be hindering the development of true understanding. Rekenreks help develop the true understanding at a developmentally appropriate level.

Rekenreks have a 5 structure instead of a 10 structure; as a result this is a useful first step to learning place value. Young children find unitizing a group of 10 (seeing a group of 10 as one ten) difficult and this is what place value is. A rekenrek helps children unitize a group of 5 first, and then 10. In other words, it establishes those major benchmarks of 5 and 10, which will aid in subitizing skills (knowing the number without counting) and later in unitizing skills (seeing a group of 10 as one 10).

Rekenreks allow students to count in groups. When using unifix cubes or counters, children are manipulating one block or counter at a time in order to put them together. With the rekenrek, children can move a group of objects (i.e. 4) at one time. This means moving from a manipulative that requires counting all (counters), to one that encourages counting groups.

Rekenreks help in the development of pattern recognition. Pattern recognition is the basis of number sense and its development begins in the early years. Identifying patterns in pre-school leads to pattern recognition with numbers, which ultimately leads to greater number sense all around. By seeing what 5 is on a rekenrek, and then 5 and 1 more, and then 5 and 2 more, children begin to ‘see’ these patterns in their mind and thus master math facts. This leads to the next point…

Rekenreks help develop automaticity with basic math facts. This is the ability to produce answers in a few seconds by relying on thinking of the relationships among the operations rather than recalling answers. Because rekenreks support subitizing skills, they help kids achieve mastery of addition facts. Students begin to ‘see’ the answer, and don’t have to calculate the answer.

Rekenreks reinforce  the different relationships between addition and subtraction. There are three categories of problem structures for these relationships: change problems (join and separate), part-part-whole problems and compare problems (how many more or less). The rekenrek is an excellent manipulative to use to model all of those structures using rich real-world problems to support them.

Rekenreks allow students to think flexibly about numbers and construct their own strategies. They are an ideal tool for number talks. Starting a class off by saying: I made the number 11, can you guess how I did it, opens up the floor to hear and discuss alternate ways of making 11. For example, I made doubles of 5 and 5 and then added one more or I used 10 on the top and added one more on the bottom. “Not all children invent their own strategies. So strategies invented by class members are shared, explored and tried out by others.” Van de Walle.

Still a non-believer? Well believe this: evidence abounds!

Well…actually it doesn’t… but what little research I could find showed that there definitely was a difference between children taught with a rekenrek and those taught without.

“Results indicated that students in Group 1 (who were taught with the rekenrek) scored significantly higher on an addition and subtraction test with numbers from zero to 20 than did students in either Group 2 (taught without the rekenrek) or 3 (not taught).” Tournaki, N., Bae, Y., & Kerekes, J. (2008).

So what are you waiting for?! Start using rekenreks in your home or classroom today!

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