It caught my attention because I could see its potential for "physical" maths -the beads require manipulation and the soroban holds those elusive abstract numbers as concrete values. These characteristics can be very useful, for example for some dyslexic children.
After further research I found that the educational charity Japan 21 offers a teaching soroban and a class set on loan for half-term periods.
Heidi Potter, from Japan 21, and soroban teacher Kimie Markarian provided me with historical information and worksheets for beginners. With my set of soroban, a little expertise and loads of inspiration, I planned a taster session that lasted about one hour and offered my services to local schools.
During the loan half-term, I taught 13 taster sessions to Years 2 to 6 in three schools. The programme was similar across all the age groups, with appropriate adjustments to the vocabulary and pace of delivery. The novelty of the soroban and the fast-changing activities held the children's attention in quite intense concentration for the whole session.
Confident knowledge (instant recall) of number bonds to 5 and 10, and the times tables up to 9 x 9, allows proficient soroban users to calculate sums faster than they could with a calculator. The mental agility that can be developed by using the soroban is most impressive. The times-table circuit and card games used to encourage known number facts are useful in their own right, even if you don't plan to continue teaching the soroban.
However, the ultimate aim is to encourage the mental imagery of manipulating the beads, so that the actual soroban is no longer a necessary tool. Borrowing the soroban is a fun activity for exploring multicultural maths and the set can be passed around the whole school to take advantage of the loan.
Yet I wonder if we aren't missing a much bigger, even more exciting opportunity? I would love to teach one soroban session to my class every week and then see if the children choose to adopt "soroban thinking" for themselves.
Victoria Beagrie is currently doing a PGCEin upper primary at the College of York St John. She can be contacted by email: email@example.com.