From abacuses to calculators and electronic software, manipulatives for math provide hands on tools to reinforce math concepts to students. The research on math manipulatives is mixed. Older studies, such as Eastman and Barnett (1979) found no significant differences were found between the participants who had math test questions in iconic, or symbol presentation, compared to questions that required math manipulatives to be used. However, there was a negative attitude held by the group that did not receive math manipulatives. Recent studies have concluded that math manipulatives are positive tools that can be used to communicate math concepts. Liggett (2017) conducted a study with grade two students. Those who use the manipulatives received scores of 97% on the post-test compared to 79% for the students who did not use manipulatives. Manipulatives enrich the classroom and provide an interactive method of learning math concepts through a hands-on extension of the lesson (Larson & Rumsey, 2018).
Most importantly, teachers must create a positive attitude and environment surrounding the manipulatives and their use. Moyer and Jones (2004) found that the teacher’s approach and personal attitude, whether eager or apprehensive, impacts their student’s math instruction which leads to performance. To build student’s autonomy, it is important for students to have choice in whether or not the student wants to use the manipulatives; as it may not be a positive tool for everyone (Moyer and Jones, 2004, Puchner et al., 2008). Additionally, Puchner and colleagues highlighted that students must be taught the concepts with the link to pedagogy with a reminder that the manipulatives are a tool to aid in learning (2008).
Research Rating: Research on manipulatives has been peer-reviewed with more than one experimental study, thus making it valid and reliable.
User-friendly, easily accessed, low-cost
Students can make manipulatives
Colourful and themed visuals help to make learning interactive
Jealous feelings among students who use math manipulatives more than those who do not
There are many manipulatives on the market and it is easy to become overwhelmed. Research what your outcomes to narrow your search for the best manipulative
Special Consideration: Workflow
Exact prices change frequently, which is why only approximate ranges are listed.
$ - Under $5
$$ - Between $6 and $50
$$$ - Between $51 and $250
$$$$ - Over $250
Eastman, P.M., & Barnett, J.C. (1979). Further study of the use of manipulatives with prospective teachers. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 10(3), 211-213. doi: 10.2307/748808.
Larson, L.C., & Rumsey, C. (2018). Bringing stories to life: Integrating literature and math manipulatives. The Reading Teacher, 71(5), 589-596. doi: 10.1002/trtr.1652.
Liggett, R.S. (2017). The impact of use of manipulatives on the math scores of grade 2 students. Brock Education Journal, 26(2), 206. doi:10.26522/brocked.v26i2.607.
Moyer, P.S., & Jones, M.G. (2004). Controlling Choice: Teachers, students, and manipulatives in mathematics classrooms. School Science and Mathematics, 104(1), 16-31. doi: 10.1111/j.1949-8594.2004.tb17978.x.
Puchner, L., Taylor, A., O’Donnell, B., & Fick, K. (2004). Teacher learning and mathematics manipulatives: A collective case study about teacher use of manipulatives in elementary and middle school mathematics lessons. School Science and Mathematics, 108(7), 313-325. doi: 10.1111/j.1949-8594.2008.tb17844.x.
Written by Tresa Jules, Last Revision April 2018