Rekenreks. Have you heard of them? If you’ve been in a lower elementary classroom, then surely you’ve seen one before. I remember the first time I ever heard the word rekenrek. There I was, sitting in a surprisingly interesting math webinar during professional learning as a first grade teacher. As it was, our state was providing training for new math standards that were being rolled out the subsequent school year. I thought to myself, “Reken-what? What in the heck is a rekenrek?”
Rekenreks are Math Tools
Rekenrek is such a funny word to say. Rek-en-rek. Although it sounds like something that would be silly, there’s nothing silly about them. By all means, they are especially important tools to develop number sense.
In a nutshell, rekenreks are arithmetic racks that can be used for an additional visual aid. There are two rods of ten beads. Each row has five beads of one color, followed by five beads of another color. With me so far? These simple beads can be used to develop number sense and can be used as a math manipulative in elementary classrooms.
Why Use a Rekenrek?
Early learners need multiple manipulatives to strengthen math skills as well as number sense. While there are many to choose from, I personally love rekenreks. Rekenreks are great for students to solve a wide variety of problems, while also strengthening number sense. Indeed, there are so many specific activities that a rekenrek can be used for. For instance, students can find different ways to create given numbers, build missing addends, and even solve word problems.
As a teacher, you undoubtedly know you should always provide students with multiple means of representation in math. Likewise, you should always begin math instruction with physical manipulatives. In fact, this extremely important instructional practice is supported by an abundance of evidence.
Even though math instruction should always start with hands-on opportunities to learn, there is a time and place for visual representation. In time, as students gain understanding, you should transition to visual models. For example, rekenrek flashcards with question prompts make great math centers! You can snag a FREE rekenrek sample deck to try out in your classroom.
Rekenreks in the Classroom
Whoa! I believe I’ve gotten ahead of myself. Let’s return to when I first learned of rekenreks. I was so excited after learning about the rekenrek as a math tool in my professional development. Without a doubt, I wanted, no I needed, to implement them immediately in my own classroom. Problem was, yep, you guessed it. No money. None. Zip. Nada. Zilch. The funding for the current year was gone. We could possibly get rekenreks the next school year, granted that there was enough money in the budget.
Well, darn. What’s a girl to do? I surely did not want to wait. I looked around my classroom and my house to see what materials I had on hand to make some myself. And, guess what? That’s right! As it happened, I had all I needed right there!
Without reservation, I helped my students to construct personal rekenreks using very basic and inexpensive supplies. In truth, you probably even have most of the things you’ll need in your classroom stash of craft supplies now! Straight away, these individual rekenreks gave each child ownership over their math learning. Consequently, student engagement increased in math. The students were using something they had constructed themselves to help them learn. As a result of their direct involvement in the construction process, these powerful math tools made them FEEL like the little geniuses they were. Alas, I wish I had taken pictures then. As it happens, this activity was before I ventured into the blogging world. With that in mind, I’ll do my best to recreate them for you now!
A Word to the Wise
In my experience working with young children, this would best be accomplished at the teacher table during small-group rotations. I definitely DO NOT recommend attempting to construct these in a whole-group setting!
Building Your Own Rekenrek
Without further ado, here is everything you need to know about how to make rekenreks in your classroom with your students!
Supplies to make one rekenrek:
First, pre-cut the cardboard into 8 in. x 4 in. rectangles. This size is particularly perfect for little hands to hold and manipulate during math lessons. Keep in mind that the cardboard is most likely too thick for students to cut through. I’d advise having these ready to go for your rekenrek construction session with students.
Next, use the hole punch to punch 4 holes in the cardboard. Being that placement is important, be sure to use a ruler and a pencil to mark where you’ll want the holes to go. The hole punch will determine how far in your hole can go, so you just have to measure how far down. Make your pencil marks at 1 3/8 in. from the top and bottom of the cardboard. The students may be able to help with this step.
(Helpful Hint: Once you’ve made one, use it as a template and let your students mark dots on their cardboard to use as guides to punch their holes!)
This next step is where students can definitely take over the construction process! As shown below, students need to string 5 red beads and 5 white beads onto each chenille stem.
Then, lay the chenille stems on the cardboard aligned with the holes. Push the ends of the stems through the holes. After that, bend the overlapping pieces behind the hole on the opposite side of the cardboard.
Lastly, use tape to secure the ends to the cardboard. By the same token, the tape will also help to keep any sharp pieces from poking little fingers. And, VIOLA! You have a rekenrek ready for use!
How Do Rekenreks Help Develop Number Sense?
Rekenreks help students strengthen different math concepts and overall number sense. Moreover, rekenreks provide a visual model for an abstract concept. Furthermore, they help teachers provide developmentally appropriate instruction for students.
When teaching math, you first have to make abstract concepts tangible. That is to say, you can’t jump straight to equations when introducing a new math skill. There is a large body of educational research that supports the fact that students need to see, touch, move, and otherwise manipulate materials in order to best understand new concepts. In other words, students need to actually use manipulatives to solidify mathematical understandings.
Rekenreks are Manipulatives
As has been noted, you need to first provide concrete models for students to learn from. They need hands-on practice. The rekenrek undeniably serves that purpose. This is especially true for students using a personal rekenrek that they built with their own two little hands! After they are successful with concrete models of whatever concept you are teaching, then you move to representation. Specifically, the representation stage means using pictures, diagrams, and other visual models. This is, without a doubt, where rekenrek flashcards are super helpful.
Since students have already “played with” the rekenrek, they understand exactly how the rekenrek operates. Consequently, students know how to slide the beads change the quantities to represent. Because of this hands-on experience, students have a stronger understanding of the visual image on the flashcard you’re showing them. As a result, they more easily can link mentally manipulating the image to their previous hands-on work with their real rekenreks.
Once they’ve really gotten the hang of the semi-concrete visual models, then you can move into the abstract. This is where you finally introduce the math skill or content using only numbers and symbols.
Specific Math Skills to Develop Using the Rekenrek
So back to rekenreks specifically… They can help develop addition and subtraction strategies such as counting on, doubling, and counting by 5s and 10s. What’s more, students can also work on their grouping and regrouping strategies. Hence, rekenreks are powerful tools for students to subitize and practice mental math strategies, as well. I love that these can be used for hands–on learning but can also be geared toward digital learning, too.
Admittedly, I enjoy mixing up the ways that students can use rekenreks. That is to say, it keeps our work from becoming monotonous. Once you’ve moved to the representational stage of instruction, use the rekenrek task cards in centers for students to practice addition and subtraction In the same way, you can even use then during whole group instruction as a way to represent and solve word problems. I created a task card version for students to use with this purpose in mind. This set presently includes 120 flashcards that can be used to develop a stronger sense of numbers 0-20. If you haven’t used rekenreks in your classroom, you don’t know what you’re missing out on.
Rekenrek Resources You Can Use Today!
IIn a word, we’ve talked about how rekenreks are nothing short of amazing. Given this point, let’s discuss actual activities and resources that you can implement and use in your classroom.
With this purpose in mind, use the arrows and dots to scroll through these awesome resources. Did I mention that they are all FREE?
Get Hands-On with Rekenreks
Rekenreks are so notably versatile! As a matter of fact, they can be used during whole group work, centers, and even independent work. While I love structured math activities, I also believe the best way for students to learn math is through manipulatives. Let students become familiar with the rekenrek through hands-on discovery and observation and your guided questioning. As students “play,” they come to construct for themselves the knowledge we wanted them to learn. I promise it will be more meaningful! It will help your students make lasting connections across mathematical concepts. Most importantly, it will help math make sense!
Ready, Set, Rekenrek!
If you decide to build rekenreks with your students, snap some pics and tag me on social media. I would love to see what you all are doing in your classrooms!