Well for the first time in my professional life someone asked me about the research basis for using manipulatives for teaching math. In the math ed. texts i use in my courses the use of manipulatives is advocated and illustrated with the introduction of every new idea. It's as if it's a no-brainer, something that is as natural as the sun rising each morning or snow falling at some point in a Vermont winter. So I took to Google this morning and tracked down an array of really interesting research-based articles in support of the use of manipulatives for teaching math at the elementary school level. It felt a bit like conducting research to see if more people used raincoats and umbrellas when it was raining than when the sun was shining but the results were startlingly interesting. Here they are;
Here's an NCSM article. NCSM is the national math leadership council and reminds us that we must also include the use of virtual manipulatives. This one is from the Journal of Instructional Pedagogies and gives an overview of the history of using manipulatives as well as the current research.
There are many publishing companies that also produce manipulative materials so it is probably only natural that they should also produce research to support the use of their products. This is a particularly good article from the folks at ETA.
And here's a student research paper on the topic from Marygrove College. Finally, here's a neat article from Sage Publishing that mentions Montessori education which is really where the use of manipulatives in teaching math all began.