How to Teach Chinese with Montessori Sandpaper Characters

The Montessori teaching philosophy recognizes a child’s innate curiosity and the benefits of sensory input in reading and writing.  I am honored to host Peg Chiu, a multilingual mother, teacher, and behavior therapist to share how to use Montessori sandpaper boards to teach kids Chinese characters.

How to Teach Chinese with Montessori Sandpaper Boards

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Ms. Chiu is a mother of a 4.5 year-old trilingual girl.  Her daughter is learning Cantonese Chinese from Peg, Italian from Daddy, and English through hearing parents’ conversations and preschool. Ms. Chiu currently works in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia as a behavioral therapist and received her psychology degree and postgraduate special needs diploma in Hong Kong.  Previously, she was a primary school teacher in Hong Kong and obtained a Montessori degree from St. Nicholas Montessori College in Ireland. 

Soon, she will return to Ireland and open a Montessori Chinese immersion preschool.  Her hope is that “Montessori preschool would not be just a place for the little men and women to enjoy learning all sorts of knowledge, including the beautiful Chinese language, but also a place that helps them prepare themselves to achieve their cosmic tasks in the universe.”

What are Montessori sandpaper materials?

Sandpaper letters and numbers are some of Dr. Montessori’s iconic learning materials for preparing prepare children to read and write.  The alphabet and numerals are cut from fine sandpaper and mounted on wooden boards.

5 types of Montessori Chinese sandpaper boards

For Chinese language learning, different sandpaper boards include:

1. Montessori sandpaper Chinese numbers (中文數字砂字板)

一,二,三,四,五,六,七,八, 九, 十

2. Montessori sandpaper Chinese strokes (中文筆順砂字板)

Strokes are the most basic parts of Chinese characters, and stroke order is necessary in order to write Chinese.  Chinese strokes include 點、橫、豎、撇、捺、提、鈎、折 and other stroke types.

3. Montessori sandpaper Chinese radical characters (中文部首字砂字板)

A character can be formed with a few simple single characters, also known as ‘components’. For example, 果 is formed by 2 simple characters: 田 and 木.  Both 田 and 木 are components of the character 果, but only 木 is the radical as it indicates that fruits 果 are from plants 木.

This video from a bilingual Montessori immersion school features a child learning Chinese radical characters.

4. Montessori sandpaper Chinese side radicals (中文偏旁部首砂字板)

When radicals appear on the side, the shape of the character usually changes.  For example:

  • 心 = 忄
  • 人 = 亻
  • 示 = 礻
  • 穴 = 宀
  • 犬 = 犭
  • 金 = 釒
  • 言 = 訁
  • 手 = 扌
  • 人 = 亻

Side radicals should be compared with radical characters so that children recognize the shape change when it is part of a complicated character. You can show complex characters in books or in flash cards that include the side radical.

Understanding radical components also helps for communication when a child is writing by hand.  For example, if they forget how to write 拉, remind them by saying ‘剔手邊 + 立’.

5. Montessori sandpaper Pinyin and Zhuyin (中文拼音/注音砂字板)

Pinyin and Zhuyin are different phonetic alphabets for Mandarin Chinese.  Pinyin is used in China and Zhuyin is used in Taiwan. Pinyin and Zhuyin should be introduced after the child has a good knowledge of Chinese characters.  In her post ‘When should my child learn Hanyu Pinyin?‘, Betty explained very well the pros and cons of learning the Pinyin system.

Benefits of Montessori sandpaper materials

My background in psychology and special education influences me to have a strong preference for sandpaper materials.  Indeed, Montessori education is an outstanding system for all children, including children with special needs. In addition, knowledge registers better with multiple senses.

  1. Visual: Children see the Chinese character presented before them.
  2. Auditory: They hear us pronouncing the Chinese character.
  3. Sensory: When the skin traces each stroke, fine motor movement contributes to muscular memory of a character.

It’s no wonder that sandpaper materials are seen in every Montessori classroom.  In addition, other schools have adopted this tactile idea for writing introduction.

DIY Chinese sandpaper numbers
Homemade Sandpaper Chinese characters from Peg Chiu

The Montessori way of using sandpaper Chinese materials

Before using Montessori sandpaper boards

When a child has good fine motor skills, understands the concept of symbols, and can hold simple Chinese conversations about daily life, then I would use the sandpaper materials for character recognition and writing preparation.

  1. Sensitize fingertips of the dominant hand by dipping them into a bowl of warm water.
  2. Dry them after.
  3. Trace the character with the index and third fingers relaxed.

Related: When and How to Introduce Chinese Characters to Kids?

Sequence for introducing Montessori Chinese sandpaper boards

  1. Sandpaper numbers: At the stage that the child is ready for writing, this child should have learned the concept of numbers.  When the child is familiar with counting and quantity, they probably can recognize Arabic numerals (eg, 1, 2, 3) and Chinese numbers (eg, 一二三 / yī’èrsān).
  2. Chinese strokes
  3. Common Chinese radical characters and high frequency characters.
  4. Chinese side radicals.
  5. Lastly, use sandpaper Pinyin or Zhuyin to teach the pronunciation system of Mandarin Chinese.

How to teach Chinese with the Montessori 3-period lesson

Montessori 3-Period Lesson

The 3-period lesson helps children learn new vocabulary and concepts in 3 stages:

  1. Introduction
  2. Receptive language learning (differentiating)
  3. Expressive language learning (labeling).

Select 3 characters (more or less depending on the child’s level and pace).  Start with easy ones first, or pick ones that the child relates to. For example, we can choose 一, 四, 七 in the Chinese number set.

DIY Chinese sandpaper numbers
Homemade Sandpaper Chinese characters from Peg Chiu

Period 1: Introduction

This is basically direct demonstration with introduction of each board one at a time.

  1. Pick a board (eg, 四) and put it in front of the child.
  2. Make sure you sit on the same side as the child.
  3. Pronounce the character.
  4. Slowly trace the strokes while saying the name of the strokes (豎、橫折、撇、豎折、橫).
  5. After tracing, pronounce the character again.
  6. Then invite the child to try.
  7. Repeat your demonstration if the child cannot follow.

After finishing each board, some Montessori teachers will put completed boards off to a corner and turn the boards face down to decrease distraction.

Period 2: Differentiation

  1. *Put different characters (eg, 一, 四, 七) in front of the child and ask ‘Which is 一?’.
  2. Wait for the child to indicate.
  3. Then ask the child to trace it.
  4. While tracing, invite the child to pronounce the character before and after, and also name the strokes in the process.
  5. After that, do the same with 四 and 七. Use different ways to ask, eg, “Which is…”, “Trace,” “Can you point to”, “Show me…”
  6. If a child does not pick or trace the correct character, return to Period 1.

*Please note that you can reduce the number of characters in the lesson.  Even one character in period 1 is okay.  Follow the pace of the child and do not rush.

Period 3: Labeling

Make sure the child has really learned the characters (naming and tracing) before you move on to period 3. When you are sure that the child can consistently recognize the characters you have introduced in the last 2 periods, ask the child to label the characters. This creates opportunities for the child to succeed and build up confidence.

  1. Show only one character at a time and ask, ‘What is this character?’ 
  2. Then ask the child to trace, pronouncing the character and naming the strokes as you do in period 1. 
  3. Again, if a child cannot label and trace the character, move back to period 2 or period 1.

The 3 periods can happen on the same day or on different days, depending on the pace of the child.  After the child has mastered the few characters in the 3-period lesson, pick 3 other characters to start a new cycle.

Other approaches to the Montessori 3-period lesson

You can separate the naming and tracing procedures, ie, use the sandpaper boards as flashcards at the beginning.  After the child has learned how to name all the sandpaper characters, you can move on to tracing. As always, you know the child best.  Never be afraid to change if the initial approach does not fit the child.

Extension activities for Chinese learning

Other activities with Montessori sandpaper Chinese characters

Printable tracing activities

You can click here to download this tracing exercise with the help of stroke order strips in this link.  Through the exercise, the child would learn that radicals can be in different position in a character and their meanings are related.

Tracing Chinese 木 radical words according to stroke order
Tracing Chinese character according to stroke order
Tracing Chinese 木 radical words according to stroke order
Tracing Chinese 木 radical words according to stroke order

Chinese characters dice

You can write radicals and relevant characters on dice and play games.  I used a red marker for the radical (eg, 人) on the top and the bottom of the dice.  With a black marker, I wrote 4 relevant characters (今, 你, 傘, 他) on the other sides.

Chinese characters dice game - fun way to learn Chinese for kids!
Chinese character dice created by Peg Chiu

Chinese dice game ideas:

  1. Use it as a building blocks for construction fun.
  2. Pick a dice from a bag and read the characters on the dice.
  3. Choose a dice from the bag and see whose radical has got more strokes
  4. Take turns to pick a dice from the bag, throw it and the one who pronounces the character the quickest wins.
  5. Choose and throw a dice.  The one who has got a character with most strokes wins.
  6. Pick and throw a dice, use the strips to practice tracing or when the child is ready, write on paper.

I am sure you will have great fun using the sandpaper boards to learn Chinese characters!  Please share with us in the comments below!

Where to buy Montessori sandpaper Chinese characters

  • Chinese basic strokes and characters:
    • Sun Ya (Detailed review here)
  • Simplified Chinese radicals and characters:
  • Traditional Chinese radicals and characters:
    • PCSTore Taiwan
    • Email Peg Chiu [email protected] for more information about group orders for sandpaper Chinese numbers, radical characters, and side radicals.  You can enjoy the 3 sets at factory price if you place an order before January 2019.

Many thanks to Peg Chiu for sharing her passion and expertise. Learn more about her Chinese Montessori preschool, Caterina Bilingual Montessori, on Facebook. 大家加油!(Dàjiā jiāyóu / Rooting for you all!)

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Happy learning, friends!


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