The Montessori teaching philosophy recognizes the innate hands-on curiosity of children. Tactile learning is part of all subjects, including reading and writing, such as through Montessori sandpaper letters.
Originally, the Montessori sandpaper boards were used to teach Italian. Over time, the method has been adopted by many languages, including Chinese learning for kids.
I am honored to host Peg Chiu, a mother, teacher, and behaviour therapist to discuss how to use Montessori sandpaper boards to teach kids Chinese characters.
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How to Teach Chinese with Montessori Sandpaper Characters
In this post, Peg gives a detailed overview of Montessori sandpaper materials organized into the following sections:
- What are Montessori sandpaper materials?
- Five types of Chinese Montessori sandpaper boards
- Benefits of Montessori sandpaper materials
- How do we use sandpaper Chinese materials the Montessori way?
- How to teach Chinese with the Montessori 3-period lesson
- Extension activities for Chinese learning
- Where to buy Chinese Montessori sandpaper characters
About the guest author, Peg Chiu
Peg 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.
Peg currently works in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia as a behavioural 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 Ireland.
In a few months, she will return to Ireland and open a Montessori preschool with a Chinese immersion programme. Her hope is that this “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.”
You can learn more about Peg’s Chinese Montessori preschool, Caterina Bilingual Montessori, on Facebook.
(1) What are Montessori sandpaper materials?
Sandpaper letters and numbers are some of Dr. Montessori’s iconic learning materials. The alphabet and numerals are cut from fine sandpaper and mounted on wooden boards. These sandpaper boards prepare children to read and write.
(2) Five types of Chinese Montessori sandpaper boards
For Chinese language learning, different sandpaper Chinese boards include:
1. Sandpaper Chinese numbers (中文數字砂字板)
一，二，三，四，五，六，七，八, 九, 十
2. Sandpaper strokes (中文筆順砂字板)
Strokes are the most basic compositions 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. 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’ of a character.
For example, 果 is formed by two simple characters: 田 and 木. Both 田 and 木 are components of the character 果, but only 木 is the radical here as it indicates that fruits 果 are from the plants 木. By using the radical 木 to check in the dictionary, we can find the character 果 and check its details.
This video from a Chinese Montessori immersion school features a child using the Montessori sandpaper Chinese radical characters.
4. Sandpaper Chinese side-radicals (中文偏旁部首砂字板)
When radicals appear on the side, the shape of the simple character usually changes. For example:
- 心 = 忄
- 人 = 亻
- 示 = 礻
- 穴 = 宀
- 犬 = 犭
Side-radicals should be compared and matched with radical characters so that children recognize that the shape of radicals can change when it is part of a complicated character.
Understanding radical components also helps for communication later when a child is writing by hand, For example, if they forget how to write 拉, you can remind them by saying ‘剔手邊 + 立’.
5. 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.
(3) Benefits of Montessori sandpaper materials
My personal background in psychology and special education influences me to have a strong preference on sandpaper materials. Indeed, Montessori education is an outstanding system for all children including children with special needs as Dr. Montessori emphasised the importance to follow the pace of a child.
Knowledge registers better when we acquire it using our 5 senses, especially for young children and children with special needs. When we are using Montessori’s sandpaper materials, children get multi-sensory inputs through the learning process.
They see the character that we want to teach presented in front of them, giving them visual stimulation.
They hear us pronouncing the character, which is the audio input.
When they trace each stroke, skin gets sensory stimulation, and 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, many other schools have adopted this tactile idea for writing introduction.
(4) How do we use sandpaper Chinese materials the Montessori way?
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.
Before using the sandpaper boards
Before you use the sandpaper Chinese boards, you can sensitise your fingertips of the dominant hand by dipping them into a bowl of warm water. Dry them after.
When you trace the character on the boards, relax your index and third fingers to feel the character better.
Sequence to introduce the sandpaper Chinese boards
- Introduce the sandpaper Chinese number first. At the stage that the child is ready for writing, this child should have learned the concept of numbers. The child would be familiar with counting and quantity. They probably can recognise the Arabic numerals (eg, 1, 2, 3). Chinese numbers are also a good starting point.
- Then introduce the Chinese strokes. Before you demonstrate, say the name of the stroke first. After tracing, say the name again.
- After introducing the stroke names, move on to common radicals and high frequency characters.
- After the child has mastered the common Chinese radical characters, show them the sandpaper Chinese side-radical set. You can introduce the set by inviting the child to match the side-radicals to the radical characters (eg, 釒= 金, 訁= 言, 扌= 手, 亻= 人). You can also show them complex characters in books or in flash cards that use the side-radical you introduce as a component.
- Lastly, you can use sandpaper Pinyin or Zhuyin to teach the pronunciation system of Mandarin Chinese. Pinyin/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.
(5) How to Teach Chinese with the Montessori 3-period lesson
You pick a board (e.g. 四), put it in front of the child, pronounce the character on the board, then start tracing along the strokes in correct order. Make sure you sit on the side that the child can see you tracing clearly on the table.
While tracing, say the name of the strokes (豎、橫折、撇、豎折、橫). After completing the character, pronounce the character again.
Then invite the child to try, and repeat your demonstration if the child cannot follow.
Montessori 3-Period Lesson
The 3-period lesson helps children learn new vocabulary and concepts in 3 stages:
- Receptive language learning (differentiating)
- Expressive language learning (labelling).
Select 3 characters (or more or less, depends on the child’s level and pace). You can start with easy ones first, or you can pick ones that you know the child especially likes, or relates to. For example, we can choose 一, 四, 七 in the Chinese number set.
Period 1: Introduction
This is basically direct demonstration with introduction of each board one at a time. First put 一 in front of the child, say 一. Then, trace slowly while saying the stroke name ‘橫’. Repeat the character. Then you can invite the child to trace.
Next, do the same for subsequent characters.
After finishing each board, some Montessori teachers would put completed boards off to a corner. Others may turn the boards face down to decrease distraction. See which is the most comfortable and effective way for you and the child.
Period 2: Differentiation
Put the characters (一, 四, 七) in front of the child and ask ‘Which is 一?’. Wait for the child to indicate. Then ask the child to trace it. While tracing, invite the child to pronounce the character before and after, and also name the strokes in the process.
After that, do the same to ask about 四 and七. Use different ways to ask, e.g. “which is, trace, can you point to, show me…” 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 just one character in period 1 is okay. Follow the pace of the child and do not rush.
Period 3: Labelling
When you are sure that the child can consistently recognise the characters you have introduced in the last 2 periods, ask the child to label the characters.
Show only one character at a time and ask, ‘What is this character?’
Then ask the child to trace, pronouncing the character and naming the strokes as you do in period 1.
Again, if a child cannot label and trace the character, move back to period 2 or period 1. Try to make sure the child has really learned the characters (naming and tracing) before you move on to period 3. This creates opportunities for the child to succeed and build up confidence.
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 that you pick for the 3-period lesson, you can pick 3 other characters to start another cycle.
Other approaches to the Montessori 3-period lesson
You can separate the naming and tracing procedures, i.e. 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 so you can modify the teaching procedure to fit the child. Never be afraid to change if you know the way you are using does not fit the child. Find a way that gradually builds up the child to success. This will motivate the child to learn and develop the self-esteem.
(6) Extension Activities for Chinese Learning
Using the sandpaper Chinese boards
There are many different activities we can do with the sandpaper boards to consolidate what the child has learned.
Having the sandpaper board beside as a reference, you can ask the child to trace the same character in a tray of rice/ salt/ sand or on the table sprayed with shaving foam. You can also use playdough or craft pipe cleaners, to make the characters with the child together.
You can put a thin paper on top of the board and do crayon rubbing, then make a booklet of the characters.
Tracing with a marker
After the child has finished tracing the sandpaper Chinese boards, we can move on to learn more complex characters.
You can download this tracing exercise with the help of stroke order strips here. Through the exercise, the child would learn that radicals can be in different position in a character and they bear meanings that are related to the relevant radicals.
Chinese characters dice
You can write radicals and the relevant characters on dice and play games. I used a red marker for the radical (e.g. 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.
With these dice, you can play different games.
- Use it as a building blocks for construction fun.
- Pick a dice from a bag and read the characters on the dice.
- Choose a dice from the bag and see whose radical has got more strokes
- Take turns to pick a dice from the bag, throw it and the one who pronounces the character the quickest wins.
- Choose and throw a dice. The one who has got a character with most strokes wins.
- Pick and throw a dice, use the strips to practise tracing or when the child is ready, write on paper.
Now I am sure you would have some great fun ideas using the sandpaper Chinese boards and ideas to learn Chinese characters! Please share with us!
(7) 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
- ***Limited time special price for sandpaper boards in traditional Chinese!!! Email Peg Chiu firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. At the moment, she is arranging group ordering of sandpaper Chinese numbers, sandpaper Chinese radical characters, and sandpaper Chinese side-radicals. You can enjoy the 3 sets at the factory price if you place your order before January 2019.
Many thanks to Peg Chiu for sharing her passion and experience with Montessori Sandpaper Boards. I am grateful to have met her through a wonderfully supportive Facebook group, Montessori-Inspired Kids Learning Chinese. Hearing her ideas and knowing that there are families out there like ours has been a tremendous source of encouragement! 大家加油！(Dàjiā jiāyóu!)
From CHALK Academy
- When and How to Introduce Chinese Characters to Kids?
- Montessori Chinese Stroke Order Sandpaper Cards
- Montessori Salt Writing Tray – Fun Sensory Learning for Kids!
- How I Taught My Child 1000+ Chinese Characters as a Non-Fluent Speaker
From around the web
- Montessori Primary Guide (Info Montessori)
- Hong Kong Chinese Lexical Lists for Primary Learning (Hong Kong Government website)
- Stroke Order Learning Web (Taiwan Government website)
- Creating a powerful toolkit: Character components (Hacking Chinese)
- Kickstart Your Character Learning with the 100 Most Common Radicals (Hacking Chinese)
- Montessori Primary Guide: Sandpaper Letters (Info Montessori)
Bilingual Facebook Group
As always, please leave a comment with any questions, and I’ll try my best to answer them! Or better yet, please join our Facebook group! Montessori-inspired Kids Learning Chinese and English is a community of parents worldwide who are excited to share bilingual book recommendations, Montessori tips, and learning materials!
Happy learning, friends!