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.
This post has Amazon affiliate links. Please see our disclosure policy for further details.
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
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, there are a few different sets of sandpaper Chinese boards:
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. Some learning materials may teach the 8 basic strokes: 點、橫、豎、撇、捺、提、鈎、折 while others teach more 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 and we call those simple single character ‘components’ in 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 demonstrates 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, usually the shapes of the simple character changes, e.g. 心 changes into忄; 人 changes to 亻; 示 becomes 礻; 穴changes to 宀 and 犬 becomes犭. Therefore, learning the side-radicals together with the radical characters through methods of matching and comparing, teaches children that the shape of radicals can change when it is part of a more complicated character.
5. Sandpaper Pinyin and Zhuyin (中文拼音/注音砂字板)
Pinyin and Zhuyin help with the transcription system of Mandarin Chinese. Pinyin is the system that is used in China and Zhuyin is used in Taiwan.
(3) Benefits of Montessori sandpaper materials
What are the benefits of learning Chinese through sandpaper boards?
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.
In addition, the sandpaper materials give a tactile input to children. We have 5 senses, and knowledge registers better when we acquire it using different 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 the visual stimulation. They hear us pronouncing the character, which is the audio input. When they trace along the sandpaper character, their skin is feeling the character getting the sensory stimulation, and the fine motor movement gives them the muscular memory of a character.
Thinking of this, no wonder the sandpaper materials are seen in every Montessori classroom and there are so many other Montessori-inspired learning resources using the tactile idea to prepare children to write.
(4) How do we use sandpaper Chinese materials the Montessori way?
Sequence to introduce the sandpaper Chinese materials
If you have only one child and you don’t need to worry about durability of the materials, I would say there is no harm to present the boards as a toy. You can let them feel it, touch it. Or you can display them nicely on a shelf and talk about the characters whenever you feel you want to.
When I find the child is ready to learn writing, that is the child has good fine motor skills, basic understanding of the concept of symbols, and that the child can hold simple daily life conversations in Chinese, then I would start really use the sandpaper materials for character recognition and to prepare to write.
- 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 simple and a good start to learn tracing Chinese characters. At this point, they might not have learned the names of the strokes systematically yet, but I would still tell the stroke names while tracing.
- 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 the sandpaper Chinese radical characters. They are the common radicals and high frequency characters for beginners.
- 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to 金, 訁to 言, 扌to 手,亻to 人). You can also show them complex characters in books or in flash cards that use the side-radical you introduce as a component. This would help them understand clearly the side-radicals and other components form more complex characters. Teach the names of the side radicals using the sandpaper boards. It is for easier learning and communicating later when they progress to write more complex characters. Say if they forget how to write 拉, you can remind them easily by saying ‘剔手邊 + 立’.
- Now after you have introduced the above all, you can use sandpaper Pinyin or Zhuyin to teach the pronunciation system of Mandarin Chinese. I would recommend to start learning pinyin/zhuyin 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. It is a good read and it helps you decide which approach suits your child best.
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, use your index and third fingers relaxedly so to feel the character better.
While you are tracing, no matter it is the sandpaper Chinese number boards, sandpaper Chinese radical character boards, sandpaper Chinese strokes, or sandpaper Chinese side-radical boards, always tell the stroke names. I am going to eleborate more in the next section.
(5) How to Teach Chinese with the Montessori 3-period lesson
Basically, we can do direct demonstration and three period lessons with the sandpaper boards.
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. While tracing, say the name of the strokes (豎、橫折、撇、豎折、橫). After completing the character, pronounce the character again. Then you invite the child to do it. You can demonstrate again if the child cannot follow. Make sure you sit on the side that the child can see you tracing clearly on the table.
The 3-period lesson is a Montessori method that helps children learn new vocabulary and concepts in 3 stages:
- Receptive language learning (differentiating)
- Expressive language learning (labelling).
Pick three 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 have picked 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 saying the stroke ‘橫’. Repeat the character. Then you can invite the child to trace.
Next, do the same to introduce 四 and again with the third character.
Some Montessori teacher would put the boards at the corner of the child. Some others would have the boards facing 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 pronunce 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, go back to Period 1. You can consider to reduce the characters that you introduce. It is OK to introduce just one character in period 1. Just wait until you have introduced at least 2 characters to move on to period 2. Follow the pace of the child and do not rush.
Period 3: Labelling
When you are sure that the child can recognise receptively the characters you have introduced in the last two periods, you ask the child to label the characters. You 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 again. This is to create 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. Again, it is different from individual to individual and you know the child best so you can modify the teaching procedure to fit the child.
For a group of children, there are some other different ways to do the 3-period lesson. You can read this Montessori Primary Guide for more information.
Never be afraid to change (again and again) if you know the way you are using does not fit the child. Find a way that gradually builds up the child and that each step a success to the child. This would keep motivating 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 a 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 the radicals and the relevant characters (please refer to the tracing exercise) on the dice and play games. I used red to write the radical (e.g. 人) on the top and the bottom of the dice, then I wrote 4 relevant characters (今, 你, 傘, 他) in black on the other four 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
- 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!