Do Mandarin and Montessori Mix?*

A good Mandarin Chinese class is not just a version of a Chinese class in China on American soil. In order to be successful, a Chinese class needs to borrow from different educational approaches. These approaches need to make sense for the students in the group. Especially for younger children, the Montessori philosophy can make rich contributions to Chinese language learning.

Montessori education has been around for over 100 years and for good reason. Many parents and children appreciate the focus on individual learning and on creativity in the programs. I am not a Montessori teacher, but I have worked in a Chinese immersion Montessori school and other programs that borrow heavily from the tradition. Just as schools all over the world adopted the child-sized furniture from Montessori, there are other Montessori-inspired tools that work well for Chinese language study.

Montessori Tools for Reading and Writing Chinese

In language classes, students build up their knowledge of the second language from getting input. This input comes 100% from their teacher in the early days. Montessori education tends to have a lot of individual work. At first glance, it may seem like Montessori education and Chinese language classes are a bad fit. This is because students need to spend so much time at the beginning listening to their teachers. However, reading and writing in Chinese requires a great deal of scaffolding and I have found that Montessori tools can provide the type of support that students need.

Montessori three part cards with Chinese words for Colors
Three part cards with colors

As I have written earlier, I believe that children learn how to read best when they learn how to read words they already know by sound. This does not mean that seeing a word they they know a few times in a story is enough. Success in language learning depends on repeated exposure. To this end, Montessori three part cards are a good tool that students can use to associate Chinese characters with their meanings. Three to six year olds use three part cards in Montessori. There are many words that we see often in children’s books for this age group, e.g. words for colors, animals, and family members, that work for three part cards. Using three part cards is great for students because there is a the control of error, meaning that they can tell from the materials if they have matched the cards correctly. Using three part cards is a self-paced activity. Students can manipulate three part cards for as long as they need to in order to feel confident that they know the material.

Chinese Montessori three part cards for family members
Student using three part cards for family vocabulary

Writing Chinese with Montessori

The mechanics of Chinese writing (i.e. how to hand write Chinese characters) is notoriously time-consuming. Some teachers and schools choose to have a pen-less classroom. A pen-less classroom uses only computer-assisted writing and students do no writing by hand. This can work for many people. There are many students, however, who really do want to learn how to hand write characters. Calligraphy has a long tradition in China. I sympathize with students who do not want to neglect this part of the culture.

Montessori sandpaper letters can be used to learn the mechanics of writing Chinese characters. These are quite a bit of work to put together. They are very durable, however, so students can use them over and over again. Students can also put sandpaper letters together to form sentences, as a form of writing accessible to young students. It is hard to tell from the picture below, but my sandpaper characters show the stroke order. Students first trace the sandpaper character to build up the muscle memory and to get a sense of the “flow” of Chinese characters. Then, they can try to write the character on their own.

Chinese writing practice with sandpaper letters
Students can first practice Chinese writing using sandpaper letters

*I can’t resist some good alliteration

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