Making Sandpaper Characters

Making Sandpaper Characters

Parents and teachers familiar with the Montessori approach probably know about the sandpaper letters. Sandpaper letters are exactly what they sound like. The letters are formed out of sandpaper and glued to small boards. Students trace the letters with their fingers as they practice their sounds. They build up a muscle memory of how to write the letters as well.

Are there Too Many Characters?

There are only 26 letters in the English alphabet, but many thousands of Chinese characters*. This sounds like bad news for making sets of sandpaper characters, but I will argue that using sandpaper characters in Chinese class is still doable. Firstly, students do not need to learn all the characters at the same time. For a one hour per week Chinese enrichment class, a reasonable goal is learning about 50-100 words per 14 week semester. Even if we used sandpaper characters for each word (which we might not), that is only 50-100 for a whole semester. Seems much more manageable, right?

We can still use the sandpaper technique with Chinese, even though we are dealing with many more characters than letters. Making these things, however, is still not easy. It is pretty time-consuming, so I no longer lend out my materials to students and their families. So here is a step-by-step guide to making sandpaper letters at home. You don’t even need to speak Chinese in order to make these for your kids!

The Step by Step Process

Step 1: Get the materials.

Everything that you need to make sandpaper characters you can get at Michaels or similar crafts store. You will need: graphite paper, stiff paperboard that is still thin enough to cut, a list of characters that you want to make (with pinyin), glue (Elmer’s is fine), scissors, sand, a paint brush, a marker, a computer and printer.

Step 2: Trace the characters to the paperboard.

I type up the characters I want to make on a MS Word document. If you don’t know Chinese, ask for a list of characters from your child’s teacher. The font that I prefer is ST Kaiti because it shows the way the strokes look when they are written with a brush and ink. I print them out with just the outline (to save on ink) in 200 point font. With the carbon paper, I then trace the characters to the paperboard with the graphite paper., leaving about an inch of space between each character. I also like to color in the characters with a gold Sharpie.

outline of character "zhong"
Printing out just the outlines of the characters saves on printer ink.

Step 3: Write in stroke order. 

This is the really time consuming part. Each character needs to be written in a certain stroke order. On the sandpaper characters, I write in arrows with numbers next to them to show the order. This is important to show the kids that they have to follow the stroke order. If you don’t know Chinese, you will need to look up the stroke orders for the different characters on a website like this one.

photo showing process of making sandpaper characters
This is the most time-consuming part of making sandpaper characters, writing in the stroke order.

Step 4: Cut up the characters.

At this point, I cut up the characters into individual cards.

Step 5: Glue and sand.

With a paintbrush if you need it, make sure that the characters have a thin coating of glue. I do about 5-6 at a time, any more than that and I find that the glue starts to dry before I get to the sand. I put the cards on a piece of tin foil so I can easily pour the excess sand back in the bag and reuse it.

photo of sandpaper character "我"
The finished product!

Step 6: Let dry and use!

Again, this process is incredibly time-consuming, but it is not exactly difficult. It can be done without any knowledge of Chinese, but writing in the stroke order will be extra tedious. Doing about 20 characters takes me several hours. On the bright side, they last a long time. So far, I have been using my first sandpaper characters for 2 years.

More on Chinese and Montessori tools.

Mandarin and Montessori (one of my most popular blog posts, ever).

*Most sources agree that there are about 20,000 characters in modern use, with about 2-3,000 needed to read a newspaper in China.

Montessori tools and Mandarin Chinese

Why Montessori tools?

The Montessori method has been around for over a hundred years. Education is full of trends (remember New Math or the Open Classroom?). So it is worth paying attention to what stands the test of time in education. When working with children in early childhood, many of the tools developed in the Montessori approach adapt really well to Mandarin Chinese classes. Below are a few examples.

Three Part Cards

As written in an earlier post, three part cards are a great tool for introducing Chinese literacy. With three part cards, students have a card with an image, a card with the word that matches to that image and a card that has both the image and the word. The job of the students is to match all three cards together. When using the three part cards, students learn implicitly some of the important facts of Chinese literacy. For example, when matching the three part cards for colors, they notice that 粉红色 (pink) and 咖啡色 (brown) have three characters in their names instead or two, like the other colors. In this way they learn that each Chinese character represents one syllable.

photo of child using Montessori three part cards family
Putting together the words for different family members using Montessori three part cards

Practical Life Trays

Young children love practical life trays. These Montessori tools are also quite easy to put together. They are a great teaching tool for language because they are all about… practical life, i.e. things that we do every day. When students use practical life trays, I can talk to them about pouring water, cleaning up, counting, and using different utensils. In short, I can give them input about things that they probably do every day.

photo of Montessori practical life tray
Montessori practical life transfer activity tray

Sandpaper Characters

Sandpaper letters are a Montessori tool that parents and teachers can buy off the shelf. Sandpaper characters, on the other hand, take much more work. I have to make them myself. It is worth it however, because when children first hold the sandpaper characters in their hands, they immediately get it. One of the basics of teaching Chinese literacy is to make sure that children understand that Chinese characters must be written with a prescribed order. With the sandpaper characters, students get this immediately and we don’t have to spend too much class time on teaching this one feature of Chinese.

photo of Chinese sandpaper character
Sandpaper characters, like this one, can help young children learn how to write Chinese

The Pink Tower

The pink tower is one of the most iconic Montessori tools. When using the pink tower, we can talk about what is big/small, make comparisons, and use numbers. These are all great things to talk about with a novice student. The pink tower is also useful because everything is the same color. Sometimes lots of colors can be nice, but other times it can be distracting to have a bunch of different colored blocks. With the pink tower, they are all pink so we can focus more easily on other features.

Earlier posts on Montessori and language learning:

Mandarin and Montessori

Do you have any suggestions about using Montessori tools in the classroom? Please share in the comments!

Interested in learning more about Mandarin Chinese classes at Lotus Chinese Learning? Use the contact page to get in touch.

Montessori Inspiration for Mandarin Chinese Classes

Learning from the Montessori Method

I am not a Montessori teacher*, but I get lots of inspiration from the Montessori method for my Mandarin Chinese classes. The Montessori method provides lots of wisdom, especially for classes for younger students. One aspect of the Montessori method that is particularly inspiring is the emphasis on placing trust in children. One challenge for Mandarin Chinese teachers is that materials for our classes are sometimes hard to find. We often find ourselves using precious space in our luggage to bring materials back from China/Taiwan. It can be hard to trust kids to be careful, but it is worth it!

photo of the absorbent mind by Maria Montessori
On the summer reading list… A Chinese-language version of The Absorbent Mind by Maria Montessori

Montessori and Using “Real” Objects

For a unit on Chinese porcelain, students make their own sculptures and they also get to look at porcelain that I have brought back from China. Any trip to Lakeshore Learning demonstrates that there are plenty of teaching materials out there for young kids made of plastic or wood. Many parents and teachers would rather get a root canal than give kids something that is breakable. Letting children play with the real thing might seem risky, but I have had the best results with the rowdiest groups of kids. The Montessori method encourages teachers to give students objects made of breakable materials. Montessori teachers believe that this helps teach children how to handle things with care. It also teaches them how to clean up after themselves if something breaks. Additionally, children who get used to tossing around plastic cups and trays are more careless when they finally encounter their adult versions.

photo of child exploring Chinese porcelain
Trust the kids with fragile things and they will rise to the occasion

Risky, but Worth It

Before letting young students touch and play with something like porcelain that I have brought back from China, we talk about how to handle these objects with care (mostly in English). It is certainly an exercise in trust, but it pays off. Even the most rambunctious (or perhaps especially the most rambunctious) kids react with care and reverence when they finally have the chance to handle something like that. The chance to touch something that is usually off-limits can instantly focus a child. This does not mean that the kids might not break something that I have carefully brought back from China. If they do, we will just have to clean up the mess and plan to bring more stuff back from China for next time.

More on inspiration from the Montessori method

*I used to work at a Mandarin immersion Montessori school

Mandarin and Montessori

[Updated July 2019] Hello! Welcome to the most popular post on the Lotus Chinese Learning blog. There are more Montessori-inspired resources available on the website. They are all free to download. Free and paid resources are also available from other websites: they include sandpaper characters, and more three part cards.

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


For more on Mandarin and Montessori from a Chinese-American parent’s perspective, check out Chalk Academy.

Want to learn more about Mandarin Chinese classes at Lotus Chinese Learning? Use the contact page to get in touch!