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.