Boy tracing sand paper letters, Germany 1950. Photo courtesy of http://vsamerica.com/montessori
Way back, in the beginnings of the first Montessori school, the Casa Dei Bambini, Dr. Montessori had no intention of teaching the children to read or to write. Children were not typically taught these skills until they were around the age of seven years old. She had prepared a rich environment full of purposeful motives of real life activity, also called the exercises of Practical Life, and special manipulatives to educate the child’s senses, the Sensorial materials. She always held firm that communication and conversation were very important elements of the classroom and encouraged the children to freely speak with one another. Dr. Montessori also sang and recited poetry with the children. This was all very natural and enjoyable for every child in the classroom. And then the day came that she was asked, or rather implored, to teach the children how to read and to write. This request was made by some of the mothers of the children. These women knew how important it was to be able to read and write because they themselves could not.
After some deliberation, Dr. Montessori began the process of figuring out the best way for this to be done. Knowing how the child needed to use their hands in their learning, she decided to have letters cut out of cardboard for the children to move and manipulate as they learned the sounds of the letters. What was observed, was that the children enjoyed tracing the shapes of the letters as if they were writing them. This led to another addition to the cardboard letters: sandpaper. There was something about the combination of the texture, the movement in the tracing of the letter, and then verbalizing the letter’s sound all at the same time that made this activity irresistible!
Today, the sandpaper letters are still a favorite for children in Montessori schools around the world. Children learn the sounds of the alphabet with ease using this material. How powerful a lesson to be able to capitalizes on using the child’s sense of sight, touch, and their ear! As in many Montessori materials, there is always more than meets the eye. Now while the child is engaged in tracing these letters, he is also building a muscle memory of how the letter is drawn. Cursive is preferable to print simply because there is no stopping and starting or need to pick up the finger to make the shape of the letter as in print. The hand can flow naturally from start to finish for almost all of the letters when we use cursive. Over and over the child traces during the course of the lesson while his muscles learn to make the shape. Eventually, the he will have the opportunity to begin to write with chalk on a chalkboard. More often than not, he progresses quite easily in drawing the letters. All because of that tracing with the sandpaper letters.
One more important element to this lesson is that the sound of the letter is what is introduced, not the name of the letter. There is only one reason for this: the sound of a letter will assist the child to later read, the name of the letter will not. Once the child has progressed through about half of the alphabet, he is armed with some very potent information! He knows the letter sounds, he can match the sound and the letter symbol, and he knows how they are formed. This combination led to one of the largest discoveries ever witnessed in the Casa Dei Bambini-the young children began to spontaneously write. This is a phenomenon we see today as well. There comes a moment when the child writes a word all on his own, without prompting or help. All because of one material that seems so simple in design, yet suited so perfectly for the child: the sandpaper letters.