Montessori Basics 9: Sandpaper Letters

In Dr. Montessori’s day, children were made to practice forming letters by first writing an almost endless series of vertical strokes. Montessori immediately saw that this method completely ignored the fact that so many of the letters in our alphabet are based on curves (think about ‘o’, ‘c’, ‘b’, etc.). The work being given to public school children was tiresome and unnecessary and left most people with the mistaken conclusion that mastering reading and writing was a task requiring huge effort on the part of the child.

When Dr. Montessori developed her sandpaper letters, she was delighted to discover that small children could absorb these skills with great ease and pleasure. Her moment of revelation came in realizing she only needed to let children touch, with their fingers, the letters of the alphabet, for them to start comprehending exactly how each letter is formed. This is really an exercise in observing design, and children enjoy getting to feel the slightly rough surface of basic Montessori sandpaper letters.

How to use the sandpaper letters

In the classroom or homeschool environment, you can begin by offering the child a selection of three letters. Present one of the letters first, and demonstrate tracing the letter with two fingers while you say the sound of that letter. It’s important to make a distinction between the names of the letters and their sounds. Rather than saying, “This is B”, you want to give the sound of the letter, as in, “buh”.

After your demonstration, let the child trace the letter several times while they pronounce its sound. After several repetitions, give the second letter with its spoken sound, and so onto the third. Finally, set all three letters before the child and let them trace and verbalize each one if they can. Make a record of which letters or sounds have been perfected so that you can keep track of their progress.

Many instructors advise making sure that all of the vowels are among the first 1/2 of the letters given to a child in this way. When we learn vowels, we are well on our way to having the tools we need to form words. The above work will enable the children not only to master recognition of the forms and sounds of each letter, but the act of tracing with the fingers puts them just one step away from being able to reproduce those tracings with a writing implement!

Further exercises with letters

The North American Montessori Center makes some good suggestions for promoting further confidence with the designs of the alphabet. For example, allow the child to take the sandpaper letters over to a tray of cornmeal where he can trace the forms right into the grain. Or, let the children form the letters out of dough or clay. A nice group activity involves letting a small group of children who have been introduced to the same number of letters play a game that is rather like Concentration. Let them put the letter cards upside down on a mat. In turn, each child knocks on the back of a card, saying, “Knock-knock. Who’s there?”. When the letter is turned upright, the child identifies the sound of the letter that appears.

If your progress chart indicates that the child is feeling confident about some letters but not others, it’s time to go back to the original demonstration of those letters for review and more practice.

What sandpaper letters should look like

The letters should be cut of finest grade sandpaper, and care should be taken, if you are making them yourself, that the letters are accurately shaped. Each letter is then securely glued to a hard cardboard card. Generally, consonants are mounted on pink cards and the vowels on blue ones. (Photo courtesy Alison’s Montessori.)

There remains an interesting debate within the Montessori community as to whether it is better to offer print or cursive-style letters first. This may vary given your own experience or preferences. For more information on print vs. cursive, please see this post: Cursive vs. Printing: Is One Better Than the Other?. Whether you start with printing or cursive, most Montessori instructors do agree that the lower case letters should be given before capital letters.

Important notes

  • Be sure you are letting each child set his or her own pace.
  • Do not overwhelm the child by presenting too many letters at once, and be careful not to shame the child if they fail to correctly identify a letter. Simply set that letter aside to be re-demonstrated later.
  • If you are making the letters yourself, make sure the sandpaper you are using is the finest grade and that the child is reminded to trace lightly. Rubbing your finger roughly against coarse sandpaper hurts!
  • Get a sturdy box or tray to keep your letters tidy, organized, and all in one place. Designate a place on a low shelf or in a cupboard for the box. Make sure the child knows where the box is located.
  • The sandpaper letters are truly one of the most innovative Montessori materials. They are the key to unlocking the wonderful world of words. Sandpaper letters put the skill of reading and writing at the child’s fingertips – literally!

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    21 Responses to “Montessori Basics 9: Sandpaper Letters”

    • Bridget said at December 3rd, 2007 at 9:26 pm :

      Sandpaper letters worked wonderfully for my daughter to learn the shapes and sounds of letters. However, I always wondered what to do when she traced them incorrectly (started from the wrong part, or in the wrong order)! I suppose the correct answer is to do it again myself without pointing out the errror? Coming from a traditional background, the lack of pointed correction goes against my instincts… I want her to learn correct formation, but don’t want to discourage her interest with constant correction. Thanks for the summary!

    • montessori_lori said at December 3rd, 2007 at 9:36 pm :

      Yes, you are correct. You re-present it correctly.

      I have found sandpaper letters I really like that have a small circle cut-out at the point where you should start tracing. Or, you can draw a small arrow in the correct direction the letter should be traced.

      If you are showing her how to do it before she does it (modeling it) she shouldn’t start from the wrong place too often.

    • SAHMof2 said at May 31st, 2008 at 9:31 pm :

      Hi There,
      I’m looking to purchase a set of sandpaper letters or better yet try to make them myself. Do you recommend that I make them and if so, how? If not, where can I get a set that’s inexpensive? Thank you.

    • montessori_lori said at June 1st, 2008 at 7:03 am :

      I don’t recommend making them – it’s a lot of work and the results aren’t guaranteed to be quality.

      Go to eBay, type in “sandpaper letters”, and you’ll see several reasonably priced listings pop up. Just make sure the seller has good feedback.

    • Anonymous said at June 18th, 2008 at 8:26 pm :

      Make the letters together – we did, my dd glued them to the paper. Perfection is not the goal – the joy of learning is 🙂

    • Leptir said at February 20th, 2010 at 4:38 pm :

      Why are Montessori instructors giving lower case letters first? I’m doing it too, but I’ve never read about it.

    • Lori Bourne said at February 20th, 2010 at 7:34 pm :

      Hi, Leptir! I’m glad you asked; it’s a great question. Montessorians teach lower case letters first for several reasons. If you are teaching cursive, the lowercase letters are smoother and connect together, which the uppercase do not.

      In printing, the uppercase can seem easier (if children learn to write on their own, they often do uppercase first) but it’s more important that they learn lowercase letters correctly; the uppercase can follow.

    • Leptir said at February 22nd, 2010 at 9:36 am :

      Lori, thanks for quick answer!

    • Heidi said at June 5th, 2010 at 8:21 am :

      I am wondering where I can find a guide for myself of where to start and stop in the letter formation. For example, with the letter b. I am not sure if I start at the inner curve or with the line… If you know where I could find a guide for all the letters, I would really appreciate it! Thanks, Heidi

    • Lori Bourne said at June 5th, 2010 at 3:11 pm :

      Hi, Heidi! The best way would be to check a handwriting workbook – they have exercises with arrows on each letter showing where to start. (Most start at the top, including b!)

    • Kayla said at March 7th, 2012 at 11:06 pm :

      I recently purchased some items from Montessori Outlet. I am very pleased with the quality. I have not purchased their sandpaper letters but will soon.

    • Worried Mother said at March 28th, 2012 at 11:29 am :

      My Son is 4.10 year old. He went to a regular play school and not a Montessori school. He has difficulty in writing, drawing etc…he just hates it. We took him to an OT…things have improved in terms of his fine motor skills but still he is unable to write anything…just about standing and sleeping lines.

      He is not able to copy or even draw a circle properly. As of now his school is not into writing but next year they would start. I tried sandpaper writing and he seems to like it. How many times should a child trace? And what are the alphabets he should learn first? He is a very bright kid in all aspect except writing…I feel he knows that and that is pulling his confidence down.

      He has been to number of assessments for this problem. Please find me a solution.

    • Lori Bourne said at March 28th, 2012 at 2:44 pm :

      Hi! First of all, your son is still very young so I think it’s normal that he is still working on his writing skills. Kids develop at different speeds and there’s a big range of what’s normal.

      Second, basically he should not be doing any writing at all, and if he draws, it should be only self-directed, as he wants to do and not what you tell him to.

      Instead, he should be offered a huge range of practical life activities which strengthen the pincer grip (used for writing) and are essentially a preparation for writing. Things like puzzles with knobs, tweezing, basting, scrubbing, bead stringing, etc.

      Kneading playdoh and beeswax is good for strengthening the hand muscles as well. You should also provide him with a wide range of art supplies but let him use them completely on his own without you telling him what to do.

      There is a wealth of information out there on blogs and websites about Montessori practical life and all the different activities that can be done. Just Google things like “montessori practical life” and “montessori fine motor” to find resources. You can probably make a lot of activities for him with things you already have in your home.

      I also highly recommend For Small Hands, you can ask them for a catalog or look through their website to find tons of practical life materials as well as get ideas for activities to provide for your son.

      The general rule of thumb is that children need a full year of practical life before beginning formal academics, but that can vary. Give your son at least 6 months of practical life before having him try writing again.

      I know that you want him to be able to write now, but if he’s struggling, then forcing him to do it only causes stress in your relationship and makes him think negatively about it. It’s not worth that. Step back, give him time, and let him strengthen those hand muscles before he tries writing again.

    • Worried Mother said at April 1st, 2012 at 9:29 pm :

      Thank you very much for your suggestion. I will surely look at the websites that you have recommended.

    • Lori Bourne said at April 1st, 2012 at 9:41 pm :

      Glad to help! I also meant to add later that when you do start using sandpaper letters, have him trace them as often as he wants to – a few letters every day to start. Repetition is key.

    • New to Montessori said at August 9th, 2012 at 3:13 pm :

      As I understand, you introduce the sandpaper letters to the child by using the letter’s sound. At what point do you teach each letter’s name?

    • Lori Bourne said at August 9th, 2012 at 6:36 pm :

      You’ll never need to – kids are inundated with letter names from birth onward.

    • Diana said at January 1st, 2013 at 11:03 pm :

      The Montessori school my daughter is attending suggested that the parents start practicing the sounds at home. I made about 6 letters and have been practicing them. However, I am looking in to buying the sandpaper letters but I am a bit confused. Should I purchase cursive letters or print?

    • Lori Bourne said at January 2nd, 2013 at 9:09 am :

      Hi, Diana! Follow whatever the school is doing – if they are using cursive, then you should too so your daughter has consistency.

    • Eva said at January 16th, 2013 at 9:57 pm :

      I made the sand paper letters on wood. I started to show him 3 letters: m, d, and o (lower case). I teach him the letters in Spanish, and my husband in English. My question is : What sound do you use for letter ” o” (there is at least 5 different sounds right?). How do you do the rest of the vowels with so many different sounds?

    • Lori Bourne said at January 17th, 2013 at 7:40 am :

      Hi, Eva! You ask an interesting question. Traditionally in Montessori, the short sounds of each vowel are presented first, so for “o” it would be “ah” as in “cot” or “hot”.

      However, new research is showing that children do better with reading when they are taught all the sounds that each letter makes right from the beginning, in the order of frequency.

      For o, that would be “ah”, “oh” (long o), “oo”, and “uh”.

      I highly recommend that you get the book The Logic of English (just Google that title to find their website), as they outline a great approach to teaching reading and spelling, and give you the sounds that every letter makes. Montessori, unfortunately, uses an incomplete phonics system.