Putting Pencil to Paper

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Sandpaper letter
Dr. Maria Montessori saw language as an instrument of collective thought, an extraordinary gift that allows us to pass on culture and intelligence. Children in the Primary classroom are experiencing their sensitive periods for language and the universal human tendency of communication. The child between the ages of three and six has an amazing capacity for language acquisition. There are three basic elements to language: spoken, writing, and reading. Speech is the most foundational and it comes first. Our duty as Montessori guides is to offer the children beautiful, rich language, as they are integrating vocabulary effortlessly at this age, and to also be willing to listen to them.  In the Montessori classroom, writing precedes reading because it is easier to encode your own thoughts than to attempt to decode someone else’s.

The process of learning to write in the primary environment is twofold. Maria Montessori developed an incredibly thoughtful and systematic way of guiding the process of writing, which involved the preparation of both the hand and the mind. Children are introduced to the Sandpaper Letters, which are lovely, lowercase cursive letters made of sandpaper, mounted on thick cards, after many indirect preparations. The Sandpaper Letters are extremely attractive to young children, as they take their sensitive periods for language, movement, and refinement of the senses into consideration. They help children learn how to make the shapes of the letters simply by tracing them with their fingers. When presenting this material, we are succinct in our pronunciation of the letters, using the sounds they make phonetically.  Once the child knows all of his sounds, he can build words using the Moveable Alphabet, before his hand is prepared to write with pencil on paper. The Metal Insets serve as the first direct preparation for writing. This is the first time they are actually using a pencil in the classroom, and since they are merely tracing shapes and filling them in, they do not have to deal with the frustration of trying to prematurely form letters with pencil on paper.  Montessori believed that a lot of practice was needed in order to develop fluid writing. After the child has worked a great deal with the Moveable Alphabet, the Metal Insets (and, as a result, has developed good muscular control for holding a pencil and using it properly), she is now ready to practice her letters on chalkboards. After all of these preparations, the child advances to finally writing with a pencil on paper.
Cursive in the Primary (ages 3-6) classroom
Many people may wonder why we teach cursive to children at this age. In the age of technology, isn’t cursive a bit antiquated? However, there are actually very practical reasons behind teaching cursive first.  A child’s journey toward literacy is an incredibly empowering experience, so we aim to set the children in our care up for success in any way that we can.

Cursive first instruction breaks down barriers that can sometimes lead to a child’s frustrations with regard to language development and, especially, writing.  If you’ve ever seen a child’s natural scribbling—it is curvy and curled. Teaching a child ball-and-stick print first forces them to create straight lines and perfect circles, which is actually difficult for a child. The fluid lines of cursive are more forgiving and they flow seamlessly from left to right.  Cursive also makes it easier to perceptually distinguish between letters, such as “b” and “d” and makes reversals less likely, since the letters themselves are more distinct. In cursive writing, words form a cohesive unit, so it eliminates the need to worry about the spacing between words. Thus, cursive is actually easier for children to learn.

Recent research also indicates that learning cursive can aid in optimal cognitive development.  In addition to all of these practical considerations, cursive is simply beautiful, and Primary students take pride in creating their written expressions on paper using cursive.

For more information about cursive first education, this is a good in-depth look at the advantages.  And for another look at pre-writing work at the Primary level, this is a blog post giving the parent perspective.
Tags: primary handwriting language curriculum