Montessori Basics: How We Teach Handwriting

Posted by Meagan Ledendecker on 11/11/2019 7:00:00 AM

child with knobbed cylinders Was handwriting an important part of your early education? These days, pressured by time and content constraints, many schools are abandoning explicit handwriting instruction. The result may be a generation of children who do not know how to write in cursive, and who sometimes even struggle to form legible printed letters. 

A number of scientific studies point to the importance of handwriting, including this one which concluded that handwriting (as opposed to typing or tracing) guides preliterate children toward developing reading skills.

Interested in learning more about the scientific evidence that supports the importance of teaching handwriting as a skill? Check out this New York Times article that explores what is lost when handwriting instruction fades.

Not only does learning handwriting early help children develop skills needed for reading, evidence suggests it makes children better writers, spellers, and leads them towards future success in academics. Higher brain density and gray matter volume have been connected to high-quality handwriting, suggesting that frequent practice may aid in neural processing. Studies also conclude that it is critical for teachers to model the correct way to form letters, but also to utilize direct instruction. 

In Montessori schools, handwriting is a critical component of children’s learning. As with so many other skills, our curriculum takes a spiraling approach, indirectly preparing children prior to direct instruction. Very young children develop the muscles necessary for hand and wrist movement, as well as a pincer grasp, while they manipulate materials such as moving an object along a horizontal dowel in the Toddler Community or grasping a knobbed cylinder in the Children’s House.

There are two other important materials in the Children’s House environment that facilitate handwriting readiness: the metal insets and the sandpaper letters.

The metal insets are wooden trays that hold a series of stencil-like shapes. Removable shapes are blue with a pink background. Some shapes have straight-lined sides while others are curved. Children trace the shapes with a pencil, giving their hands a chance to practice creating a variety of lines. Increasingly challenging activities encourage children to create different patterns with colored pencils while staying inside the original traced lines. At first glance, this may appear to be a fun art activity (which it certainly is!) but its main intention is to prepare children for their upcoming work in handwriting.

Montessori sandpaper letters take the work a step further. Twenty-six wooden tiles are adorned with gritty, sand-textured letters of the alphabet. Children are given lessons on how to trace these letters with their fingers and say the sound. (As a side note, Montessori children are taught the sound of each letter in conjunction with its name, which makes much more sense for reading preparation.) Perhaps you have observed this in a Montessori classroom. If you have not, we highly suggest coming in to watch the magic of this work in person!

Interestingly, children who attend Montessori schools are typically able to write even before they have begun to read. Once they do begin reading, these previously developed skills allow them to seamlessly and simultaneously work on the various components of literacy development. 

Once children enter the elementary years in a Montessori school, they write throughout the day. Typically, children work throughout the three-hour work period in the morning on a largely independent basis, unless they are receiving a direct, small-group lesson from the guide. During this independent work they record parts of what they do in their learning journals. For example, if a child uses a card material to learn about the internal body functions of a fish (how they perform the tasks of respiration, circulation, movement, and so on), they will record at least part of this work in their notebook. For example: “Circulation. Fish have two chambers in their hearts.” This writing continues throughout the day and is directly connected to other content children are learning. Direct handwriting practice continues in the elementary years and extends into beautifying work through precise cursive or even calligraphy.

One final and very important reason to teach handwriting: when children learn how to form beautiful letters early on, they are better able to focus on a myriad of other things. For example, when writing a story, they can actually think about their story ideas instead of belaboring over how to write a ‘q’.

Interested in learning more? As mentioned earlier, we encourage you to come visit the school and observe in one of our classrooms. Doing so is common practice in Montessori schools, is unobtrusive to the children, and can provide excellent insight for those who are looking to learn more about this unique educational approach.