In most traditional elementary schools, students usually learn cursive in the third grade, and there are some schools where it is not taught at all. In Montessori schools, many people are shocked to find preschoolers writing in cursive right from the start.
Montessori schools teach cursive letter identification and writing before they teach print (or manuscript) because the fluid movement involved in writing cursive letters is easier for children to master. It is also easier for children to move from cursive writing to print than to move from print to cursive writing.
There are other advantages to teaching cursive before teaching print that keeps educators using this method even though cursive is declining in use. In this article, we’ll discuss these advantages, how Montessori educators teach cursive to children, and why some Montessori schools are breaking with Maria Montessori in this area and starting with print.
Why Do Children Learn Cursive First in Montessori Schools?
When Maria Montessori developed the Montessori educational philosophy in the early 1900s, she lived in a very different world. The norm of the day for adults was to write in cursive and read in print.
For Maria Montessori, it didn’t make sense to teach print letter formation when cursive was easier for children to pick up. Additionally, her philosophy insists that teaching writing before reading is essential and more efficient. There was no reason to teach students anything about print until they were ready to begin reading. So from a practical standpoint, teaching cursive was completely logical during the early 1900s.
There are several advantages to learning to write cursive before print that Montessori educators have observed:
- The fluid and connected letters do not require the student to lift the pencil, which makes cursive letters easier to write.
- Because the words in cursive are connected, it is easier to determine where one word ends, and the next begins. It also may make it easier for children to identify common groups of letters like “-ing” or “-ight.”
- Recognizing p, q, b, and d is much easier in cursive, and so is writing them without reversals.
- Many Montessori educators believe that it is easier for children to move from cursive to print than from print to cursive, as is traditionally taught.
- Cursives allows students (and people generally) to write faster.
How do Students Learn Cursive in Montessori Schools?
Learning to write cursive is taught at the child’s pace. Every student is different, and they all progress through the different stages of learning to write in their own time, but the progression will be similar for most students.
A lot of these steps can be introduced with significant overlap, but here is the general progression of learning to write:
- To begin learning cursive, students typically trace their fingers over cursive sandpaper letters. They begin with lowercase letters, and they are introduced to the letter sounds as well. The name of each letter is not taught at this stage. Only a handful of letters should be introduced at one time.
- Students practice writing each letter in a salt tray, using their fingers or some kind of writing instrument (wooden pens, sticks, and rocks are common).
- Next, students move on to using chalk and chalkboard. This is where it is handy to have several small chalkboards for children to use. They begin with an unlined chalkboard and typically work up to writing on a lined one. Students may be taught how to join letters together at this stage.
- Writing on paper begins once the student has formed a strong foundation in writing cursive on a chalkboard. Students usually start with unlined paper until they become proficient at writing on paper.
While students are learning to write letters, they may also be working with a moveable alphabet, like this one, which helps them learn to create words from sounds.
What Do Montessori Schools Use to Teach Cursive?
A Montessori classroom will look different depending on the teachers leading the learning, the area of the world that the classroom exists, and the needs of the students in the class, but there are a few standard items that you find in almost every Montessori classroom.
For teaching cursive, here is what most Montessori schools use:
- Cursive sandpaper cards, like these from Kid Advance. These cards allow students to practice tracing each letter and learn letter sounds while having a pleasant and fun sensory experience. This helps students learn faster and with more enjoyment, and they have proven again and again to be an effective method of teaching.
- Salt Trays, like this one from Kid Advance. The salt tray allows students to practice writing while having a sensory experience. Letters can be easily swept away and attempted again. They can be made by most any teacher using simple materials like a cookie sheet and a container of salt.
- Tracing boards, like this one from Cosmo Crafts. This is not as commonly found in every Montessori classroom, but it makes a great addition. It allows students to practice the motion required for writing letters without becoming stressed about making a mistake, as some students do.
- Chalkboards, like these green boards. These are a true staple in any Montessori classroom. Writing in chalk is preferred for starting out because chalk is easy for children to hold, and the act of moving the chalk across the chalkboard provides sensory feedback. Pencils tend to glide and offer less opportunity for controlled movements.
- Paper and more paper. Of course, all classrooms will have an abundance of paper so that students can practice writing whenever they want. Both unlined, blue-lined, red-lined, and primary ruled paper is usually used at different stages. Eventually, students write on wide-ruled or college-ruled paper.
How Do Montessori Schools Teach Print?
Print writing, also called block print or manuscript writing, is not formally taught in most Montessori schools because it doesn’t have to be!
Any Montessori educator who teaches cursive will first tell you that students who can write cursive can read print without any issues. They recognize the letters and associate the appropriate letter sounds with them without formal instruction.
Typing is usually introduced around the third grade, but this varies from school to school. Maria Montessori did not include typing in her philosophy. Although typewriters existed, keyboards were not an essential part of everyday life as they are now.
Do All Montessori Schools Teach Cursive?
The main disadvantage of teaching cursive before print is that it might not be necessary to teach cursive at all. Most educational standards do not require students to learn cursive, and it is becoming less and less popular.
Typing has become the primary method of writing. Printing (or a sloppy combination of printing and cursive) is used when writing by hand is necessary.
So, not all Montessori schools teach cursive. The schools that follow the Montessori philosophy most closely will introduce cursive writing, but many schools have broken with Maria Montessori in this area as cursive has become less and less prevalent in our society. They use the same teaching methods, like sandpaper letter cards and salt trays, to teach print as they would use to teach cursive.
It is worth noting that there is no wrong approach here. Teaching cursive does have some advantages, as we’ve outlined above, and there is no harm in starting with cursive. However, as our society changes, it is also understandable why some educators are moving toward teaching print only. This matter is much debated, and there are merits to both points of view.