Five Montessori Secrets for Literacy

“The child’s explosion into writing is closely connected with his special sensitivity for language, and this was operative at the time when he began to speak. By the age of five and a half or six, this sensitivity has ceased to exist; so it is clear that writing can be learned with joy and enthusiasm only before that age. Children older than this have lost the special opportunity which nature grants them of learning to write without making special and conscious efforts of application and will.”—Dr. Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind, p. 173

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Parents today are bombarded with educational toys and resources intended to help children learn to read. There are toy computers that talk about letters and let children trace letters; letters to put on the fridge that say their names; pull-along toys with a toe for each letter. There are workbooks for preschoolers, early readers, and, of course, the trusted alphabet song. Many agencies, from NAEYC to not-for-profits like Ready-to-Read, offer in-depth advice on early reading.

I bought some of these types of toys, and received others as gifts when my children were young. I was eager to help my children learn to read: I am a passionate reader myself, and write frequently as part of my work at LePort. Yet now that my children have been in a Montessori environment for several years, and have benefited from the Montessori way of teaching writing and reading, I’ve come to doubt the approach embodied in the popular approaches to literacy, and see that there’s a lot of added baggage that can sometimes even delay reading and writing development. If I could go back, I’d approach toys in particular very differently (and save a lot of money in the process!)

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The Montessori literacy program is carefully designed to help children acquire the component skills of writing and reading. While the program is intended for a classroom environment, the underlying principles apply equally to nurturing literacy at home. (Note: if your child already attends our Montessori program, he’ll be learning most of this at school. Your time at home may be better spend on other activities that lay the groundwork for reading and writing—such as excursions, cooking and story-time together! In fact, we recommend against buying Montessori language materials for your home, if your child is in our Montessori program.)

  1. Focus literacy games on sounds, not letter names. What does a child need to learn to be able to write or read: that the letter “a” has a name, pronounced “aye”, or that it makes a sound, “æ” in the international phonetic alphabet, like in “apple” or “cat”?From a literacy perspective, the answer is obvious: to write and read, children need to learn the sounds letters make, not their names. BP Literacy - #3 Cee-aye-tee”, no matter how fast you say it, never blends together to make the sound “cat”. Yet most commercial products focus on teaching letter names. At best, they introduce sounds and names simultaneously, with emphasis on the name of the letters.In Montessori, in contrast, we start literacy by teaching sounds exclusively. ecause we don’t focus on letter names, the process is much less confusing for children, and it enables them to more quickly begin to write and read.Here’s a great way to start on letter sounds, suitable for children of about 2 ½ years or older: Play a sound “I spy” game. Collect a few items with different beginning sounds (a fork, a cup, a napkin, for example). Place each item in your hand, and focus your child’s interest on the sound at the beginning of the word: “I spy something in my hand that starts with fffff: a f f f fork.” Once your child has mastered the sounds, you can advance to playing real “I spy”, asking them to look around and find items in their environment that start with the letter sound you mention. This activity is great, because it teaches phonemic awareness in a playful way—and you can do it anywhere, not toys required!
  2. BP Literacy - #4Teach lower-case letters—and engage hand and mind at the same time. Most commercial materials and much public school instruction starts with capital print letters. This is contrary to what a child actually needs: most print children will encounter is in lower case, as is most of the writing they’ll do (just look at this blog post!) That’s why, in our preschool program, we introduce lower-case letters first, and transition to capitals only later.Children in Montessori learn to associate letter sounds with letter shapes using a material called the Montessori Sandpaper Letters. Here’s how this lesson works: a teacher takes three letters with varying shapes – like a, t, and s – and introduces them with what’s called a Montessori Three-Period Lesson.
    1. Naming Period: “This is ‘a’.” The teacher slowly traces the letter as she says the sound. She then gives the child the chance to do the same: he traces the letter with his two writing fingers, as he says the sound. By tracing, looking and saying the sound, we engage all senses in learning—and in addition to visually recognizing the letter, his hand learns the movement to form it, something he won’t get from just manipulating magnetic letters or even cutting out newsprint.
    2. Recognition and Association: “Give me ‘a’.” To check the child’s understanding, the teacher will play a game of asking for a letter by its sound, guiding the child to hand it to her, place it on his head, put it at the edge of the table, and so on.
    3. Recall: “What sound is this?” Only after the child has shown he can identify the letter, does the teacher ask her to say its sound.

    BP Literacy - #5If your child cannot attend Montessori school, then buying a set of Montessori Sandpaper Letters may be a great investment. I know of no better way of integrating the learning of sounds with letters symbol, through multiple sense modalities in unison (touch, sight, sound).

    If your child is in our Montessori primary program, we strongly recommend against having materials like the Sandpaper Letters at home: our teachers are trained to give the lessons at optimal stages of development, and by keeping the materials exclusive to school, we keep them special and help heighten your child’s motivation. What you can do at home, though, is provide materials for them to practice writing—such as an unlined chalkboard where they can practice writing letters, and lots of paper to draw and write on, including, for older children, story writing paper.

  3. BP Literacy - #6Separate handwriting from word-building. For a child to write a word, he needs to combine two separate skills: he needs to segment the word into sounds, represented by letters—and he needs to have the motor skills to write these letters on a piece of paper.Often, children can associate sounds with letters long before they can easily form the letters: their conceptual understanding of language is more advanced than their motor skills.That’s why in the Montessori program, children first “write” by building words with the Montessori Moveable Alphabet, a set of wooden letters that a child can arrange in different orders. They make words by placing the letters on a rug. This enables them to practice putting sounds together to make words—separated from the more challenging task of forming the letters with a pencil.If your child will not attend a Montessori program (e.g., if you are planning on homeschooling, or if he attends a play-based preschool program), a Moveable Alphabet may also be a good investment for home. You can also buy pdf versions of a number of good Montessori language materials at Montessori for Everyone.
  4. Prepare the hand for writing with physical exercises. Often, children who enter kindergarten struggle with handwriting because they lack the fine motor skills needed to properly control a pencil. That’s why, in Montessori, we are so passionate about all the motor activities in our Practical Life and Sensorial areas: Children need to cut with scissors; they need to paint, to sew, to peel eggs, to wash tables; they need to build towers, hold puzzles by little knobs and carry big materials. These indirect preparatory materials strengthen shoulder, arm, wrist and finger muscles! BP Literacy - #7The Montessori Metal Insets then help children joyfully master full pencil control: as they trace the inside and outside of the shapes, and color them in with careful, parallel lines, they have fun creating art, and are imperceptibly and steadily improving their pencil control.At home, you can help by making sure your child spends a lot of time physically active. Limit screen time (or eliminate it entirely!) Instead, have your child work with you in the kitchen, in the garden or in the garage. Offer free-form art materials; Mandalas are also a good proxy for metal insets for slightly older children, as they offer a creative way to trace and then color shapes. Invest in unstructured building materials (Legos, Citiblocs, Zoobs) that require finger dexterity.
  5. Select appealing, phonetic reading materials, not sight-word books.  Most commercially available reading programs are sight-word based: they include many words with phonograms—multi-letter combinations to represent sounds such as “oo”, “ea”, “igh” or “ch”. hildren who have just learned to read phonetically are stumped by these words, unless they are “pre-taught” as memorized sight words. In Montessori, we don’t use such books, and neither should you at homeBP Literacy - #8Instead, start reading by making it a game to read and act out what we call “command cards”: write small action instructions on a piece of paper, and have your child do the action—such as “hop”, “jump”, “run”, “skip” and so on. e careful to use only words that are phonetic—i.e., words you can sound out with just short vowel and regular consonant sounds. When your child is ready to progress to books, invest in early readers that are phonetic. The best series we have found is published by Flyleaf Publishing. It includes very short, purely phonetic books for emergent readers, as well as the decodable literature library, which deliberately introduce one or two phonograms at a time. In our Montessori programs, we introduce children to these books when they demonstrate readiness—usually by about age five, sometimes even sooner. We practice phonograms with the Montessori materials (such as phonogram Sandpaper Letters, the phonogram Moveable Alphabets, and the Phonogram Object Box), then provide children with the matching Books to Remember book.

BP Literacy - #9With this careful approach, most of our Montessori students are strong readers by the time they graduate from the third year of our Montessori program (the equivalent of traditional kindergarten.) They read real stories; they write multi-sentence compositions in cursive; most importantly, they see themselves as readers and writers, and love to learn.

If you are working with your child at home, you may find more details on these and similar ideas in Montessori Read and Write, a well-written book about Montessori-inspired language activities for children from toddler age to early elementary; it is out of print, but you can usually find used copies on Amazon.