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The Montessori Approach to Reading, Composition, and Literature

Language development as well as children’s reading and writing readiness occurs throughout the Montessori curriculum. Across the curriculum, children are introduced to many works that build auditory and visual discrimination skills as well as will enhance concentration and motor skills that will be used when reading and writing. Discussions are held, stories are read, songs are sung and word games are played to develop language skills, phonemic awareness skills, story language and patterns as well as concepts of print. Many traditional Montessori materials are also available to the children including the Sandpaper Letters and the Moveable Alphabet. The shelves in a Montessori classroom are also organized sequentially going from left to right and top to bottom, training the child’s eye to follow print across the page.

At Pine Grove children learn to read using a balanced literacy approach which combines aspects such as reading aloud, presenting morning messages which focus on key aspects of literacy, providing shared and guided reading opportunities and, for those children who are developmentally ready, many opportunities for independent reading.

Please enjoy the following article entitled “The Montessori Approach to Reading, Composition, and Literature” that outlines the progression of learning how to read in a Montessori classroom.

The Montessori Approach to Reading, Composition, and Literature

From Tomorrow’s Child Magazine, Fall 2006

The process of learning how to read should be as painless and simple as learning how to speak. Montessori begins by placing the youngest students in classes where the older students are already reading. All children want to “do what the big kids can do”, and as the intriguing work that absorbs the older students involves reading, there is a natural lure for the young child. Typically, beginning at age two or three, Montessori children are introduced to a few letters at a time until they have mastered the entire alphabet. They trace each letter as it would be written, using two fingers of their dominant hand. As they trace the letter’s shape, they receive three distinct impressions: they see the shape of the letter, they feel it’s shape and how it is written and they hear the teacher pronounce its sound.

The Sandpaper Letters are a set of prepared wooden tablets in which each letter is printed in white sandpaper, glued down against a smooth colored background. Montessori’s research confirmed what observant parents have always known: Children learn best by touch and manipulation, not by repeating what they are told. Her manipulative approach to teaching children to read phonetically is nothing short of simple brilliance and should have long ago become a basic element in every early childhood classroom around the world. Children move from the Sandpaper Letters to tracing them in fine sand. The teacher and child will begin to identify words that begin with the kuh sound: cat, candle, can and cap. Seeing the tablets for the letters c, a and t laid out before her, a child will pronounce each in turn, kuh, aah, tuh: cat! To help children distinguish between them, consonants are printed against pink or red backgrounds and vowels against blue.

Many Montessori classrooms use Sandpaper Letters that don’t follow the traditional circle-and-line approach of teaching a young child the alphabet. Both cursive alphabets and D’Nelian letters (a modified form of italic printing that facilitates the jump to cursive) are available and used with excellent results. Montessori found that children in her schools were capable of encoding words months before they developed the eye-hand coordination needed to control a pencil. By using specially prepared moveable alphabets, Montessori separated the process of beginning to write from its dependency on the child’s ability to write with paper and pencil.

The Writing Road to Reading

To help children develop the eye-hand coordination needed to correctly grasp and write with a pencil, Montessori introduced them to a set of metal frames and insets made in the form of geometric shapes. When the geometric inset is removed, the children trace the figure left within the frame onto a sheet of paper. Then they use colored pencils to shade in the outlines that they’ve traced, using careful horizontal strokes. Gradually children become more skilled at keeping the strokes even and staying within the lines. As they get older, children begin to superimpose several insets over each other, creating complex designs which, when colored in, resemble stained glass. Montessori children will often prepare beautiful little books of their metal inset work.

Composing Words (Articles and Nouns) with the Moveable Alphabet

Montessori teaches basic skills phonetically, encouraging children to compose their own stories using the Moveable Alphabet. Reading skills normally develop so smoothly in Montessori classrooms that students tend to exhibit a sudden “explosion into reading” which leaves the children and their families beaming with pride.

Another unusual result of the Montessori approach is that young children will often be able to write (encoding language by spelling phonetic words out one sound at a time), weeks or months before they will be able to read comfortably (decoding printed words).

Once children have begun to recognize several letters and their sounds with the Sandpaper Letters, they are introduced to the Moveable Alphabet, a large box with compartments containing plastic letters, organized much like an old-fashioned printer’s box of metal type. The children compose words by selecting a small object or picture and then laying out the word one letter at a time. As with the Sandpaper Letters, they sound out words one letter at a time, selecting the letter that makes that sound.

The phonetic approach, which has mysteriously fallen out of favor in many schools, has long been recognized by educators as the single most effective way to teach most children how to read and write. However, we have to remember that, unlike Italian and Spanish, English is not a completely phonetic language. Just consider the several different sounds made by the letters ough. There is the sound off as in cough, or uff as in rough or enough, or the sound oooh as in the word through, or the sound ah as in thought. Altogether, there are some ninety-six different phonograms (combinations of letters that form distinct sounds) in the English language (such as ph, ee, ai, oo, etc.)

It is not surprising that in the early years, as young children are beginning to compose words, phrases, sentences and stories, their spelling can sometimes get a bit creative. For example, the word phone is frequently spelled fon. Montessori teachers deliberately avoid correcting children’s spelling during these early years, preferring to encourage them to become more confident in their ability to sound words out rather than risk that they will shut down from frequent correction.

The process of composing words with the Moveable Alphabet continues for many years, gradually moving from three-letter words to four- and five-letter words with consonant blends (fl, tr, st), double vowels (oo, ee), silent e’s and so on.

As children begin to work with the Sandpaper Letters, teachers will lead them through a wide range of pre-reading exercises designed to help them recognize the beginning, and later the ending and middle, sounds in short phonetic words. One common example would be a basket containing three Sandpaper Letters, such as c, b and f. In addition, the basket will contain small, inexpensive objects that are models of things beginning with these letters. The basket described above might contain little plastic objects representing a cat, cap, can, bug, bag, bat, flag, frog and fan. In another exercise, we will substitute little cards with pictures instead of the small objects.

Cards with the names of familiar objects are commonly found in most kindergartens. However, in Montessori, children take this much further, learning the names of and placing the appropriate labels on a bewildering array of geometric shapes, leaf forms, the parts of flowers, countries of the world, land and water forms and much, much more. Montessori children are known for their incredible vocabularies. Where else would you find four-year-olds who can identify an isosceles triangle, rectangular prism, the stamen on a flower or the continent of Asia on a map?

When will children start to read?

There is typically a quick jump from reading and writing single words to sentences and stories. For some children, this “explosion into reading” will happen when they’re four, for others when they’re five and some will start to read at six. A few will read even earlier and some others will take even longer. Most will be reading very comfortably when they enter first grade, but children are different, and as with every other developmental milestone, it’s useless to fret. Again, the children are surrounded by older children who can read, and the most intriguing things to do in the classroom depend on one’s ability to read. This creates a natural interest and desire to catch up to the “big kids” and join the ranks of readers. As soon as children, no matter how young they are, show the slightest interest, we begin to teach them how to read. And when they are ready, the children pull it all together and are able to read and write on their own.

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