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Reading and Writing For The Growing Montessori

Is it possible to teach a child to read without being a teacher?

Reading, unlike speech, is a discipline which has to be taught to children. While all human beings end up learning to speak their mother tongue effortlessly, just by being exposed to it during their first years of life, learning to read is different. In order to start reading we all need to receive some prior training and there has to be some degree of interest from the child’s part.

If your children are already attending school, the literacy activities that you do at home will support their learning process when their whole class is taught to read. Anyhow, all children can benefit from a reading program that follows their own pace, because schools just try to teach the same things, to all children, at the same time: usually, there is no space (and no time) for individual needs in public school.

If you intend to have your child at home until the age of compulsory education you might be worried about having to teach your child to read yourself. Depending on where you live, you will have to check your state’s (or country’s) requirements in relation to school attendance legislation if you intend to teach your child at home until the age of five or further. In most countries, obligatory schooling starts around the age of five or six. From then on, children who stay at home must be homeschooled, if their country’s legislation allows it. Some countries start teaching reading skills during preschool, so that children start school knowing how to read, while others wait until first grade to start learning the alphabet. Make sure you are aware of the applicable requirements in your area.

 

COUNTRY

STARTING AGE OF  

COMPULSORY EDUCATION

United States

5-8 (depending on the state, see footnote link for more information).

United Kingdom

5

Australia  

5

Most European countries

5-7

 

Parents who choose to skip formal preschool (outside the home) until their children reach compulsory school age tend to feel a certain unease at the thought of preparing them for school and maybe having to teach them to read on their own. Many worry that their children will be left behind in comparison with their peers who are attending preschool.

 


In order to dispel such preconceived fears, try to remember that learning to read is not a matter of learning sooner or faster, but of learning to read well and finding pleasure in it. If one child begins to decipher his first words at the age of three and another one at the age of seven, studies show that, in the long term, we shouldn’t expect a substantial difference between the reading proficiency of both[30]. Possibly their sensitive period for reading started at a different time, but the end result was the same.

Secondly, in my experience, many homeschooled children learn to read earlier than those who attend public preschool. My theory is that, as I mentioned above, reading is a discipline that must be learnt, and homeschooling parents often strive to offer their child literacy activities and a stimulating environment from a very early age. The child sees letters and words hundreds of times per day, and therefore, almost effortless learning opportunities are virtually endless.

Anyhow, numerous studies show that the exact age at which children begin to read does not usually affect their further academic performance

How children read

At first, children have to sound each letter individually, and then blend those sounds into syllables, which end up forming words. However, as they gain experience, their brain starts to register the most common words as complete units, allowing them to read much faster.

Usually, adults are able to recognize most words just by looking at them for a second. Only when we find ourselves in front of a strange word (for example, a foreign last name), are we forced to read it by sounding each letter, just like a child would.

For this reason, in the Montessori Method children are taught to read following the sequence below:

  1. Letter sounds,
  2. Blending letter sounds into syllables,
  3. Reading words and then sentences.

Recommended literacy activities at home

  1. Reading books to children: you can awaken your children’s interest in reading by simply reading stories to them. 
  2. Sensory activities: many Montessori sensory activities teach concepts related to reading and writing in subtle ways. Some of them help children develop the muscles and coordination of their hands, while others help them learn the directionality of reading (from left to right, from top to bottom), and other useful skills. This is one more reason not to skip sensory and daily life activities, even if you start teaching a three-year-old, as they will lay the foundation for literacy, math and the rest of school subjects.
  3. Writing comes before reading in Montessori: it may seem unusual, but Maria Montessori discovered that children in their schools began to write before they knew how to read. It was easier for them to translate sounds into handwritten signs than to decipher letters already written on paper. In order to do the latter, they would have had to transform letters into sounds first, then into syllables and finally into words. Writing, on the other hand, only required converting sounds into symbols.
  4. Learning materials: the basic materials you will need are:
  • The sandpaper letters,
  • The movable alphabet.

Let’s see where to start.

 

The Montessori reading sequence

In Montessori, we teach the sound of the letters first, and not their name. For example, we will teach the letter S as "ssss" (instead of ess), the letter P as "p-p-p" (instead of pee), etc. This makes it easier to sound words later.

  1. Creating phonological awareness

Before children learn to read, they must develop phonological awareness, which is the ability to recognize the sounds of spoken language. We can help our children develop phonological awareness with games such as trying to identify the beginning sounds of words. Some activities you can include in your day to day are:

Create an alphabet box: you can make it from a drawer storage unit bought at a hardware or home improvement store (they are generally used to store screws and nails). Pick one with 30 small drawers and write a letter on each drawer. Then, find small objects whose name starts with that letter. For example, you can fill the A drawer with an acorn, an almond and a picture of an ant. Explore the drawers and their contents with your child, trying to sound out the name of each object and comparing it to the letters written on the drawers. You can also take everything out and try to guess where each item belongs.

Use rhymes: make up funny rhymes and silly songs as you go about your daily chores, such as "Mary went to the sea / and her aunt caught a beautiful flea". You can play a game where you make up the first verse of a song and your child has to decide what comes next. You can also print pictures of objects with rhyming names and let your child make pairs, such as bat and rat, snow and glow, etc.

Guess the beginning sound: offer your child an object and hand him three sandpaper letters. Then ask him to guess the beginning sound. For example, give the child a book and three cards with the letters b, c and s, and ask him to pick the right card.

 

This material is ideal for introducing the child to the sounds and shapes of the letters. You can buy a set of sandpaper letters (they are not very pricey, and quite useful), but you can also make them at home if you have an hour or two and some leftover materials at hand. I made ours with red and blue cardboard and letters cut out of self-adhesive felt I happened to have at home (you can see them in picture number 74). I printed the letters on paper first and traced them on the back side of the felt with carbon paper. You can also trace the letters (or draw them yourself) on the thinnest sandpaper you can find, although it will be harder to cut than felt. I have also seen great sandpaper letters drawn on cardboard with glitter glue, which gives a nice and attractive texture.

If you print the alphabet from your computer, find a simple, lowercase font, such as:

  • Century Gothic
  • Comic Sans
  • Montessori Font / Montessori Garden Script…

The first two fonts are found in most Windows computers. They might not be the prettiest fonts, but they are easy to read and readily available. The second two were created by volunteering Montessori teachers who kindly allow parents to use them at home. They are not meant for commercial use, but as long as you just use them with your own children you should be fine (in order to find them just type their name in a search engine).  


Working with the sandpaper letters

Start by introducing the child to the first sandpaper letters with a three-part lesson. Always teach each letter by the sound it makes, and not by its name (i. e. the letter M will be "mmm"):

You will say: “This is mmm”, and you will trace it with your finger while you say mmm.

Once your child has learnt his first three letters you will be able to begin forming words with them.

You don’t have to start teaching the letters in alphabetical order. It is actually more effective to choose letters which will allow us to form as many simple, three-letter words as possible. For example, if you start by teaching A, B and D, you will be able to write bad, dab, dad, etc. Choose words which can be easily read by sounding each letter separately (that is, avoid irregular or harder words such as the, saw, our, you, pea…). Some simple three-letter words for you to start with are:

  • Bag
  • Bed
  • Cat
  • Cub
  • Cup
  • Dog
  • Pen
  • Sun…

 

 

Once children know most letters of the alphabet and are able to recognize sounds within words (sound letters one by one), we can introduce them to the movable alphabet.

The movable alphabet is just a wooden box with compartments, each of which contains one lowercase letter. Sometimes vowels and consonants are painted in a different colour (usually one is red and the others blue). This helps children sound words faster. If you can afford to buy a true Montessori movable alphabet, then go ahead because it is a great resource. But your child can learn to read with a cheaper, homemade movable alphabet too. I used magnetic letters with my eldest instead, and finally got a used movable alphabet just a couple of months ago. My eldest learnt to read just fine! Some affordable alternatives are:

  • Hand-drawn or printed letters, on paper or cardboard (if possible, laminate them),
  • Magnetic plastic letters (the ones which are often used on refrigerators).

Find an easy word to start with. If possible, think of a word that might be of interest to your child (i. e. cat, dog, bug…). Say to your child “I am going to write the word bug”.

Pick each letter carefully, while sounding its name. “Bbbb… uhh… gggg”. Let your child help you if he wants to. Be patient and allow him enough time to think. 

Once you have finished, pick another word and start again. Ask your child if he would like to try on his own with this new word. 

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