To be able to read and write, a child must develop a two different skills: 1) he must commit to memory the shape of the letters and their corresponding sounds, and 2) he must develop the muscular skill necessary for using the pencil with control. The Montessori approach allows the child to learn both the shapes and sounds of the letters in a way that is completely independent from perfection of the motor skill. Therefore, a Montessori student learns to write not by writing, but by performing several purposefully structured activities which prepare the hand both indirectly and directly for facility in handwriting.
During these three years in the Montessori classroom, an exciting thing happens. After he has worked for a while with the the materials, the child’s motor skills and phonetic skills (which have been developing in parallel activities) converge together. When a child discovers that his hands and fingers can form letters, and that he knows how to string those letters together to make meaningful words, he has entered what Dr. Montessori called an “explosion into writing.”
By the time most children complete their third year in a Montessori primary classroom, they can read simple children's books and write sentences using inventive (phonetic) spelling. What makes the Montessori approach to reading and writing unique is that the materials have been designed to allow children to proceed at their own pace, independently. While a teacher provides guidance and oversees the child’s progress, it is the child’s own enthusiasm and excitement which lead the way.
The child is introduced to the alphabetical symbols by using the Sandpaper Letters. Each letter of the alphabet is outlined in sandpaper on an individual card, the vowels in blue and the consonants in red. The teacher shows the child how to trace the letter with two fingers in the way the symbol is normally written.
The Sandpaper Letters teach the child to associate the letters of the alphabet with specific sounds. (For example, when presenting the letter m, the teacher makes a humming sound of /m/ rather than saying the name of the letter /em/. She suggests words like Mommy or muffin which begin with this initial sound. The child then repeats the sound and usually mentions additional words in which this sound is used, like me or moon.
This phonetic approach to language builds a child’s phonemic awareness, a process that teachers have begun even before introducing the Sandpaper Letters. By playing games of “I Spy,” children are encouraged to find similar objects that begin or end with the same sound. Thus, children learn to associate words with their accompanying letter sounds, an essential building block in the child’s process of learning how to read and write.
The child in a Montessori classroom learns to control a pencil by filling in outlines – an activity which does not weary her because she enjoys it. To make the outline, she uses a material known as the Metal Insets. Each inset represents a different geometric shape. After selecting a figure and tracing it on paper, the child fills in the outline with a colored pencil of her own choosing. With careful up and down strokes, she attempts to touch the top of the outline and then the bottom as she completes the design.
This exercise helps her develop small motor control and her pencil grip without the distraction of trying to form letters. The “filling in” of the geometric shape provides an additional opportunity for artistic expression as these materials are used by the older child to create increasingly complex geometric patterns
After the child has mastered the Sandpaper Letters, she is ready to make words with the large Movable Alphabet. For this activity, the teacher prepares a box of objects representing three letter words with the short vowel sound, such as a bed, a lid, a fan, and a cup.
First the child selects an object, such as the bed, and says the name of it very slowly so she can hear each sound – /b/,/e/,/d/. She then selects the letter to represent the first sound and places it beside the object on a mat. Next, she selects the letter for the second sound and finally the third. (This exercise is a wonderful example of why we teach the sounds of letters rather than their names. Imagine the confusion a child would experience if only introduced to the letter names, such as /bee/, /ee/, /dee/!)
With thanks to Montessori School of Syracuse, NY.