By the time most children graduate from kindergarten at the Montessori School of Syracuse they are able to write sentences using inventive (phonetic) spelling and read simple children’s books. The Montessori classroom provides a large array of materials aimed at guiding the child along this journey.
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 will provide guidance and oversee the child’s progress, it is the child’s own enthusiasm and excitement which lead the way.
Learning to Write
To be able to write, a child must develop a two-fold skill. He must commit to memory the shape of the letters and their corresponding sounds, and he must develop the muscular skill necessary for using the pencil with control.
The Montessori approach offers the child the opportunity to learn the shapes and sounds of the letters in a way that is completely independent from her perfection of the motor skill. The child, therefore, in the Montessori classroom learns to write not by writing, but by performing a number of purposefully structured activities which prepare her both indirectly and directly for facility in handwriting.
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 rather than saying em. She suggests words like Mommy or muffin which begin with this sound. The child then repeats the sound and usually mentions additional words in which this sound is used, like man or mine.
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” where children are encouraged to find similar objects that begin or end with the same sound, children learn to associate words with their accompanying letter sounds. This is 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.
Sometime during the years when a child is in the Primary classroom, an exciting thing happens. After he has worked for a while with the Metal Insets and the Sandpaper Letters, his motor skills and phonetic skills, which have been developing in parallel, converge. When a child discovers that his hands and fingers are able to form letters, and that he knows how to string those letters together to make meaningful words, he has entered into what Dr. Montessori called an “explosion into writing.”
At the Montessori School of Syracuse, we teach our Primary students to write in cursive. A child’s natural tendency when they first use a pencil is to draw loopy, connected figures. Cursive writing follows this natural tendency, allowing children to form letters without having to pick up their pencil and put it down in a new place – something that is difficult for children who are just developing their fine motor control. In addition, the use of cursive tends to eliminate the letter reversals (b and d, q and p, s) that occur with printing. Finally, once a child has mastered cursive, printing follows quite naturally – with almost no effort.
The Movable Alphabet
After the child has learned 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. Then she selects the letter for the second sound and finally the third.
This exercise is a wonderful example of why it is more important to teach the sounds of letters than their names. Imagine the confusion of a child who knows only the letter names when he is faced with “bee eee dee says bed.”