Learning to Read the Montessori Way

Learning to read a girl stands with a blue book in front her face, a colourful alphabet frames her head

Written by Danielle Winkel

Danielle is a lifelong learner in the field of education. She completed her Montessori teacher training in 2001 and graduated with an AMS diploma in Early Childhood. Since then she has gained many years of practical experience in a variety of teaching and administrative roles for schools in Mississauga, Oakville, Brampton and Kitchener. Danielle is a mom to 2 amazing boys who have been her greatest teachers.

July 6, 2022

Learning to read is an exciting milestone in the educational journey of every child. The Language materials in a Montessori classroom, along with a well-trained guide, combine to offer a highly effective method for introducing young children to the skills required to become fluent readers.

As with all the lessons offered to the children, the guide is trained to follow the child and look for signs of readiness in learning to read before introducing formal reading instruction. Research has shown that reading readiness is a developmental milestone. As with other childhood milestones such as walking and talking, there can be a wide range of ages where readiness is acquired.

Children who first enter the early childhood classroom are allowed to explore the preliminary Language materials as the teacher observes how they interact with them. They’re looking for signs such as phonemic awareness—the ability to hear that words are made up of individual sounds, and for the child’s interest in and curiosity about the Language materials. Preliminary materials for learning to read would include vocabulary building cards, where children sort and match pictures to pictures and pictures to objects. Other lessons would be the rhyming games and the sound games, where the guide would play “I Spy” with various objects to highlight the beginning, middle and end sound in words.

All areas of the classroom support language acquisition and preparation for learning to read in indirect ways. All shelves in the classroom are arranged with materials on shelves that are set up in a specific order that goes from left to right to prepare the eyes to track from left to right when reading. When a guide presents a lesson, she sets up her materials from left to right in front of her, providing an example to the child.

Once a child shows signs of being ready to begin learning to read, the guide begins to move through a series of tools, introducing new tools anytime the child shows readiness or interest in more challenge. A guide selects materials to introduce based on many things, but primarily coming down to observation.

We’ve chosen just a few tools to highlight here.

Sandpaper Letters

Sandpaper Letters are a concrete representation of each letter of the alphabet made out of sandpaper for texture. This is the child’s first introduction to the symbols for the sounds in words that we call letters. The guide starts by using the letter sound only, while getting the child to trace the letter. For example, for the letter “a”, the guide shows the child the letter and she asks them to trace it, modeling it first. She says the sound “a” instead of saying the letter name. The purpose of the sandpaper letters is to get the child to experience the letter sound with as many of their senses as possible: their sense of touch, sound, and sight.

Who: 3 – 4 year olds

What: Letters made out of sandpaper, usually mounted on wooden squares. Vowels are blue and consonants are pink.

When: Used for a child who does not know their letter sounds yet

Where: Displayed around the classroom for used in various activities

Why: Sandpaper gives texture so that the child can access three of their senses when learning: their sense of touch; sight; and, hearing.

Once the child knows some sounds and symbols, they can begin to match letter sounds with objects. There are many materials in the classroom that allow the child to practice this skill. Primarily there would be pictures and objects for the child to match to the Sandpaper Letters, or to the letters of the Movable Alphabet.

Movable Alphabet

The Movable Alphabet is a Montessori material accessible to the child with wooden letters that they can use when completing their reading activities. This isolates the skill being taught and separates it from the need to use a pencil and write letters, which is an entirely separate skill altogether. If the child has acquired enough letter sounds and can hear the beginning, middle and end sounds of a 3-letter word, they can begin to build words with the sounds. Typically, they are writing or building words before they are able to really decode them or read them back.

Who: 3 – 6 Year Olds

What: Letters made out of wood, arranged in a tray.

Where: The tray is at the child’s level or placed on the floor so that the child can use the letters to accompany a variety of Language materials.

When: Used when a child has most or all of the Sandpaper Letter sounds

Why: Used to help children isolate the skill of constructing words from individual sounds without having to also add the difficult skill of printing.

Coding and Decoding Words

The Language area has many objects and pictures of 3 letter words so that children can practice building these words first. When a teacher observes a child is ready, they will introduce the next level of difficulty which is matching pictures to words. This requires emerging decoding skills, but still allows a child to be building this skill as they work towards greater fluency. The matching cards progress as follows:

  1. Three letter words
  2. Four letter words
  3. Words with specific phonograms
  4. Sight words
  5. Longer words with blends and digraphs
  6. Sentences
  7. Short books

Digraphs are double letter sounds such as sh, ch and th which are two letters but make only one sound. These are taught to the child through the Sandpaper Phonograms which will be taken out after completing the Sandpaper Letters.

Individual Pacing

Each child progresses through the Language materials at their own pace. A 3-year-old child could be advancing more quickly than a 5 year old child in the same class and this presents no difficulty for either the child or the guide. The guide is respectful of the child’s development as, ultimately, this will determine the pace of the child.

In addition to the Language materials that the child works with on his own, the guide models reading by reading out loud as often as she can. Guides will also set up a classroom library with books that are rotated regularly and an inviting spot to sit. Throughout the day you will always find children in the book corner listening to books on audio or looking through the pictures.

Because it is a mixed-age environment, there are often older children who can read short sentences or words and sometimes even books to the younger children. At IGNITE, the older Discover Studio will also join the Spark Studio from time to time for buddy reading. The classroom is full of opportunities for children at all levels to be appropriately challenged and to awaken their love of reading in a safe, welcoming environment.

At IGNITE: an Acton Academy, we have trained Montessori guides and authentic Montessori materials in our mixed-age Sparks studio ready to help your child get started or continue on their reading journey. If you would like to find out more about our school and our approach to learning you can book a meeting with us using this link.

You may also want to dive deeper into our Learning to Read series, by reading Lisa and her son’s personal journey with struggling to read.

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