There are innumerable statistics and studies on the importance of literacy and language in a child’s early years; what is clear from the evidence is that exposure to language and reading at a young age correlates positively to a child’s future academic success. Dr. Montessori found that the sensitive period for language–when a child is particularly receptive to learning language–begins at birth and lasts through the fifth or sixth year. It is up to us as educators and guardians to provide the exposure, environment and structure that children need during this time. Upon receiving the right tools Dr. Montessori described children’s “explosion” into reading and writing, when it suddenly all came together with great momentum. At House on the Hill we teach language, reading and writing the Montessori way. We use phonics and hands-on materials to empower children with the tools and confidence to master literacy.
Preparing a child for reading and writing is built into the Montessori environment. For example, materials are arranged in order of complexity on the shelves, always progressing from left to right, top to bottom. This rule actually applies to many aspects of Montesori teaching, as a subtle way to prepare children to read and write English. Other materials may not be part of the language curriculum, but help build up the necessary skills. One example are the metal insets used for tracing and learning mastery of the pencil by drawing straight lines. This skill builds up the muscles children need to write.
All children begin their language journey with the sandpaper letters. One of the most well-known Montessori materials, the sandpaper letters are the first aid in learning phonics. Each box contains 26 wooden cards with the shape of the letter constructed in sandpaper over a smooth pink (consonant) or blue (vowel) background. Sandpaper letters are often taught using the three period lesson. After the child has set up their work space with a table mat and the sandpaper letters, the teacher will present one letter by tracing her finger and pronouncing the phonic sound. The child will copy the teacher, using one or two fingers to trace the letter in the direction it would be written saying the phonic sound. In the second period, once the child has been introduced to a few letters, the teacher may present two or three at once and ask the child, “which is /p/?” Finally, in the third period the teacher will present one letter and ask the child, “what sound is this?” The three period lesson is characteristic of Montessori’s belief in isolating concepts at the beginning of learning, and letting the child revisit the same lesson in new ways multiple times. Only later will children learn the names of the letters, for example “X is the name of /ks/”.
Once the child has learned the phonic alphabet they will be ready to begin building words and sounding out the spelling for objects in their daily lives. The Large Movable Alphabet is one of the first tools for spelling. After getting acquainted with the material the child will begin with objects or pictures of three letter words that use short vowels: cat, pot, bed. As their understanding and mastery grows they will be introduced to other parts of language: blended consonants like “sh” or “pl” and phonemes like “ie” or “ou”. English is a less phonetically spelling language than Dr. Montessori’s native Italian, but materials have been created to help bridge this gap.
As they learn these nuances of English, children are reading, writing, and working with materials that allow them to practice, notice patterns and differences, and find confidence in their abilities. This is helping them to build a foundation for them to go on to master the language as they grow!