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In this two-part series, we’ll explain how Montessori schools teach reading and why writing is actually taught first. We’ll also go over the different Montessori language materials and show you how they work together to guide the child’s experience and create confident writers and readers.

The Montessori language materials fit into five categories: pre-literacy, writing, reading, grammar, and word study. In this article we cover the necessary pre-literacy skills that need to be in place in order for a child to have success with reading. Next week we’ll look at the relationship between writing and reading.

Laying the Foundation: Pre-Literacy Skills

There are six pre-literacy skills that need to be in place in order for a child to be a successful reader. They are:

  1. Motivation – Children need to want to read
  2. Print Awareness – They need to be aware of written language all around them
  3. Letter Knowledge – They need to be able to identify individual letters and sounds
  4. Vocabulary – Children with an expansive vocabulary have an easier time learning how to read
  5. Narrative Skills – They need to be able to retell a story and understand sequencing
  6. Phonological Awareness – Children need to be able to isolate the individual sounds within words
How do Montessori schools teach reading?
Reading is always better with friends!

Pre-Literacy at Home

Pre-literacy skills begin before birth, as a baby is able to hear spoken language and music in the womb. Once born, babies are further exposed to language, reading, music, and conversation in daily life. Reading to your child is one of the best things you can do to help them develop into a strong reader. Pointing out written language in your daily environment, playing games like “I-spy,” and making silly rhymes or songs are all simple ways to make language come alive.

Children should also see others reading for pleasure (motivation) and be allowed to select a favorite story over and over again for story time (narrative skills). Let your child be positioned so that they can see the words on the page and point to each word as you read it (print awareness). Exposure to a wide variety of books and social situations helps build vocabulary, and sounding out and spelling commonly seen words helps develop letter knowledge and phonological awareness.

Pre-Literacy in the Montessori Primary Classroom

By the time most three year olds are entering the Montessori classroom, all six skills have started developing to some degree. Now it’s time to build upon what’s already in place.

Motivation: In the mixed-age Montessori classroom, children who are already interested in learning to read will see their older classmates doing just that. Younger children look up to their older peers and emulate their behavior. The motivation to read must be present, if a child is to take the next steps towards reading independently. If a child who is not yet interested in reading is pushed into trying too soon, they will struggle and the process will cease to be enjoyable. Montessori teachers work with each child at his or her own pace. Once a child gains confidence in each area of the process, they become self-motivated to continue.

Print Awareness and Letter Knowledge: Written language is all over the early childhood classroom. There are name tags on cubbies, labels on shelves, books in a reading corner, and so much more. The sandpaper letters are used to teach the formation of each letter (the child traces each letter with their fingertips in the correct form as instructed by the teacher). Along with each letter, the child also learns the phonetic sound each letter makes. Sandpaper letters are used with a variety of additional materials to reinforce the beginning sounds and short vowel sounds that will be needed to start writing with the moveable alphabet.

Vocabulary and Narrative Skills: In the Montessori world, we use the proper names for trees, flowers, birds, and anything else we can identify in our environment. In particular, the Montessori science and geography curricula expand a child’s vocabulary through scientific nomenclature and exposure to different cultures. Circle Time provides opportunities to read books, sing songs, and share stories. In its very structure, Circle Time has a beginning, middle, and an end. For children who are learning to sequence, make predictions, and anticipate what comes next, Circle Time is an important point of reference for the story of their day.

Phonological Awareness: Once a child gains confidence in their knowledge of phonetic sounds through the sandpaper letters, they are introduced to the moveable alphabet. The moveable alphabet consists of a wooden box with small compartments for each letter of the alphabet and multiple wooden versions of each letter. This material helps a child advance from pre-literacy to early writing. Writing is the bridge between pre-literacy and reading and is an important step in the Montessori language sequence. Children work with small objects and then picture cards to sound out three, and then four-letter words. Working with a teacher, they learn how to break each word into individual sounds, find the sounds in the box, and lay them in the correct order on the rug.

Additional Skills Required for Reading

Throughout the Montessori curriculum, lessons are presented from left to right and top to bottom. This aides in developing the eye strength necessary to track the letters in a word, and the words in a sentence, from left to right and down the page. Children also need to be able to visually discriminate between font styles and sizes and recognize and memorize frequently occurring words and sight words, like “the” or “are.”

There are plenty of fun, engaging materials on the language shelves to help:

  • Sorting into categories (ie. cats and dogs, big and small, or sorting by a distinguishing feature, like color or shape)
  • Matching pairs that are the same (identical objects or pictures on cards)
  • Matching pairs that go together but are different (bird=nest)
  • Traditional toys and games like puzzles and Memory can also be adapted to fit the curriculum

The foundation has been set! Next up: writing! Why do Montessori schools teach writing before reading? We’ll cover that next week as we continue our deep dive into the Montessori language curriculum.

Additional Resources:

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Children’s House Montessori School of Reston (CHMS) is a small, family-oriented school located in a peaceful wooded setting in Reston, Virginia. We believe that a child’s first school experience should be filled with curiosity, exploration and opportunities for  independence. We offer half-day and full-day Montessori programs for children 3 years of age through kindergarten.

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