In this two-part series, we’re explaining how Montessori schools teach reading and why writing is actually taught first. We’re going over the different Montessori language materials and showing 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 our last post we talked about the pre-literacy stage and how the classroom environment and language materials support children in this stage of development.

In this article we’ll look at the relationship between writing and reading and show you how the Montessori materials help a child build confidence in this area.

Why is Writing Taught Before Reading?

People tend to think of “reading and writing” as an ordered pair; first one, then the other. Although we learn how to “read and write” when we are children, the actual developmental sequence of the two is the opposite. We write and then we read.

Think of written words as secret messages that need to be decoded. The unscrambled messages will unlock the clues to an amazing treasure, but you don’t have the cipher or key and you can’t figure it out. You’re just looking at a bunch of jumbled shapes and lines and you have no idea where to begin. That is how reading feels to a young child who is not yet ready. It’s frustrating and stressful and quickly stops being fun!

Now imagine that YOU are the creator of the secret message; the writer! The words are inside your head and you are in control of putting the sounds, letters, and words together to communicate your message. How liberating it is to be in control of the message! You can decide what you want to say and how you want to say it.

Decoding vs. Encoding

Reading is “decoding.” It requires you to look at a word that someone else has created and break that word into individual letters. You then need to remember which phonetic sound each letter makes and string them together to blend them into a word. 

Writing is “encoding.” This means that you take sounds you know and put them together to create words. The word is already inside your head, you’re just sounding out the letters to create the word. A child who has started learning the sounds of the alphabet can think of the word “cat” and then sound out “c – a – t”. Even if she is using physical letters, as seen in the picture below, she is writing the word.

Writing is taught first, because it is easier! It gives the child some sense of control over the outcome of the activity and allows them to be successful fairly quickly. Success builds confidence and a child who has experienced success with an exercise is likely to want to repeat and improve. Once a child has started to learn the phonetic sounds of the alphabet, the transition to writing is a natural one. 

Montessori Writing and Materials

The Montessori language materials are puzzle pieces that fit together to create many opportunities for practice, skill development, creativity, and success. Children return to the language shelves daily throughout their three-years in the Montessori classroom. There is enough variety and difficulty built into each area of the language curriculum to keep things interesting and challenging. With each challenge, comes practice and progress.

The core language materials are the sandpaper letters, moveable alphabet, and metal insets.

Sandpaper letters

  • Children learn the phonetic sounds of the letters while working one-on-one with a teacher.
  • By tracing the textured surface of the letters, children create muscle memory for the shapes of the letters and learn proper letter  formation.
  • The sandpaper letters can be used in a variety of ways to keep the child engaged and interested as they practice and repeat the lessons, while learning the sounds.

Moveable Alphabet

  • Introduced after a child knows 8 to 10 letter sounds, including 1 or 2 vowels, with confidence.
  • Letters are color coded for vowels and consonants. This helps visually isolate vowel sounds, which are often difficult for children to hear in a word.
  • Children learn to build words phonetically, sounding them out and placing each wooden letter on the rug in the order in which they are heard. A teacher works with the child to help them hear and isolate each sound (phonemic awareness).
  • Small objects and picture cards are used as prompts to ensure the child is successful. For example, a child who knows the sounds “m, t, s, a, b, c, r, and i” can use objects or pictures to spell “mat, cat, rat, cab, bat, sit, and bib.”

Once a child has learned enough sounds and is progressing with the moveable alphabet, creative writing happens organically. Creative spelling is encouraged, as it allows children to start writing without needing to know all the rules and variations: U dont ned too no ol the sownz too strt ritng!

Metal Insets

While the Sandpaper Letters and Moveable Alphabet are helping children develop the phonemic awareness, the Metal Insets help strengthen the hand muscles in preparation for writing by hand. The metal insets and frames are more than just simple stencils. This is a lesson in precision, pencil control, fluidity of movement, and pencil pressure. Children love to get creative with the Metal Insets; designing beautiful and intricate patterns and shapes, all while improving the fine motor skills necessary to hold a pencil correctly and write!

Now that we’re writing up a storm and making that bridge into reading, it’s time to practice! There are so many opportunities for a child to practice reading in the Montessori classroom. Whether they are reading about reptiles in science or Claude Monet in art, you can rest assured knowing that your child’s reading and writing skills are well under way!

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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