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Learning Letters The Montessori Way

Updated: Sep 22, 2021


I have had many questions over the years on how to teach kids how to read and write. Which letters do you start with, and how long will it take before they read independently.

First of all, I want to ask you to step back. Observe. Your child may or may not be ready to start this journey. As always in Montessori we make sure that the activities are child led (self-correcting) and fun. It does not help the child to start too soon. In Montessori we follow the child’s natural development. This helps build their intrinsic motivation. If they start when they’re actually showing signs of readiness then they’ll learn faster and get a deeper understanding.

Before diving in to letters, I want you to consider if you have worked enough (and by that I mean a LOT!) on pre-writing and pre-reading activities.

Strengthen the hands by playing outside, digging in the sand, kneading clay, cooking and cleaning.

Work on pencil grip (tripod grip) by working with knobbed puzzles, beading, use small colouring crayons (like rock crayons) and using tongs (transferring work).

Practice fine motor skills

Sound games: Usually, we start around 3 years old with lots of phonics / sound games, like I-Spy. (Here is a link to explain how to play the I-Spy game ) or Rhyming game. Here is an easy Montessori rhyming lesson you can use to enhance your child’s phonemic awareness. We also have I spy mats and lotto rhyme game in our Pink Series bundle

We observe to find out when the child is ready for letter symbols – signs for this would be that:

  • They understand first letter sounds and can hear different sounds in words.

  • They have a good range of vocabulary.

  • They are showing that they find letters interesting.

We then start with the Montessori Sandpaper Letters.

*picture from Nienhuis

These are letters mounted onto wooden squares. Vowels come on a background of blue and the Consonants on a light pink background (you can also find Consonants on blue and Vowels on a pink background, which are used in some schools to correspond with national curriculums). The shapes of the letters themselves are crafted of a high-grit sandpaper, offering the child a point of interest as their fingers follow the gentle slopes of the letters. The reason that Sandpaper Letters are used is because children are sensitive to touch and so they become a multi-sensory learning tool, using touch, sound and sight. We would also start with lower case letters simply because we all use them so much more than upper case. Don’t worry, your child will pick up upper case in time with ease.

At that point the child is also ready for Montessori Sound Baskets / Pouches. This is where you place a few items (around 3 - 4) starting with the same letter SOUND in a basket / pouch. Name them and play some games (like I-Spy). Once the child is more confident, you can mix 2 baskets and have the child sort them. Let the child place the items from the different pouches on top, or next to, the corresponding sandpaper letter.

For writing, we first trace the Sandpaper Letter and write in salt / sand. It makes it easier for the child to erase their mistakes. They can always show you if they feel they have nailed it but usually they just write because they really want to practice and learn.

*Picture: Mie Mari Rusdal

After they have learned most letters, you can introduce a Montessori Movable Alphabet, and they can start writing without even knowing how to hold a pencil! If you’re not familiar with it, the Moveable Alphabet is a brilliant Montessori material which recognises that most children will be able to start spelling out words long before they have the fine motor skills to write them. Writing your own words with an alphabet which can be manipulated is a key part of the Montessori method of learning to read and write – it is thought of as the “bridge” between the two skills. They can write small messages for parents, or little commands like "I want pancakes for breakfast, please" and see how magical it is that someone else can read (and act on!) what they have written.

Some Montessorians* (including myself) use the pink and blue series as an addition when the students have started to learn the letters. They are a set of different activities with lots of phonetic CVC words that children can read easily when they start out. The pink material has three letter words, and the blue has longer words. Typical activities are to match word with picture, play Lotto, read a booklet with only words they have already worked with, combine short sentences with words etc.

*AMI does not use the pink and blue materials as Maria Montessori did not create them, but it is important to note that Montessori was Italian, and that is a phonetic language (words are spelled the way they sound), so when the Montessori Approach came to USA, the guides felt there was something missing part in the Montessori curriculum. They came up with the pink, blue and green series, which is now taught by AMS, Waterpark and many other MACTE accredited programs.

This article has affiliated links to no extra cost to you. Co-authored and edited by Mie Mari Sløk Rusdal and Jude Saffron

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