Keys to Reading: Language in the Montessori Primary (3-6) Environment

Sandpaper letters
          When the child enters the Primary at three years old, she is exposed to a rich spoken language experience--listening to stories and poems, singing songs and working with classified vocabulary cards that help develop her spoken language skills.   In addition, general conversations with peers are also beneficial and enriching because of the mixed-ages of the children.
     When it comes to reading, the most important thing to keep in mind is that we don't teach it.  That's not to say that the children don't learn to read--they do.  How they get to that point is what makes the Montessori approach to reading different. 

        In the beginning, there is a great deal of 'indirect preparation' for reading as work is done with the Practical Life and Sensorial materials.  These very important activities, like polishing, washing tables, folding cloths, sorting, matching, grading, etc. , along with a rich spoken language environment allow the child to eventually "explode into reading."
     What we do, is teach the child keys to reading which allow her to discover that she can read.  Believe me, this is not as easy as it sounds, which is why it is important for both home and school to be supporting the child through this journey of discovery.

        Some of the materials that we use to help your child explode into reading include the Sound Games (a box of assorted objects that are used to help the child identify beginning, ending and middle sounds), Sandpaper Letters(cursive or print letters cut out of sandpaper and mounted on a board) and the Moveable Alphabet (cut out letters in a box organized from a to z). 

         The Sandpaper Letters help her link individual sounds to their corresponding letter symbols and we begin working with them once she demonstrates an awareness of sounds and is able to link a particular sound to a given object.  For example, bat begins with 'b'

Moveable Alphabet
          As soon as he is able to consistently link the sound with the symbol, we begin working with the Moveable Alphabet, which helps him transition from analyzing individual sounds (like p, o, t) to synthesizing an unknown word (p, o, t says pot).  

       The expectation is not for him to be able to read the word, but just for him to synthesize words based on the sounds that he knows are in that word.  We spend a lot of time working with the Moveable Alphabet, starting with writing three letter words (fan), to four-letter words (stop), to more complex words (pumpkin, basket), to short phrases (hot pan, red box) and eventually to writing sentences and then stories.

           As we know, there is a huge difference between deciphering one word and reading a story book.  The point at which the child is able to synthesize words is where begin introducing the keys to reading.  These keys include the phonetic sounds (or the short vowel sounds and consonants--the alphabet); and the phonograms (or digraphs--two or more letters that combine to make one sound.)  For example, -oa makes the sound "o" (long vowel sound)
Phonetic Reading Cards
     The phonetic sounds (which are included in our Sandpaper Letters), along with the phonogram sounds, cover about 85% of the words in the English language; and we teach them very methodically to the children.  The remaining words belong in the category of words that do not follow any particular rules of pronunciation, which Montessori calls puzzle words, and these the child will memorize.
Sentences symbolized with Grammar Symbols
        Additional keys to reading that we teach include reading classification--materials that give the child lots of practice reading and include grammar and the grammar symbols and sentence analysisReading Classification activities call the child's attention to the fact that there are different functions that words play in different phrases.  For instance, the word sitting, in the phrase: the sitting cow, sitting functions as an adjective because it is describing the cow and differentiating it from among a group of cows.  Symbolizing the phrases helps the child identify the functions of the word and give meaning to what is being read: the word cow is a noun, the is an article and sitting is the adjective.
    Sentence analysis activities give the child practice with understanding the meaning of a sentence by looking at the relationship between the parts of a sentence.  For example, for the sentence: Mary chopped the lettuce, the child gains an understanding that Mary is the direct object because she performed the action; chopped is the action or the predicate/verb; and the lettuce is the indirect object because it was acted upon.
Sentence Analysis chart

       Armed with these keys, the child could mechanically read any word--we call this deciphering. However, there is more to reading than just deciphering the word.  This something more that we are looking for the child to demonstrate, is what Montessori calls, total reading.  By this, she means that the child understands all she reads and is developing a deep comprehension or awareness of the person behind the words--- conveyed through context or simply in the style of writing.  In any event, when she reads aloud with expression and feeling, we can say that she has arrived at the point of total reading.  From that point on, the sky is the limit!

        For a child, reading a story book is much more difficult than reading individual words, and each child gets to this place in their own time.  It is important that as adults, we try not to rush him through this process, nor skip any of the steps.

           As parents, we can support our children through this process by engaging them in fun activities that heighten their awareness of sounds and the relationships between sounds and letters.  We also need to model good reading, choosing books that have a rich and varied vocabulary, and using words the child does not hear everyday.  In addition, we should create an environment that fosters reading, providing books, games, movement activities, songs, rhymes and plenty of conversation to encourage his "explosion into reading."

Rhonda Lucas-Sabater is an AMI trained Primary (3-6 years old) guide.  She is the mother of five Montessori children and the co-founder of a public charter Montessori school in Washington, DC.  She is also AMI trained at the Assistants to Infancy (O-3) and Elementary (6-12) levels and is an AMI certified Adolescent guide.

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