Early Math and Language Skills: Pre-Reading

You can never start reading to children too early, right?

Earlier in this series, I talked about what an incredibly complex task reading is when you stop to consider all that it requires. The reason children in Montessori tend to write before they read is because reading requires the child to not only learn the sounds associated with a whole system of symbols (the 26 letters of the alphabet), but also to decode combinations of these symbols that have been put together by someone else. It makes sense that children should enjoy creating their own messages with their newly acquired written language skills before they bother with trying to decode the messages of others. As in all things, we should follow the child, but for most writing and then reading is a pretty reasonable way of going about things.

How, then can we set up an environment that gives children plenty of opportunities to prepare for reading? I have discussed quite a few ideas for the very young child already, but I wanted to touch on a few ideas for the young preschool aged child who is already adept at the skills discussed previously and will soon be ready to begin writing and reading. As with the previous posts in this series, I’ll briefly discuss what is done in the Montessori classroom before touching on some ways parents can support children in their reading preparation at home. By no means will this be an exhaustive list, but hopefully it will start you thinking and lead you to some ideas of your own – ideas I hope you’ll share!

Visual and Auditory Discrimination

Sandpaper Letters and Homemade Tactile Letter Cards

Visual and auditory discrimination were both discussed earlier in this series, so I won’t get into too much detail in this installment. As children refine this skill, however, and reach the point of really preparing to read, it’s time to provide them with materials for learning and discriminating between the actual letter forms. The Sandpaper Letters are ideal for this purpose, as they not only allow the child to visually take in the letter forms, but to feel them as well. Two or three letters, preferably of contrasting shapes, are introduced at a time until the child has learned all 26. The next post in this series will go into exhaustive detail about the sandpaper letters and focus on how, exactly the process of introducing them goes in the classroom.

At home, handmade letter cards can be used instead, or parents can purchase their own set of sandpaper letters. I won’t personally purchase many Montessori materials for home use, but if we don’t find a school for Annabelle, I will definitely buy a set of Sandpaper Numerals and Sandpaper Letters. I have seen DIY tactile letter cards made by using sandpaper, loose sand glued to card, coarse fabric glued to card, or by mounting storebought textured foam letters. More on all this next week!

The “I Spy” Game
The general ideas I offered when I spoke about auditory discrimination previously are a great starting point. These can be built on as children prepare for reading, with activities that call attention and begin refining the child’s ear to individual letter sounds. In the classroom, we typically do this first with the “I Spy” game. The basic concept of this game is familiar to most of us, but in the classroom we do it just a bit differently. Typically it is played with a small collection of objects, each having a different beginning sound. A few appropriate objects are spread out on a table or rug and identified, along with their beginning sounds. The teacher and child then take turns saying, “I spy with my little eye something that starts with ___.” The first, and usually only clue given is the beginning sound (not letter) of the object being “spied.” The letters themselves are not used here, as the focus is solely on auditory discrimination. Once the child has learned to differentiate between individual sounds through the “I Spy” game, they can usually move on to work with the sandpaper letters with which they further develop their skills of auditory discrimination while also connecting the sounds themselves with the letters that make them.

The “I Spy” game can easily be played at home as well and, once children have really gotten the hang of it, in the car, in waiting rooms, in line at the supermarket, or really anywhere at all.

Playing with Letter Sounds
You can also simply draw attention to and discuss beginning sounds in the everyday, as in: “Mama, where’s daddy?” “He went out to walk the dog… Hey! D-addy, d-og – those both start with the same sound – D!” Of course, even better is rich, poetic literature for children that contains alliteration, rhymes, or any quality that draws attention to the similarities between words and how they sound. Of course reading in general is a wonderful way to prepare children for a lifetime love of the same, starting at any age and skill level.

If you’re really feeling into it, you can try making sound themed meals. Pasta, pickles, and peaches could all be on offer at lunch time, then soup, sandwiches, and salad for dinner and strawberries for dessert. Surely I’m not the only nerd who finds alliteration fun?

Once the concept of beginning sounds is well established, you can try grouping words that begin with the same sound. To do this, you might use objects. Take an empty basket and go around the house on a hunt to find things that begin with a particular sound. Of course children are always interested in things that pertain to them, so starting with the first sound of their name is usually a hit. You can go along at first, perhaps suggesting a couple of objects, and then busy yourself with something else to see what your child collects on their own.

You can also use old magazines to search for pictures that start with the same sound, cut or tear them out, and then glue them on to paper, or simply keep them in an envelope. Drawing or painting pictures is another option. With a little advanced preparation, you can even make a sensory bin filled with beans or rice and hide a collection of small objects that start with the same sound inside for your child to find.

Once children are ready for more of a challenge than simple grouping offers, you can give them opportunities to sort words that begin with two different sounds. If you collected small objects for a sensory tub, you could mix together and hide objects beginning with two contrasting sounds, then give the child two small baskets to sort them into by sound. Once this becomes too easy, you can try adding a third sound, or even using two very similarsounds (b and d, for example) for a real challenge.

Making the Connection
I don’t see value in formally introducing letters before children have really gotten the hang of discriminating between their individual sounds, but some will disagree with me and some children will pick them up all on their own anyway. For children who can pair sound with letter already, you can involve the symbol letters in any of the activities above. When hunting for objects that start with a certain sound, for example, you can place a card or slip of paper with the corresponding letter in your basket before you get started. This will reinforce the connection between the sounds and the letters that represent them. You can also return to all of these activities as you do introduce the letters, adding them and increasing the complexity as appropriate for your child.


As children prepare to bring together all of the complex skills involved in reading, they continue to benefit from puzzles of all kinds. Hand eye coordination and problem solving skills, both of which puzzles help children develop, are extremely beneficial to the new reader.


Sequencing activities are wonderful for reading comprehension, and simple ones can be introduced at this stage as well. A great way to create sequencing cards relevant to the very young child is to take photos during an important part of their day and print and laminate them. You can photograph the bedtime routine, for example, and then have your child order cards that depict him or her brushing teeth, putting on pajamas, and reading a bedtime story based on what is done first in your home.

I really love this stage of reading preparation and the many opportunities for play that it provides. It’s really all about having fun with your child as they begin to discover language on a more conscious level. If you’re a language lover like I am, it’s a thrill to watch this discovery!

This post is linked up with Montessori Monday at Livingmontessorinow.com. Stop by, and be inspired! :)

5 thoughts on “Early Math and Language Skills: Pre-Reading

  1. Amy

    This series had me wondering if you have re-looked your decision about sending A to school soon. I’ll be interested to see how that journey goes!
    It’s amazing how enriching “play” is for children- your series certainly proves that!

    1. melissa Post author

      I have a plan for school in the works and, if it pans out, it will definitely make for a huge amount of blogging material! Stay tuned! :)

  2. Discovering Montessori

    Is Elliot smiling? Annabelle is already a pro at being the big sister !! Sorry if I misspelled his name. I agree that it is never too early to start reading to your children. Your postings in this series are very encouraging. I am learning a lot here !! In my experience the pre reading activities lead the way for a lot of successful readers. Unfortunately I can forget to follow these steps, but when I do pure success. Thank you for the reminders, examples of activities and for sharing your insights. I sure do appreciate it!!

  3. Rach

    Thanks again so much. Another one to print out. Some fab idea. Nothing to add myself, but to mention that with “sequencing” I printed off some story cards for “Baa baa black sheep” as B loves that song. Mind you she doesn’t seem too interested in it, but your idea about bedtime sounds great.


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