This is part four in my series on early math and language skills. In my last post, I discussed the way children learn to pick out and differentiate between individual letter sounds (phoneme isolation) in Montessori schools and shared some ideas for how parents can provide similar activities at home. Once children have become familiar and comfortable with the letter sounds (auditory discrimination), we move on to presenting the individual letters. We do not, however, present the letter names, but instead present each letter in association with its phonetic sound. Of course many letters make more than one sound, but we begin with one common sound for each letter.
In previous posts for this series I have briefly touched on the way things are done in the classroom and then focused on ideas for parents supporting their children’s learning at home. When it comes to the letter sounds, the method used in Montessori schools is useful for nearly all children and can be followed by parents who are supporting their children in learning to read at home instead of in a Montessori school or elsewhere.
Introducing a few sounds at a time
When children have had plenty of opportunities to practice phoneme isolation, they are likely ready to begin learning the sounds in connection with the letters that make them. In Montessori, the material used for this purpose is the Sandpaper Letters. Guides typically introduce only two or three letters at a time. Unless a child has had a great deal of exposure to sounds and letters already, I usually begin with two.
In order to make the first lessons as meaningful as possible for the child, teachers often choose which letters to present based on what is important to the individual child. For children who are just becoming familiar with letters for the first time, it also helps to choose some which are contrasting. With Annabelle, for example, I may give the first sandpaper letters lesson on a and t, since a is the first sound in her name and t is another very common letter which is contrasting in both shape and sound.
Before any tactile work in the classroom, it is a good idea to begin by sensitizing fingers. Based on my observations, it seems that many guides skip this step, perhaps finding it too tedious, while others simply send children to the sink to wash their hands. Others, however, have a special tray used for the sensitizing fingers exercise. At home, just washing hands at the sink may be the most practical thing to do.
We present the Sandpaper Letters in what is referred to as a “Three Period Lesson.” I’ll explain the steps as they pertain to the Sandpaper Letters, with a and t as my examples.
In the first period, we introduce the letters one at a time. Remember that as we introduce them, we are calling each letter by the sound it makes rather than introducing the letter names, which are not actually helpful in learning to write or read. There is a list of the sounds presented at the end of this post.
The guide sits with a child at a rug or the table and places one Sandpaper Letter in front of the child. While tracing the letter in the same way one would write it, he or she says, “This is a. Can you say a?” The child is then given the opportunity to trace and say the sound as well. To provide context and meaning for the child, the guide names a few things that begin with the sound. For example, “A is the first sound in Annabelle.” After this, the first sound is taken away (I usually place it face down on my lap if at a table, or behind my back if at a rug) and the second is introduced in the same way.
In the second period, we give the child opportunities to practice identifying, tracing, and saying the sounds being worked with. Both letters are placed on the table and the guide gives a series of directions such as, “Can you point to a?” “Can you trace t?” “Can you place a on my knee?” “Can you place t on your knee?” The length of this stage depends on the child, but it can go on for some time and as long as the child is enjoying it, can provide a great opportunity to practice tracing, saying, and otherwise reinforcing the new sounds. When the guide is confident that the child has had sufficient practice, it’s time to move to the third period.
What is this?
In the third period, both letters are placed side by side on the table or rug. The guide can ask the child to do this at the end of the second period. The guide points to the first letter and asks the child, “What is this?” After the child produces the correct letter sound, the guide encourages them to “trace and say [letter sound].” The same is done with the second sound and if the child remembers the new sounds, the lesson is complete. If the child answers incorrectly, it’s up to the guide to follow his or her lead and determine whether the child is simply not yet ready for this work, or whether additional practice is all that is needed. The guide can return to the second stage for additional practice, or smile and put the work away for a later date.
After finishing a lesson on the sandpaper letters, the guide can offer an activity that allows for additional practice. After a lesson on a and t, for example, he or she can ask the child, “Would you like to make a and t in the sand tray?” At some point, I’ll write a post on ideas for additional letter practice.
After this initial presentation, the sandpaper letters a child has learned should be available for him or her to trace and practice at any time and, once mastered, the guide can begin to introduce new sounds. Before adding new sounds, it’s beneficial to check that the child remembers the first sounds learned. He or she may recall them at the end of the initial lesson, but forget them by the next day. For this reason, I always liked to take recently presented sounds out before introducing new ones. After my imaginary a and t lesson with Annabelle, I might bring a, t, and b to the table and invite Annabelle to trace and say a and then t. If she remembers both, I can do a three period lesson with t and b, which will give additional practice with t while introducing b. I could also work with all three sounds together, or put a and t away and bring out another sound to include in a presentation with b.
This process continues until the child has mastered all 26 letters and their sounds.
Key things to remember
In addition to providing a multi-sensory experience with each letter, the Sandpaper Letters are designed to prepare the child for writing by giving him or her the opportunity to practice tracing them. This practice is of little use if the letters are not traced in the same way that we would write them. Make sure that when you present new letters, you trace them exactly as they are written, starting at the starting point and continuing with a fluid motion. If you’re rusty on proper handwriting, do a search for handwriting worksheets. Many include arrows that indicate the correct direction and can jog your memory.
Make sure that you consistently present the same sound for each letter, as done in the list below. The letter names are not useful for reading or writing. Children tend to pick these up on their own, but they can also be taught later on if you feel that knowing them is necessary.
Follow the Child
Watch for signs of readiness and then follow the child’s interests as you go along. There is really no rush, and children will learn best when they are ready and interested. End the lesson anytime you note a lack of readiness or interest.
The Sounds Introduced in Montessori
When presenting, ensure that you isolate each sound as completely as possible. Without thinking, it’s easy to present consonants with a vowel attached. B does not make the sound “buh”, but simply b. This becomes especially important when children are ready for blending sounds to create whole words. There is no “uh” in the word baby or ball, and so attaching one only complicates things for the child who is otherwise ready to begin blending.
Sandpaper Letters: To Buy or to DIY
As with many Montessori materials, the Sandpaper Letters are not cheap. Nienhuis, which most would consider to be the gold standard for this sort of thing, offers sets of Sandpaper Letters for about $95. Other retailers offer them for as little as about $30, though the quality is likely not the same. If you’re crafty, you can likely create your own set using stencils, sandpaper, and heavy cardstock or thin sheets of wood and paint. Deb has some great links to places you can purchase letters as well as tutorials for making your own over at Living Montessori Now.
a as in apple
b as in baby
c as in cat
d as in dog
e as in elephant
f as in frog
g as in green
h as in hat
i as in igloo
j as in jar
k as in kite
l as in leg
m as in moon
n as in nose
o as in octopus
p as in pig
q as in quail
r as in red
s as in sun
t as in tower
u as in umbrella
v as in vest
w as in walrus
x as in box
y as in yellow
z as in zebra
There are so many more details and points of clarification I keep thinking to add to this piece, but if I include everything it will be far too long. That said, if you’d like me to clarify anything, please feel free to ask. I always reply to questions in the comments section so that others wondering the same thing can see the answer. If you’d like an email notification when I post a reply, you can check the little box under the comment form that says, “Notify me of follow-up comments via e-mail.” Of course you can also request that I email you directly.