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The Montessori Method for Teaching the Letter Sounds

Some miniature sandpaper letters from a set I commissioned from my artistic former assistant. These are sandpaper on painted balsa wood.

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.

The Lesson

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.

This is

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.

Show me

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.

Follow Up

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

Writing Direction

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.

Letter Sounds

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.

as in apple

as in baby

as in cat

as in dog

as in elephant

as in frog

as in green

h as in hat

i as in igloo

j as in jar

as in kite

as in leg

as in moon

as in nose

as in octopus

as in pig

as in quail

as in red

as in sun

as in tower

u as in umbrella

as in vest

as in walrus

as in box

as in yellow

as in zebra

Questions?

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.

As usual, I’m linking this post with Montessori Monday on Living Montessori Now, and with Seasonal Celebration Sunday on the Natural Mothers Network.

19 Responses to The Montessori Method for Teaching the Letter Sounds

  • Jessica says:

    Showing a letter and only addressing the sound is how we began speech with the kids when they were very young. We started with two at a time also. With Jase, I only did it this way and didn’t until this year address their names. In my opinion she grasped the concept more thoroughly and quickly than C.J. who I started with names and ended with connecting them to sounds. I LOVE reading these posts. I wish more parents and educators understood the importance of auditory discrimination and it’s importance in early reading and spelling. I have directed many family and friends to read your recent series.

    • melissa says:

      Did you follow a specific system, or just do what seemed logical to you? It sounds like it was very close to Montessori!

      I’m honored to know that you recommended my series. Thank you!

      • Jessica says:

        We began with the letter sounds my children were having the most trouble with, “D”, “T”, “C”, “G”, and after 10 days I saw how C.J. was making the sounds simply by seeing the letter, then I began adding letters. For every letter and sound we also had a series of words that emphasized the sound in the beginning, middle and end. Then we moved to phrases with pictures to work on connective speech. Next thing I knew he new the whole alphabet, then we added the letter name concept and the capital and lower case concept. By four he was reading very simple words it, at, is and so forth. So, I just began phonics which just added the sounds together, introduced some rules and blends and one year later my five year old was reading magic tree house by himself.

  • laura says:

    Absolutely useful, wonderful, well-written post. Thanks a lot for sharing your knowledge.

  • Another great post in your series, Melissa! Thanks so much for linking to Montessori Monday and for adding the link to my sandpaper letters post! I featured your post at the Living Montessori Now Facebook page and added your link to the presentations and ideas section of my sandpaper letters post: Inexpensive and DIY Sandpaper Letters: http://livingmontessorinow.com/2011/12/19/montessori-monday-inexpensive-and-diy-sandpaper-letters/

  • Reading your post reminds me of the difference from the trained and the untrained Montessori Guide. It is something very valuable to have the child complete the sensitizing the fingers presentation, but it is something that I often forget. I always learn something new in your Montessori postings. Thank you for sharing, you always inspire me to want to gain the valuable knowledge I need from Montessori Training.

  • What a great post, I love the idea of being able to feel the letters. We actually had a book like this, with tactile letters, when the kids were younger.

  • Anna says:

    Good post <elissa. Ihope you don't mind my adding a couple of points?!

    The first is that some children need more than one presentation of the first two periods before moving onto the "what is this" part. I found that hard to accept for a while. I thought that either I had given the presentation too soon, or had not given it clearly. However, some children need more than one presentation even when the time is right.

    The second is that often we are encouraged to present the letters in an order that can lead to blending very quickly. I think that this is a mistake. let the child concentrate on learning the sounds and recognising the letters in the environment and blending will follow soon enough.

    Finally, I have found that it is confusing to children to be told that "A" says "a" as in cat. When they move onto the green series or step three, I have had some children who come to a grinding halt on reading because I lied to them. I now introduce the letters by telling them, "This is letter A. It makes lots of different sounds. The one I am going to teach you first is "a" as in cat. Later I'll teach you the other sounds."

    • melissa says:

      I don’t mind at all. I’m glad you did! The school where I interned split the letters into groups, teaching a,b,c,m,s, and t first, then moving on to word building and such with words containing just those letters. It certainly got children blending sooner, but in my own classroom I always preferred to give time for mastery of all of the sounds first.

      Your choice of language when presenting its interesting. I hadn’t thought to do it in that way, but your reasoning certainly makes sense.

  • Thanks for this! I am embarking on my montessori homeschool journey and this is super!

  • Janine says:

    Yet again, this sounds a lot like what we have been instinctively already doing. Awesome! Sebastian has quite a few letters/sounds down now, although I don’t think he’s anywhere near the fine motor coordination required to write them. He does love to move letters around on the fridge, etc though (and is fascinated with letters anywhere he sees them and attempts to make their sounds) so maybe that’s a start.

    I had never thought about it before we had Sebastian, but I myself learned to write before I could read. My mom said I would make long lists of every word I knew before I had any interest in reading what others wrote. I think that is telling of both the way kids learn and of my personality!

  • Rach says:

    This will be invaluable when the time comes. Promise to do a post about how we’ve got on with implementing your tips.

  • lewis says:

    how do i combine letters to teach words like; them, this,cut, short, game, girl, gate. since the regular sound of ‘a’ as in cat will change in ‘cage’ or ‘cake’. secondly as the words move from 4 letter words to 8,9,10, it become difficult to combine the sounds. please, help me. thanks.

    • melissa says:

      Lewis, typically, once a child has mastered the reading of phonetic words, other sounds and rules are introduced one at a time with words to go along with them. Double sandpaper letters like these are great for teaching digraphs like many that you discuss (th, sh, etc). As an example, you could use the double sandpaper letters to introduce th and sh in a three period lesson and then offer the child a basket of small objects or some picture cards that represent words with the sh and th digraphs. The child can build the words with the Large Moveable Alphabet, and as a later step, can be offered word lists or simple reading books that incorporate such words as well. Does that help?

  • Christina says:

    I love the method of introducing the sound of the letters first, and the names later, this makes sense. My son has been stuck on the sound of the letter C, naturally he thinks it makes a sssssss sound because of the name. I would like to ask you, what is the method in teaching the sounds of vowels as they have a short and a long sound?

    • melissa says:

      Hi Christina. C can definitely be a confusing for children who are already familiar with the letter names! Typically, Montessori teachers introduce the short sound first a is in apple for a, e as in elephant for e, i as in igloo for i, o as in octopus for o, and y as in yellow for y. In shorter, phonetic words, these are the sounds those letters make most often, so they’re a good starting point. I have never had to deliberately teach the long sounds, as children tend to pick those up on their own as they work with the incrementally more complex materials and naturally become more advanced readers, but the sandpaper letters can be used to do that later as well :) I hope that helps!

  • Cnarmaine Ferguson says:

    I will certainly be using your ideas for my 5 year old class.

  • Dee says:

    What is your approach for a bilingual toddler? Since the letter sounds are different, what will be the best strategy to support how to write and read in the second language? Thanks!

    • melissa says:

      Hi, Dee! I have only taught reading and writing in English, so I don’t have personal experience in this area, but I’ll offer a few thoughts in the hopes that they’re somewhat helpful, and perhaps a starting point for more research.

      I can say that there are Sandpaper Letters on the market for other languages, and reading and writing in any language in the Montessori setting is, to my knowledge, taught as described here. Teachers use this very same method, but teach the phonetic sounds in the target language as they are spoken and written. Of course the children in the first Montessori schools were learning in Italian, but this is where Montessori teachers around the world get our methods from :)

      Teaching two languages simultaneously would be trickier. From what I gather, the approach in most bilingual schools is to use a one teacher, one language approach, which I would assume would apply in the teaching of language as elsewhere. I would expect, then, that one teacher would present sandpaper letters in the language s/he teaches in, and the other in the second language. I would also expect that they would use separate sets of Sandpaper Letters, even though there might be a lot of crossover between languages when it comes to the actual symbols, simply to make a clear differentiation between the two languages. A big tool in the creation of Montessori curriculum is color-coding, and I would think it would be very useful in differentiating between materials in different languages, especially in a setting where one adult is teaching both languages. If I were teaching Spanish and English, for example, I might use a yellow box to hold the Spanish set of Sandpaper letters and a purple one to hold the English ones (those colors are totally arbitrary – just as an example), and any language material I make would be color-coded using either yellow or purple, thus clearly signaling to the child which language they would be using when working with those materials.

      I actually have the website of a local bilingual Montessori school pulled up right now, as I’ve been reading about it and hoping they’ll have me in for an observation on my next planning day. I am so interested to see bilingual teaching in action! It is something I wish I had been exposed to more. I’m going to ask among some Montessori blogger friends and see if anyone has resources or a better answer to your question, too, so keep an eye out.

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