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The Natural Development of Writing and Reading in Montessori

Annabelle takes a break from perfecting her ones and threes on the fridge -  to dance :)

Annabelle takes a break from perfecting her ones and threes on the fridge – to dance :)

Annabelle, my almost four year old, has loved books practically from birth. She has never tired of being read to. I have never pushed language learning on her. In fact, if you’ve been reading along for awhile, you might know that I sort of deliberately left toys depicting letters out of our environment. Books were all around, of course, but there were no alphabet blocks or other such things. Of course, like any toddler, she reached a point where she wanted a name for everything in her environment, and around age two she began pointing at letters in the world around her. License plates were a big one. “What is this, mommy?” “What sound is that?” In Montessori fashion, I answered with the letter in question’s phonetic sound, rather than its alphabetical name. And I left it at that. Over time she learned to recognize a number of different letters on her own, and several months ago, she began tracing the Montessori Sandpaper Letters. We have had formal three period lessons when requested, and she has traced and practiced on her own to master all 26 sounds.

I absolutely love the Montessori language curriculum. I could write poetry about it, talk about it all day long. It is brilliant. One of the key ways in which the Montessori way of teaching language differs from other methods is in the order in which things are presented. Montessori children learn how to write first, and reading follows later. This sounded quite strange to me at first, as I’m sure it does to many, but when you really stop to think about it, this is the most logical thing in the world. Reading is a complex skill, involving not only the memorization of 26 abstract symbols, but the decoding of messages created within the minds of others using various combinations of those same symbols. This involves recall, it involves blending, it involves so many skills working together

On this day, Annabelle had discovered that she could make a z, and she began writing as many of them as she could.

On this day, Annabelle had discovered that she could make a z, and she began writing as many of them as she could.

simultaneously. “Building” a word, as children do with the Montessori Large Movable Alphabet in the first stages of writing, however, is different. Children must recall the sounds they have learned and be able to pick out their corresponding symbols, but they can do this slowly. They don’t need to blend. They don’t need to work a puzzle. They build words by breaking them down into sounds, retrieving those sounds from an attractive and carefully organized box, and placing them on their rug.

After mastering most of the Sandpaper Letters, this was the next step for Annabelle. She has spent much time with the Large Movable Alphabet building three letter phonetic words, and in doing so, she has strengthened skills that are foundational to reading. She now recalls the sounds and their symbols much more quickly, and is familiar with the way they fit together to form words. In building words, she has had to fit sounds together, which will make it much easier for her to blend them into individual words when she really begins reading. Oh how she loves building words, too. She hasn’t stopped at the movable alphabet either, but has been writing friends’ names and other words that pop into her mind on our refrigerator with dry erase marker, on chalkboards, and on paper with any writing instrument she can find. She started this first, in fact, which is what clued me in to her readiness and interest and prompted me to offer that initial lesson on the Movable Alphabet.

...and she caught me with the camera. Better luck next time, mom.

…and she caught me with the camera. Better luck next time, mom.

What’s incredible is that she has now acquired all of the skills necessary for reading. If I sat her down with appropriate reading material and did some prompting, she would absolutely be able to begin reading. Today, in fact, she took out a favorite book and began pretending that she was reading it to a group of children. She knows it by heart, so she was simply reciting the words on the pages, but at one point she stumbled, forgetting what came next. I watched her thoughtfully inspect the words for awhile and before long she asked me, “Mom, what does this word with h, i, s say? Does it say hiss?” “Ah, if you put all of the sounds together it looks just like it would say hiss, doesn’t it?” Was my reply. “Here’s something silly, though: When we say that word, we actually say it like ‘his.’” Annabelle’s response, of course was a matter of fact, “No, it says hiss.” This was the first time Annabelle had looked at a word in a book and spontaneously sounded it out, but she didn’t really seem to notice. She was just putting sounds together.

Maria Montessori writes, in Dr. Montessori’s Own Handbook, of the acquisition of writing and reading skills.

“One might say that all their previous education is a preparation for the first stages of essential culture – writing, reading, and number, and that knowledge comes as an easy, spontaneous, and logical consequence of the preparation  – that it is in fact its natural conclusion.

…The child has thus prepared, in effect, all the necessary movements for writing; therefore he can write. This important conquest is the result of a long period of inner formation of which the child is not clearly aware. But a day will come –very soon–when he will write, and that will be a day of great surprise for him–the wonderful harvest of an unknown sowing.

…It is after these exercises with the movable alphabet that the child is able to write entire words. This phenomenon generally occurs unexpectedly, and then a child who has never yet traced a stroke or a letter on paper writes several words in succession. From that moment he continues to write, always gradually perfecting himself. This spontaneous writing takes on the characteristics of a natural phenomenon, and the child who has begun to write the “first word” will continue to write in the same way as he spoke after pronouncing the first word, and as he walked after having taken the first step. The same course of inner formation through which the phenomenon of writing appeared is the course of his future progress, of his growth to perfection. The child prepared in this way has entered upon a course of development through which he will pass as surely as the growth of the body and the development of the natural functions have passed through their course of development when life has once been established.”

Notice that Dr. Montessori describes the discovery of the child’s emerging abilities as “a day of great surprise for him,” — that is, not for the adult, but for the child. It is a natural unfolding set in motion by all of the preparatory work the child has done him or herself over the previous months or years. It is not something an adult shows them how to do, or reveals to them, but a skill the child discovers and develops for themselves. 

Here A has built six words, which correspond to six objects in one of the language boxes on our shelf.

Here A has built six words, which correspond to six objects in one of the language boxes on our shelf.

I know that Annabelle can read — three letter phonetic words, anyway. I have books filled with only such words so that she can complete an entire story successfully, on her own. I adore books myself. Reading is one of my favorite hobbies, and I cannot wait to share it with my daughter. Part of me wants so much to pull a book off the shelf now, encourage Annabelle to read it, and then declare, “You just read an entire book all by yourself! You can read!” I want to see the pride on her face, and I want to celebrate with her. I won’t do this though, hard as it is to restrain myself, because this is an accomplishment for her to discover and to own, not one for me to reveal to her. I know that waiting will be worth it, for me and for her. Any day now, maybe even tomorrow, Annabelle will notice that the very next work on our language shelf is a book. She’ll ask to read it, and she’ll make this discovery for herself. She’ll make that transition from writing to reading without even noticing at first. Then, suddenly it will occur to her: She read a book. She can read books. At some point soon, she will begin reading everything she sees, all that she can, and her skills will increase as quickly as the ones that came before them, because she’ll be driven by her own enthusiasm.

Reading in Montessori is seldom a struggle, though every child is different and all follow their own timelines. It unfolds naturally, and the discovery of writing and reading belong solely to the child. No one teaches them to read, and no one needs to prompt them, prod them, or point anything out to them. We don’t need to make a fuss when it happens either, lest we shift the child’s focus from the following of this natural process to the pursuit of our praise, taking from them the innate gift of intrinsic motivation. They simply read, when they’re ready, and they enjoy it and are driven to do it more and more. How fortunate are the adults in their lives that we can watch this unfolding, just as we have watched them take their first steps and speak their first words.

*I wrote this post several weeks ago. Annabelle read that first book, and then another, and then another three days later, on January 16th, and she has been picking words out in print, on my computer screen, and all over ever since. She has even begun to build more complex words, using blends and more than three letters. She has started making grocery lists, lists of things I (her vegan mama) don’t eat, lists of names. There are pages of writing all over our house, and I love it.

P.S. The amazon link in this post is an affiliate link. Purchases made when you navigate to amazon through my site help to offset the cost of hosting for Vibrant Wanderings and are deeply appreciated! I only link to items I have used and/or purchased myself and can recommend in good conscience.

12 Responses to The Natural Development of Writing and Reading in Montessori

  • Laura says:

    How exciting all this is!!! Congratulations specially on letting Annabelle do it by herself. These are indeed our children’s accomplishments and I totally agree they should be the ones to discover and own them.
    Thanks for such a wonderful post. You have answered my question. I was wondering some days ago what to answer to those relatives and friends who ask/question why writing before reading. I am really shy when questioned and your words give me strength.
    One question, was Annabelle at any stage interested in the metal insets?

    • melissa says:

      Thanks, Laura! It’s really very exciting to watch her. She does love the metal insets. They’re very popular with most of the children in our classroom. I must say, I love working with them myself ;p

  • Annicles says:

    Congratulations to Annabelle, it is indeed lovely when it works. However, I have to say that in my experience, there are a lot more children than you might expect that struggle with synthetic phonics. Usually, the sticking point comes when the pink boxes are mastered and the next stage is started. This traditionally (in the montessori world) where blending is started – st-e-p for instance. We encountered so many problems with this stage at school that we conducted research to find out why it was that so many children were faltering. We discovered that we had it the brick wall that is the translation of the Montessori method from Italian (a phonic language) into English, which is technically, not a phonic language. We therefore ended up swapping the blue and green materials around, so we now teach pink, green, blue. This ended many of our children having issues with reading/writing. English is a code and to crack the code, it is more important and more developmentally appropriate to introduce the first digraphs than to teach blending. The age at which many children reach this stage is one where many are still not saying blends clearly and much more work is needed with them to practice hearing, distinguishing and saying the blends. While this is happening the child can be introduced to the green materials, which require no blending. Obviously, hearing, distinguishing and saying blends should start before any formal reading or writing starts to take place.

    For a very few children, synthetic phonics on their own is never going to work. They need a far greater amount of support in recognising words and reading them because the letters in a row do not “add up” to a word. I am not advocating “look and say” but for some children learning to recognise the whole word and then breaking it down into the phonemes and later the graphemes is the best way to approach learning to read.

    • melissa says:

      How interesting, Anna! Thanks for sharing that bit of your experience. I don’t think I ever would have thought to teach green before pink, but I can certainly see your reasoning and I’ll be tucking that tidbit away in the back of my mind to consider again in case I should encounter a child who is really struggling with blending. So far I have not seen many struggle at all with the pink-blue-green progression, but I am sure that day will come.

  • Amy G says:

    This is a beautiful, heart-warming post about the natural development of reading and writing in children. And, of course, informative! It can be SO hard to not push your child- especially when you know they can do it. I often feel like Q asks for so much help, even though I know she’s capable of the actions, and I’m often in a bind as to how to respond. I try not to push, but I also want her to learn to try! I’m also very interested in how much A seems to love the moveable alphabet. We just ordered our first big order of “real Montessori” stuff. I was debating the moveable alphabet for later use, but wasn’t sure about it for the smaller, home setting. Especially when racking and stacking against other items. What are your thoughts?

    • melissa says:

      Thank you, Amy! On the movable alphabet, I think you’d love having it, but also be completely fine without it. I will say that for most children, it is used a lot in the earliest stages of writing, but as writing with a pencil, chalk, or other instrument becomes easier, some children seem to find it tedious, and I see it being used less and less for pure enjoyment as they get older.

      If you’re going to buy one, I might buy just a small movable alphabet. Most classrooms have both, and start with the large before moving to the small. The small can serve the same purpose as the large, however, and will take up less space in your home. You can always print some letters yourself and organize them in a tackle or bead box from a local store, write letters on little tiles designed for mosaics, or come up with some other DIY option and save the money for something else, though. For home, I think I’d prioritize the metal insets and sandpaper letters above any other language material. Anything else can be made by hand :) I hope that helps – totally depends on what you want to budget and how much space you have, I’d say!

      • Maura says:

        As a long time Montessorian, I know that the Moveable Alphabet is one of the most valuable materials in the environment. I would strongly encourage you to make this material a part of your child’s education (whether it’s purchased or made). It can and should be used right up through the early Elementry years.

        • melissa says:

          Thanks for your opinion, Maura. The Movable alphabet is definitely a wonderful thing, and there are many ways to make an alphabet for home use :)

  • Beautiful! Loss for words. Congratulations to Annabelle on her discovery and Congratulations to you for being able to patiently wait for the child to reveal herself! Thank you for sharing. Totally Inspired!

  • Rach says:

    Thrilled for A. this is such a helpful post, thanks.

  • Jacqueline says:

    Thank you for another wonderful post. I was wondering what early-reader books you have for Annabelle?

    • melissa says:

      So glad you enjoyed it, Jacqueline! I use Bob Books, which I find lacking in many ways (mostly visual – the illustrations are quite boring), but which are among the few that actually offer several entire books with only three letter phonetic words. While I don’t think they’re amazing, I do find that children enjoy them. I also recently added these books from etsy, which are written by a Montessori teacher in Denver. They have everything the Bob Books lack, and even come with cards for introducing the few sight words used in each book. I have a few other sets on my list to try, but these are what’s on our shelves right now :) Would love to hear if you have any recommendations!

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