The Natural Development of Writing and Reading in Montessori
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
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.
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.
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.
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