Learning to Read with Montessori

Do you remember how you learned to read? Maybe it was alongside a parent or you have a fun memory of a favorite teacher helping you sound out a word. Language is a complicated endeavor, and human brains are hardwired to learn it best at certain ages. If children aren’t exposed to language in these critical, sensitive periods, then they’re going to have a harder time.

The Montessori Method capitalizes on these sensitive periods of acquisition and teaches both writing and reading in progressive, logical steps. Starting as early as infancy, you can model an interest in reading and a recognition of the written word in your environment to prime a child’s interest in language. At every step, and interconnected to every other subject, Montessori kids learn to love reading through the proven Montessori reading method.

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When should I teach reading with Montessori?

Teaching reading is a broad target with Montessori because it’s like building a pyramid. Instead of straightforwardly “teaching reading”, you start by creating individual blocks of literacy. This process starts when children are very young - even newborns - by constantly speaking to them (but not in baby talk!). Read to your kids, talk to them as you would another adult, and point out language around them, even when they’re far too young to deconstruct it. Children are like sponges, constantly processing information, even if they don’t have all the means to process it yet.

It’s also important to demonstrate a love of reading for pleasure. Remember, as a Montessori guide, a large part of your role is modeling behavior that you want your child to pick up. If they see you reading for leisure, they’re more likely to want to do it, too. A child who wants to read because they see their parents reading is going to be more motivated to pick up language skills than a child who is not exposed to such role modeling.

Montessori-Aligned Books

Your child’s first exposure to reading and books will likely be on your lap! So, be sure to make the most of this time and select Montessori-aligned books. In general, such books tell real-life stories that aren’t overly complicated and use realistic photos and images. You want books that are age-appropriate and contain interesting photos, as these will better hold their attention and keep them engaged in reading.

And again, reading should be happening even before you think your child is far too young to understand - this means reading at infancy! When looking for Montessori books to read to your small baby, be sure to look for books with high-contrast, black, white and red patterns. These books are great at stimulating a newborn baby’s eyesight and brain development, as they are easiest for the baby to see.

Teach writing first

We think of writing as a fine motor skill that takes a while to acquire, but the reality is that children have an aptitude to understand letters and their sounds very early on. Any mom who hears her baby babbling knows that a child can create a string of letter sounds before they can make meaningful words or sentences.

Maria Montessori said “what the hand does, the mind remembers”, meaning that children learn better when they’re active in the process. To this end, Montessori uses sandpaper letters for a child to sound out and trace, adding physical and tactile sensations to the auditory and visual process of learning letters. This multi-sensory approach enhances the learning, tying it to more sensations, and making it easier to retain and recall. As with all things Montessori, multi-sensory, kinesthetic learning is integral.

Using the Montessori Moveable Alphabet

Once a child has learned to trace the letters while sounding them out, they can use a moveable alphabet to put letters together. The act of moving letters around is engaging - as we said, more movement is more interesting to kids - and so they’ll actively enjoy this activity. By moving letters around, you can get them to create simple words and then progress to harder ones. It is about this time that you will also notice your child scribbling on paper and “reading” their notes to you. This is all before they’re expected to actually sit and read.

Montessori Phonics

To begin teaching reading within the Montessori framework, start with phonics. In Montessori, the early focus is on how letters sound. There is some debate on whether or not to teach the letter name along with the letter sound within the Montessori world, but the truth is that it doesn’t really matter. Your child will eventually learn both the letter name and the letter sound before they learn to read.

More traditional Montessorians teach letter sounds exclusively while more modern Montessorians, along with many homeschoolers, teach letter names and sounds simultaneously. I actually used both approaches - one for each of my two children - and I lean slightly toward teaching the letter names and sounds simultaneously based on personal experience.

Teaching Letter Sounds

While the sounds are being taught, integrate as many sensory experiences as possible. You can use traditional sandpaper letters, a sand tray and/or the less expensive sandpaper letter books available on Amazon. This combined sensory approach is highly advantageous to little minds, who will quickly equate the sound to the visual/tactile memory of the letter.

shop our favorite montessori phonics and reading supplies

Getting Started with Learning to Read with Montessori

Teaching phonics is a key foundational piece to teaching reading with Montessori. Montessori allows you to teach phonics organically, in a way that feels like fun to your child, and at a pace set by them, too. A few words of advice:

  1. Be playful. Integrate movement-based games and art into your approach. Frustration at this early age is the enemy, so help your toddler associate reading with fun.
  2. Go slowly. The child who takes more time to develop a solid foundation in phonics will learn to read more quickly and joyfully than one who doesn’t. You will spend the same amount of time either way.
  3. Embrace repetition. Perhaps no other area requires so much!
  4. Be creative. If your child loves being outside, hunt for a stick and draw letters in the dirt! If your child loves to paint, allow them to trace letters with their paintbrush. You get the idea.
  5. Don’t overspend. Time is the critical factor here, not materials. And, pricey materials often don’t mix with toddler mess!

Combine ideas

Your child may independently begin stringing letters together. If so, they will start with small words like “at”, “if” and “on”. Encourage this, but don’t focus on it heavily. As with most things in Montessori, just follow your child and don’t push. The next likely step is that your child will begin spelling their own CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) words such as “cat”, “dog” and “pig”. In a similar fashion to how we used sandpaper tracing to emphasize letters and sounds, you can use pictures for short words to reinforce learning. It’s a lot of fun for brand new readers to match a picture of a cat to the word “cat”. When these things start happening naturally, your child is more than ready to read!

Montessori Homeschool Reading Curriculum

If you’ve downloaded our homeschool curriculum sample, you may already be familiar with Level Red - the first step in our Montessori reading program.

In Level Red, your child will be introduced to CVC words containing short vowel sounds. From there, your child will work through the rainbow to Level Violet. Many children complete the program as early as age 5 or 6. Still others do not finish until 8 or 9. Both are fine! Research shows that children who read later are at absolutely no disadvantage to those who read earlier.

After Level Red, kids work their way through the rainbow to Level Violet. Students work through four steps within each level that encourage comprehension based on visualization:

  1. Students attempt to spell the words displayed in the picture cards.
  2. Students match the word cards to the picture cards.
  3. Students use the word cards as flashcards to read the words aloud.
  4. Students read the sentence cards. 

Our robust Montessori Reading Program progresses like this:

  • Level Red: Short vowel sounds
  • Level Orange: Consonant blends such as cl, dr, st & mp
  • Level Yellow: Consonant digraphs such as sh, ch, th & ss
  • Level Green: Glued sounds such as ank, ink, onk & unk
  • Level Blue: Silent e rules & exceptions
  • Level Indigo: Long vowel phonograms such as ae, ie, oy & ue
  • Level Violet: Idiosyncrasies & silent letters such as wh & gn
Montessori Reading Curriculum

Reading is a simple, enjoyable process

When you use the Montessori Method to teach writing as a foundation to reading, you will find your children learn to read more easily. Starting at infancy with grasping exercises, pointing out words, and demonstrating a love for reading, you plant the seeds for future reading and writing.

When ready, show your child sandpaper letters, stating the sound, and letting them trace them to fully understand the concepts across multiple senses.

Remember the 3 period lesson:

Step 1: Naming - This is {letter sound}.

Step 2: Practice - Can you point to the {letter sound}? AND/OR Can you bring the {letter sound} to the table? OR Can you bring the {letter sound} to Mommy?

Step 3: Recall - Can you tell me what sound this letter makes? (point to the letter as you ask)

Don’t get discouraged if your child can’t point it out or disengages quickly, and don’t correct them - simply start over and try again another time. Readiness is critical - please don’t rush it.

Start Learning to Read with Montessori Today

Offer your child a moveable alphabet (like the free printable alphabet we include in our curriculum sample!) and have them create increasingly complex words, starting with simple 2-letter words and working their way up. Soon they’ll be able to put together short, simple sentences and then reading will occur naturally. Take interest in this activity as a sign that it’s time to begin lessons in learning to read.

Make books about each subject readily available at their reading level and ensure that every subject is connected to reading and writing.

There’s a reason why Montessori children routinely score in the 90th percentile and above for reading - teaching reading using Montessori works. Soon you’ll have a home full of avid readers and writers, eager to read everything they can get their hands on.

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