Teaching phonics is a key foundational piece when it comes to following the Montessori method. Maria Montessori’s method of education focuses on teaching children independence and instilling a love of learning as an outgrowth of their personal interests and curiosities. As children explore their environment, their tendency to question and want to know more naturally leads them to daily learning.
Moreover, the Montessori Method is less about rigid instruction and more about gently guiding your child towards an intended concept. Material sets may cover a topic like math, but there’s no "must learn today" lesson plan - the child figures it out for themself.
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Teaching Phonics with the Montessori Method
If you were educated in a more traditional method, like a public school or classical private school, the idea of a Montessori approach to phonics and reading might seem foreign. After all, traditional education models teach phonics and language through rigid repetition, and that’s quite the opposite of Maria Montessori’s Method.
Montessori principles allow us to teach phonics organically, in a way that feels like fun and games, and at a pace set by the learner.
Learning phonics with the Montessori Method
Phonics is the method of teaching that emphasizes the relationship between the way letters and words look and how they sound. As an adult, you don’t think about the link between words and sounds, but for kids, it’s a fascinating new world.
The basis of teaching reading in a Montessori framework is to start with phonics; how letters sound, and how those sounds mix together to form words. While the sounds are being taught, students might be directed to touch or trace letters in the words they’re speaking, using materials such as sandpaper letters. This combined sensory approach is highly advantageous to little minds, who will quickly equate the sound to the visual/tactile memory of the letter.
In fact, writing and sounding out words comes before reading to a point - Montessori’s belief was that this progression made reading come easier to children. A good grasp of phonics and letter shapes makes sounding out words easier, which in turn makes reading more intuitive.
Sounding Out Letters
The first step to teaching phonics using the Montessori Method is to bring awareness to the unique sounds of each letter of the alphabet. This should be done when a child displays readiness (look for eager interest!), and as early as your child starts speaking to express themselves more, around 2 or 3. Please note, however, that some kids are not ready to learn letter sounds until age 4 or 5, and that’s okay, too. Research shows that although some children learn to read earlier or later than others, they all pretty much equalize soon after.
When children have a better grasp of phonemic parts of language, they can start to associate sounds with letter shapes. Later, as they see that each word is made of parts (through stressing letter or syllable sounds, for instance), they will transition into learning to read with ease.
Combining sense memory
For children just learning their letters, it’s important that they can look and feel them as they speak and hear them. Combining the senses makes learning more profound, and engages the whole mind in processing the information. For instance, give the children sandpaper letters to trace with their fingers as they hear and then repeat the sound is an effective strategy.
Other strategies include playing sound games like I Spy. This multisensory approach makes for a more complete learning process - this child hears, sees and feels the sound as they learn. It also encourages fine motor development and makes writing come more naturally down the line.
As you direct learning, be sure to include a component wherein you make the sound of the letter and then have the student visually identify it. This further strengthens the link between visual and audio learning.
How do you introduce a letter in Montessori?
Additionally, Montessori teaching is more about learning to associate the sound with the letter, rather than learning the name of the letter. This might not seem like that big of a difference, but it’s more practical to learn letter sounds instead of letter names. This is because it builds the child’s ability to associate the sound needed for reading with the visual representation of the letter. And, kids often pick up the letter names along the way, meaning that there are few letter names you will really have to teach at all. This is a departure from other methods of teaching, but it works extremely well for Montessori students.
Counting syllables and letters is another important aspect of learning phonics with the Montessori Method. Children are shown or told words and asked to count the letters as they say the word. For instance, if the word is “cat”, they might be given a card with a cat on it, and the letters C A T. They will point to the letters as they speak the letters, and then the whole word. Further, they will associate the letters, sounds, and picture of the cat with one another, deepening the connection between these aspects of learning.
Putting it all together
Starting with recognition of phonemic parts in early childhood helps create an understanding that words are made of pieces. Focus more on the sounds associated with letters rather than learning the names of letters individually to make speaking, reading, and writing more organic.
Maria Montessori stressed the importance of phonics before writing, and writing before reading, as a more logical progression of grasping language as a concept. With a firm grasp of phonemes and assembling words, your child will be able to write, which in turn strengthens their ability to read. If you’re interested in teaching your child phonics using the Montessori method, check out the M3 Language Arts curriculum.