The Five Stages of Montessori Reading
Use these tools from the Montessori classroom to help your own tot learn to read and, more importantly, to love the process.
Watching a child develop language is such a magical thing. Somehow in the first couple of years they go from barely making a sound, apart from babbling or crying, to suddenly expressing their thoughts and feelings through words. And perhaps the most amazing part is, we don’t have to teach them.
Of course there are things we do as parents to help. We read countless books (or the same book countless times!). We give names to the objects our child points at with their chubby little finger. We sing silly songs to help them absorb the rhythm of language. For the most part though, we don’t have to make a concerted effort to teach our children to talk.
Reading is different though. They need a little more help to crack the code. Still, the process can be joyful and child-led just like the process of learning to speak. The trick is to gradually build the subtle skills that come before reading and to trust your child to learn at their own pace.
The Montessori reading curriculum is designed to do those two things.
Here are the five stages of Montessori read and how to use these tools at home with your own child.
Visual perception means training the eye to see small details. This includes learning to differentiate between similar images, to develop visual memory and to find something specific in a busy picture (think Where’s Waldo).
If you saw a child in a Montessori classroom working on visual perception, you would likely have no idea it was pre-reading work, however, these skills help children to differentiate between similar looking letters later on.
Visual perception work includes a lot of matching (e.g. matching pictures of animals) as well as things like puzzles, sorting objects based on a visual criteria and figure to ground (matching a small part of a picture to the whole picture).
Children actually do these things on their own naturally. for example, when they sort their nature collections or categorize and arrange their blocks. There are certainly things we can do to help them along though!
Try it at home:
- A Memory game is a wonderful way to practice visual perception at home. It encourages children to look for the differences in the images and also to practice their visual memory.
- Working on puzzles is also excellent for visual perception.
Sound isolation is the ability to separate the sounds we hear in words. For example, knowing that “cat” is made of three sounds: ‘c’, ‘a’, and ‘t’. This seems so simple but it actually takes quite a bit of practice for most children.
Children first practice identifying the first sound in a word, then the ending sound and finally the middle sound. They can practice sound isolation even if they don’t yet know what the letters look like. It’s all about training the ear.
Try it at home:
- Gather 5 small objects that begin with different sounds. You can use objects from your children toys such as a farmyard set. Say “I spy something that starts with ‘p’”. Use the phonetic sound for the letter, not the letter name.
- Invite your child to find the object. There’s no need to tell them if they get it wrong, just keep practicing, taking turns, and they will get the hang of it. Most children love this game!
Letter recognition is where the curriculum really starts to look like what we think of as language and pre-reading work.
The key difference with Montessori is that it uses the phonetic sounds of letters rather than the letter names. If you teach children the phonetic sounds, they more easily transfer this skill to reading and they generally pick up the letter names on their own quite easily.
In Montessori classrooms, the children work with sandpaper letters. These are letters written in rough sand on a wooden background. The child traces the letter with their pointer and middle finger, saying the sound. They later practice matching little objects to the letters to integrate letter recognition with sound isolation.
The tactile nature of this work helps children really absorb the letter shapes and understand that each letter represents a sound.
Try it at home:
- Trace letters on card stock, glue anything tactile that your child will be able to feel on the letter (sand, ribbon, etc.)
- Show them how to trace the letter in the way in which you would write it (e.g., starting at the top for ‘d’).
- As an extension, invite them to form the letters out of play dough! Work with just 3-5 letters at a time.
In Montessori, children learn to “write” words before they learn to read. Many children do not yet have the fine motor skills to successfully write with a pencil at this stage though, so a “movable alphabet” is used. This is a box full of little wooden letters, red for consonants and blue for vowels.
Children practice writing words and then whole stories with the movable alphabet. As they progress, they also write their work on paper.
Try it at home:
- You can use Alphabet toy sets like the one shown below to show your child how to make simple words. You will need more than one set to make many words. Alternatively, write the letters on little squares of card stock. Show your child how to organize the letters, sorting by letter, at the beginning of their work and then how to make words.
- Start with simple 3 letter phonetic words like cat, bat, dog, etc. Say the word slowly for your child, isolating the sounds if they need help. Once they understand the work, you can provide little objects like a tiny toy cat, dog, etc. so that they can build the words independently.
This is of course what we as parents are eagerly waiting for!
After practicing all of the pre-reading skills, children often discover they can read words and are quite surprised themselves!
In Montessori classrooms, children are first presented with reading games where they read one word at a time, and then of course move on to books.
Try it at home:
- Tell your child you’re going to write them a secret message. Make a big deal of hiding your little strip of paper as you write on it. Then give it to them to read. Keep it simple with a word or two that you know they can read. Tell them, “You’re reading! Did you know you could do that?”
- You can also play a game called Commands. Write little actions on strips of paper, including things like “sit” and “run” that are easy to read. Take turns choosing a paper and performing the action.
The prospect of helping our children learn to read can seem quite daunting, especially if we don’t have fond memories of learning to read ourselves. If you really break it down by the specific skills though, there are fun things you can do with your child every day to help them on their exciting reading journey.
- Interested in finding out more about the Montessori method? The Tot investigates the child-centered educational approach developed by Italian physician and educator Dr. Maria Montessori.
- Montessori Educator Christina Clemer shares five simple tips for creating a Montessori-friendly set up at home for your toddler