phonics early reading montessori reading instruction methodologies synthetic phonics

How does Montessori teach reading? 5 peculiarities of the Montessori system!

Montessori uses systematic synthetic phonics for teaching reading.

Children are introduced to the sounds of letters and phonograms through various activities and materials. However, there are a few peculiarities to how the Montessori system teaches reading that makes it pretty special and unique!

Let’s go through them!

Systematic, synthetic phonics is an effective method for teaching reading that involves a structured approach to linking sounds and written symbols. The “systematic” aspect means it follows a carefully planned sequence, introducing learners to phonetic elements gradually. Meanwhile, the “synthetic” element emphasizes the blending of individual sounds to form complete words. This approach equips students with the skills to decode words by understanding the relationships between sounds and letters. It provides a solid foundation for reading and spelling, making the learning process more organized and comprehensive.

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Peculiarity #1: It teaches writing before reading.

Montessori teaches writing before reading or how to decode. This approach is considered organic, because -according to Montessori-, the ability to write comes first and more naturally than the ability to blend sounds and read words.

Why is writing considered a natural and logical precursor to reading?

Maria Montessori observed a phenomenon she termed an “explosion into writing” that happens before reading.

In fact, it occurs even before the child can ever read what he/she has written.

When I first read about this phenomenon, it made perfect sense to me! I vividly remember how my youngest daughter at age four used to draw letters and letters in whiteboards, pieces of paper, to then ask me: What did I write? What does it say here?

She used to do this a lot, and I found it extremely funny.

Most times those sequence of random letters meant nothing at all. However, that showed she was fascinated by the concept of how those symbols that we call letters represent words you can read out loud. She was definitively going through that “explosion into writing” Maria Montessori observed.

Other times, she would just write down her name, and felt extremely proud when I told her that she had written her own name. Then, we would go over every letter in her name, and see how the letters connected to the sounds in her name.

While very prolific with her writing at that point, she was not yet ready to read or sound out words, as she was still unable to connect most letters to their sounds.

My own personal observation.

Another reason as to why Montessori starts with writing before reading is the importance that the Montessori system places on sensorial experiences to facilitate learning. Writing makes the learning-to-read process more tangible and meaningful.

“Writing develops easily and spontaneously in a little child in the same way as speech, which is also a motor translation of sounds that have been heard. Reading on the other hand, forms a part of an abstract intellectual culture. It interprets ideas acquired by graphic symbols and is acquired only later.” (Discovery of a Child, Maria Montessori, page 199)

Montessori education follows a progression from concrete to abstract concepts.

In the case of literacy, children start by working with concrete materials like sandpaper letters, moveable alphabets, and metal insets. These materials allow children to physically explore something abstract (sounds) via concrete materials that support the use of writing as a foundation for learning to read.

It’s important to note that while Montessori introduces writing before reading or decoding, reading skills are also gradually introduced and developed alongside writing. The goal is to provide a holistic and integrated approach to literacy, where children develop both reading and writing skills in a meaningful and interconnected way.

Peculiarity #2: There don’t seem to be Montessori literacy curricula, as such.

Please correct me if I’m wrong here, but what I see you have, if you want to follow this route, are more courses that introduce you to the world of Montessori, and give you recommendations, so you can create your own homeschooling curriculum, specific to your child’s needs.

Of course, you also have Montessori Guides and books, and of course Montessori materials that have been specifically created for teaching reading.

In the sources section down below, I will leave you a few links to interesting reads about the Montessori system.

In that regard, there are three key materials that Maria Montessori relied on for teaching reading, and these are the materials that you are going to use as well if you want to teach your child to read “the Montessori way”:

Material 1: Sound Objects for Phonemic Awareness.

That is, to develop your child’s ability to hear and manipulate the individual sounds in the language.

The way you go about it in Montessori is by playing the “I spy” game with these sound objects.

You know how it goes:  You say “I spy with my little eye something that starts with /s/ or /p/,” or whatever sound you pick. Just remember to say the sounds, not the letter names! You have these objects in front of your child and he/she has to pick the one that starts with that sound.

Sound Objects
  • Sound objects mystery box!
  • Pull out one item at a time and match it to the letter where it belongs.
  • Learn sounds, words and letters!

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Material 2: Sandpaper letters for connecting letters and sounds.

They look like this, and allow your child swipe his/her fingers along the form of the letters.

The idea is that this sensorial experience helps children internalize the shape and sound of each letter.

Sandpaper Letters Montessori
  • 26 lower and upper case sandpaper letters.
  • This is a kinetic activity, the child swipes her hand to trace their fingers along the sandpaper surface.
  • When the child is ready, combine the letter cards to help the child to form simple familiar words.
  • Excellent homeschool or classroom early educational material.

Material 3: Moveable alphabet for writing full words before children master how to write with a pen.

Movable alphabets are sets of small wooden or plastic letters that children can manipulate to form words.

Again, the idea is to engage the senses to facilitate learning.

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Movable Alphabet Montessori
  • A classic Montessori material used for teaching writing, reading and spelling, even before have developed the motor skills to hold a pen. 
  • High quality materials.
  • Flip open the wooden lid and you’ll discover three rows of painted ruling lines for letter placement!

By physically arranging the letters in these movable alphabets to form words, children develop a concrete understanding of the relationships between letters and sounds.

“Summing up, we may say that the two mechanical factors of writing are resolved into two independent exercises, that is, drawing, which gives the hand the ability to handle the writing instrument, and touch the letters of the alphabet, which serves to establish a motor memory along with a visual memory of the letters. ”
Maria Montessori, The Discovery of the Child, p. 209

It’s very likely that you’ve also heard of the use of metal insects in the Montessori system.

Are they use to teach reading?

Not specifically, but they can surely help with your child’s pre-reading skills. These metal  insets help children develop fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination, which are essential for writing.

By tracing the shapes, children also gain familiarity with the movements required for forming letters.

Where can you get these materials?

There are lots of options to get these materials. For instance, here’s a selection of Montessori materials on Amazon.

You can also use specific Montessori shops, such us this one, that seems to have everything in the Montessori space.

Peculiarity #3: The system Maria Montessori developed was to teach how to read Italian.

These materials were all Maria Montessori needed to teach reading, but the system she developed was to teach how to read Italian.

The Italian phonetic code is way simpler than the English one. In fact, I’ve even heard that it’s the easiest language when it comes to learning to read. Children can learn in a few months!

I know it sounds crazy! How can this be?  Italian is very regular/very transparent. Every letter represents only one sound, and sounds are represented always in the same way, and besides, exceptions to the norm are really rare.

If you don’t believe me, I read it in a book from a very eminent researcher. The book is called “Reading in the Brain,” by Stanislas Dehaene.

So, Maria’s original reading program, while probably very good for the initial stages of learning to read -I can totally see that, as Montessori uses a great combination of activities and materials that engage all of the senses to develop Phonemic Awareness from an early age, to learn the connections between letter and sounds and to enhance children’s motor skills-, it is probably not going to be enough for dealing with all the complexities of the English system.

Apparently, his son Mario Montessori said:

“Dr. [Maria] Montessori did not know the [English] language it was left to the ingenuity of Montessori trained people to find a solution.”

So, the English-speaking world had to find solutions to fill the gaps. Most of the solutions that are used right now were proposed by a teacher trained on the Montessori system called Muriel Dwyer.

This system is explained on the book “A Path for the Exploration of Any Language Leading to Writing and Reading,” which would probably be your go-to guide for teaching reading English according to Montessori principles.

As we move on to the next stages of learning to read, beyond the materials and activities I previously discussed (which were the only ones Maria Montessori needed to teach reading in Italian – considering the simplicity of the Italian spelling system compared to English), there are additional elements and materials to explore.

For instance:

Matching objects and cards

With this type of 3-part cards children read a word label, match it to the picture-only card, and later can use the control card to check out if they picked the right answer. These awesome cards also allow children build vocabulary and to work independently. If you are working with an emerging reader, you can just use the image cards, to help them build up their vocabulary (having a rich vocabulary is an essential piece of the puzzle for becoming a successful reader in the future)

Phonetic word cards

After your child knows letter and letter sounds, and has worked with the Movable Alphabet and the Phonetic Object Box, you can start to introduce phonetic word cards that contain simple three-letter words with short vowels (CVC words).

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Phonetic activity cards or action word cards

These cards have easy-to-decode action words, such as run, clap or hug, that are easy and fun to act out!

Puzzle word cards.

This is another name for irregular high-frequency words.

Phonogram cards and folders.

All of these materials will allow you go ahead and execute Montessori activities, lessons and games for learning to read.

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Peculiarity #4: Individualized Instruction.

Even if you are in a Montessori classroom setting the materials and methods used will allow for individualized instruction, meaning that children will be able to progress at their own pace.

This is purposefully in this way, so children receive the support and guidance appropriate that is appropriate for their needs and abilities.

In other words, children are challenged and engaged in their learning in a way that makes sense for them. The idea is that this approach will help them progress at their own pace, but also will build up their self-esteem and a positive attitude towards learning.

Besides, individualized instruction recognizes that children have unique strengths, interests, and learning styles.

This could be another reason why Maria Montessori was also so fond of the phonics approach to teaching reading. The phonetic nature of language, understood through Montessori education, allows children to apply this knowledge to both reading and writing.

The phonetic approach empowers children to become independent readers and writers. By teaching them how to decode and encode words, children can engage with written language on their own, by applying what they know to sound out words in text, or even attempt to spell words based on the sounds they hear (as opposed to memorizing word lists).

This independence and confidence lay a strong foundation for lifelong literacy skills.

Peculiarity #5:  Language activities to facilitate vocabulary acquisition.

While not exclusive to the Montessori system, it is worth noting that there’s a clear emphasis on creating a rich language environment right from the early stages. This environment promotes vocabulary acquisition, sentence structure and grammar.

Some of the activities used are storytelling, conversations, and language games.

Sources for this article and/or for further reading:

  • Montessori, M. (1948). The Discovery of the Child.
  • Lillard, A. S. (2008). Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius.
  • Dehaene, S. (2010). Reading in the Brain: The New Science of How We Read
  • Dwyer,M.(2004). A Path for the Exploration of Any Language Leading to Writing and Reading

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