Though contrary to traditional education methods, Montessori discovered that children can write before they can read. In the first classrooms, children given instruction in the sandpaper letters (2.5 - 3) spontaneously began to write around age 4, and then to read what they had written about six months later. This pattern was repeated by many children in classrooms all over the world.
This is partially because, in our classrooms, we have many activities that start a child on the path to developing proficiency with written language, well before we expect him to do so. These activities build coordination and hand strength, recognition of sounds, and give practice in how letters are formed. Practical life activities help a child practice logical sequencing, develop his pencil grip, and increase his concentration.
Spoken language activities help a child develop vocabulary and learn syntax, as well as helping to classify the world around him, and a sensorial activity called the touch boards helps him maintain finger sensitivity. This helps avoid cramps when writing with a pencil.
These activities are started immediately (practical life beginning in the toddler community and sensorial from the first day in primary), far before writing and reading.
The first activity a child does that officially leads into reading and writing is called “sound games”. This game is usually guided by an adult or older child, and several objects are gathered strategically. Each object has a different starting sound, avoiding sounds that are too similar (like b and p). Each person takes turns holding an object in their hands, and says, “I'm holding in my hand something that starts with the sound ___.” Then the other players “guess” what he is holding. When the children are good at this, they can begin to do it without picking up an item. They might say, “There's something on the tray that starts with the sound ___.” When the children become more proficient they can play this game with middle and ending sounds as well.
Sound games are appropriate for any child who is reasonably verbal, and are played in the toddler class as well as the primary. In the primary they often run parallel to the sandpaper letters.
Sandpaper letters are formed out of (gasp) sandpaper, and backed by a painted wooden rectangle (blue, pink, or green). The child can easily see the shape of each letter, and is shown how to trace it with two fingers. We don't name the letters, but rather call them by the sound they make. This reduces the number of steps a child goes through when sounding a word out later – instead of, “this is b, b says 'buh',” the child can just say “buh”. The sandpaper letters with the green backgrounds are phonograms such as “ch” or “ea”.
The movable alphabet is the first opportunity a child has to actually “write”. He knows the sounds of several letters (from his work with the sandpaper letters), and can make lists, write a sentence, or even tell a story with these easily held cursive letters. Spelling is not a priority with this material (though it is part of the curriculum later), as it is important to develop confidence with the writing process first.
The metal insets are a series of geometric shapes which are traced with colored pencils to make a design. There are several lessons which become more challenging as the student becomes more proficient with using a pencil. This material isolates the difficulty of using a pencil from the difficulty of creating words, and the two are merged after individual mastery.
A sand tray helps a child practice handwriting before using paper, so he can simply shake away mistakes. Chalkboards can also be used for this purpose, and writing on a vertical surface helps to develop shoulder strength. Strips of paper are next, and finally sheets of special lined paper (feel free to use this paper at home or give a binder-full as a gift) which often have a space for illustrations.
The next post will describe the materials used next, to help a child teach himself to read! Stay tuned... :)