Trusting the Process- Writing and Reading
When we work with children, we have to trust that things will come together in their own time. No one can rush the development of the child. In Montessori, we teach children how write and read. (I emphasize write and read, not read and write, because many children acquire the skill of writing letters with a pencil before they learn to read) In a Montessori classroom, the teacher offers materials and lessons to the child and anticipates that each child will come into writing and reading at their own pace, when they have developed their skills. Teaching a child how to poke holes into a piece of paper or thread small beads onto a string may seem far off from handwriting, but it is through these activities that the child develops their fine motor skill and coordination so they can hold and manipulate a writing tool.
In Montessori, children often learn to write before they learn to read.
Why writing first? Writing is an extension of the child’s spoken language. It is much easier to express one’s own thoughts than analyze the thoughts of others. We indirectly prepare the hand through sensorial materials (cylinder blocks, puzzle maps, and other knobbed materials which allow the child to practice their pincer grip) starting at the age of three. At around three and a half, children are introduced to the metal insets, which allow the child to practice holding a writing utensil and tracing simple geometric shapes. We coach the child in making lines, top to bottom, to fill in the metal inset shape. This helps the child acquire the skill of purposeful movement of a pencil on paper, and lightness of touch.
Preparation for handwriting in Montessori is also done in a more direct way. The direct approach starts first with introducing the child to the sandpaper letters and having the child practice making marks on chalkboards. The children trace letters that are made of sandpaper to stimulate the sense of touch as they verbally say the sound of the letter. Letter recognition is learned directly by sight, sound, and touch. We start with blank chalkboards in the classroom, which children use to draw anything they want. This is an opportunity for broad strokes, scribbling, and again learning to hold a writing utensil. Once the child begins to draw shapes together to form a picture, it indicates to us they are ready to begin learning to write letters and numbers. We move onto the squared chalkboard, which is like big graph paper. The child can practice each letter in isolation trying to control the size of the letter by fitting it into the square. Once the child feels comfortable with the chalkboard, we move on to squared paper. Now the child can hold a pencil and begin learning to form letters and numbers on paper.
Concurrently to this, we introduce the child to the movable alphabet. The movable alphabet is a big box of letters that can be used to spell out words or sentences. It allows the child to compose words visually and directly without having to worry about the mechanics of writing. The children often love to compose the names of their family members, pets, or funny words. Sometimes they will string together letters, “xfghyqa” and ask, “What does this say?”
It is important to note when the children use the movable alphabet or attempt to write words, we do not correct their spelling at this time. We want them to feel encouraged and excited to compose words, so we put emphasis on spelling phonetically and being excited about the process. We allow the child to work at their own pace and without interruptions because this helps them to develop focus and concentration which leads to deeper and more meaningful work.
After the child is able to form each letter easily and legibly, that indicates to us that the child is ready to learn to write on lined paper. This is a big step, as now the child not only has to focus on forming a letter, but they have to be strategic in its placement on a line. It requires great skill and focus on behalf of the child. We talk to the child about how the line is the “chair for the letter” and each letter likes to sit in its chair. Some letters (ascenders) stretch up past the dotted line, and some letters (descenders) like to dangle their legs below the line.
When the child has mastered single letters on the lined paper, we can move on to words. And from words, we move on to sentences. We are equipt to take the child as far as they are showing us they are ready to go. Some children may not get to the lined paper by the time they leave us for kindergarten, and that is okay. It is important to accept each child’s personal timeline in development of these skills.
There are many ways to prepare the child for reading at a young age. Early preparation involves storytelling, both oral and with the aid of books, conversations, singing songs, and expanding one’s vocabulary. Indirectly, we can help children ready themselves for reading by practicing conversation (talking) and comprehension (listening). Once a child enters the Montessori classroom environment, usually at the age of three, we begin to play sound games with the child. We call this the “I spy game”. We may say, “I spy something on the table that starts with “P”. And the child guesses, “pencil!” From this game, children learn that words are made of sounds. We encourage the children to hear and pick out the individual sounds in words.
After the child becomes familiar with this concept that words are made of sounds, we introduce the child to the sandpaper letters (now you can see where reading and writing begin to parallel each other in the classroom). The child participates in what we call the “Three period lesson” and begin to master the sound associated with each letter symbol. The first period of the lesson is introducing the child to a letter, "This is x." The second period of the lesson is where we play a game with the child, "Hand me g. Put r over there." The third period of the lesson is when we point to a letter and ask the child, "What's this?" Once a child has mastered being able to identify between 10 and 12 letters, the child is ready to move onto the movable alphabet and begin composing words. Parallel to this, we begin to show the child 3 letter phonetic words that have the sounds they have mastered in them (ex: cat) and see if the child has figured out that if they pronounce each letter sound in order it can make a word. It is around this time that we also introduce a box containing phonetic objects and cards with the names of the objects on them. We encourage the child to match the card with the object. This offers a visual aid and is a bridge to reading. It is pretty easy to tell if a child is ready to make that leap into reading. Sometimes children can waver on the cusp of reading for quite some time: they can identify many of the letter sounds, but it just hasn't clicked for them yet that those individual sounds can connect into a word. Every so often, I get a student who is what I call a ‘sight reader’. These children have the rare ability to read without needing to even go through the process of phonetically sounding out the words first. For some children, once reading clicks, it is like a wildfire of ravenous reading! For other children, it is a long and slow process of sounding out three letter phonetic words before they are ready to move on to four letter phonetic words, then five letter, then sentences and phrases. But again, this is what trusting the process is all about. We cannot judge or compare children, we just need to accept where they are in their own development. Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses, even us adults!
At home, you can trust the process too. Try not to over-correct your child in the moment and remember that at this young age, it is about the journey not the product.