Balanced Literacy in a Montessori Classroom

By Imelda McShane with Alex Chiu

Balanced literacy contains both spoken and written components. The foundation for language learning is hearing and imitating sounds, listening to words, understanding the meaning of words and sentences, and being able to use words to communicate. At The Montessori Children’s Academy, we teach the children who are ready to read by using a phonetic approach that demonstrates how words are made up of sounds, which is later supplemented by sight-reading strategies. Learning to read starts with phonics in Montessori schools because we understand that reading is essentially the decoding of the individual sounds of a word, and connections are made among speaking, reading, and writing in all areas of the curriculum right from the start to promote balanced literacy.

Many preschool children may already have mastered the names of the letters by the time they come to school. They know their ABCs from the Alphabet Song which uses the names of the letters and which we all know very well. When young children enter a Montessori classroom, they then are introduced to the sounds the letters make. For example, “A” says the sound “a” as in “cat”. This is a new concept for most preschoolers, and as their interest in the Language area of the classroom grows, they become engrossed in the various materials that facilitate their reading, writing, and general language skills.

The first of the Montessori materials used to help teach the sounds of letters are the Sandpaper Letters. These materials consist of 26 individual flat, thin wooden boards, each with a lower case letter made of sandpaper attached to one side of the board. Consonants are on pink boards and vowels are on blue boards. The Sandpaper Letters are kept in boxes containing 4 or 5 letters, chosen because of their differing sounds and shapes. For example, the first box a child would be introduced to includes the sounds “b”, “m”, “s”, and “t”. Each letter’s shape and sound is quite distinct from the others in the box, promoting an easier differentiation for the child.

Using these materials, children learn to recognize the symbols of the letters, associate the phonetic sounds with the letters, and make a tactile connection between the sounds and the formation of the letters. Montessori teachers show the child how to trace the Sandpaper Letter with one finger. While the child traces the letter, the teacher will repeat the phonetic sound of the letter. The child is encouraged to repeat the sound. An extension of this work is to have the child write the letter in a shallow tray filled with sand. The child is invited to form the letter in the sand, and if dissatisfied, the letter can easily be ‘erased’ by gentle smoothing the sand so the child can try again and again. These activities are direct preparation for writing because they give the children practice in the movement used for making the letter, which they will do with pencil and paper in the future.

Recently, in one of our MCA preschool classrooms, the children used crayons to trace letters written first by a teacher in pencil on a piece of paper. After tracing the letters, the children could choose stamps with pictures of objects that begin with those letters to illustrate their papers, for example using a stamp of a “rose” for the sound “r” or a stamp of a “monkey” for the sound “m”. Students have also used watercolors to paint turkeys and hats representing the sounds of “t” and “h”. Using a small pin punch tool, the children pin punched the outlines of the shapes of pumpkins and cats on construction paper to help them learn the sounds “p” and “c”. While studying invertebrates, the children had the opportunity to match different sounds with different types of invertebrates. Montessori classes perform many activities like this to reinforce the sounds across curriculum areas.

Another fun way to work with sounds is to play an “I Spy” sort of game. During circle time, some teachers, when calling children to choose work, line up, or get their coats, will often say, “If your name begins with the sound “d”, you may get your coat.” Parents can play this in the car or at home too, as it is an enjoyable way to incorporate learning sounds throughout the day.

Once the children have mastered many of the sounds, they begin working with another Montessori material – the Movable Alphabet. The Moveable Alphabet is a box containing small, lowercase letters of the full alphabet. Consonants are usually red and vowels are usually blue for the children to easily distinguish. The activity is done on a mat on the floor with a set of phonetic objects (for example, a hat, a cat, a rat, etc.). One of the objects is laid down on the mat, and the child is asked to identify the object. When the child names the object, he or she is then invited to listen for the first sound he or she hears when saying the word. The child then finds the letter that represents that first phonetic sound from the Moveable Alphabet box and places it beside the object on the mat. The child and teacher will repeat the word again, “h-a-t”, slowly so the child can hear each of the sounds used to make the word, and the child chooses each of the corresponding letters to spell the word on the mat. The fact that this reading activity requires manipulation of material is important because the child is still at an age where he or she learns a great deal through the use of the hands. The objects also are very inviting and draw the children to choose this activity in the classroom.

After the children have learned to spell out the words “hat”, “cat”, “bat”, etc. using the Moveable Alphabet, they read what they have laid out to a teacher; thereby moving from building the word with the Moveable Alphabet letters to reading the word out loud. The children will continue in this way building many words using all of the vowels in the box, and progressing from simpler words to more challenging ones, as they are ready.

To continue their work in putting sounds together, the children progress through the Montessori Pink, Blue, and Green Language Boxes. In one of the first Montessori reading exercises, the Pink Reading Boxes, the child matches small pictures with simple, phonetic words printed on cards. At first, this exercise involves three-letter words with short vowel sounds. Later, in the Blue and Green levels, four or five letter words such as “stamp”, “flag”, “crab”, etc. are introduced. These are called blends. There are many such pictures in the classroom, so that a variety of work is always available. The children are introduced to basic sight words and eventually reading phonetic sentences.

One way to enhance the Language curriculum in a Montessori classroom is with an activity known as “Sharing the Pen.” An example of this activity was observed recently when an MCA teacher drew a place setting on a large piece of paper. The children were asked to choose an object from the place setting picture and come to the paper and write the sounds they could hear when saying the name of the object. One child wrote “plt” on the picture of the dinner plate. Each child was allowed a turn to “share the pen.” The children look forward to activities such as this, and they are able to see how language is part of everything that they do.

Another important component of the Montessori Language curriculum is literature. Literature is part of every school day. Reading and class discussion are woven into every aspect of the MCA curriculum. Through their continuous exposure to literature, children build a wide vocabulary, gain a better understanding of the function of words, and learn to communicate and express themselves better, both orally and in writing. One recent literature lesson at MCA involved the book 10 Black Dots by Donald Crews. The author wrote, “One dot can make a sun, two dots can make the eyes of a fox, and three dots can make a snowman’s face.” The children were asked what they would do with 10 black dots. One child wrote, “Four dots for the flowers in my dad’s garden.” Another child wrote, “Two dots are for yummy chocolate chip cookies,” while still another one wrote, “10 dots can make a necklace for my mom.” Even the youngest students participated by illustrating pictures and dictating their stories to a teacher.

MCA students engage in language across all areas of the curriculum. Music and art connect to their Language learning, too. For Thanksgiving, some of our children wrote what they were thankful for on leaves with crayons and used watercolors to paint over them. In December, other students talked about their own holiday traditions and read holiday stories with a theme of gifts from the heart. The children then wrote cards to the parents expressing a gift such as love, joy, kindness, etc. Recently, a class read the book The Wonder of Hands by Edith Baer, which illustrates the many wonderful things hands can do. This book inspired much discussion about the varied things that hands could be used for, after which the children wrote about what their own hands can do. For example, one child wrote, “I can make a heart with my hands to show love,” while another wrote “I can hold my friend’s hand with my hand.” Throughout all seasons of the year, the children are exposed to poems and stories related to holidays, seasons, and current classroom themes, all contributing to their Language learning.

The goal of a developmentally appropriate classroom is to accept the children where they are and take them forward on their literacy journey. Montessori classrooms especially help guide children on this journey through a variety of activities and with specifically crafted materials that facilitate their language growth. A balanced literacy program, such as what you will find in MCA’s classrooms, helps to ignite the excitement of language learning and light the way for children’s development in this area.