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Phonics the Montessori Way

By Kathy von Duyke
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #45, 2002.

Secrets of readiness, timing, and teaching letters with stories.
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Kathy von Duyke

Teaching that first child to read seems to be the goal by which all of your relatives and neighbors are judging your homeschooling. This makes the average non-professional homeschool mom uneasy.

Stop worrying! By following the methods and resources listed in this article and the my next one, you'll know more than the average teacher, and will be regularly carrying out the activities of a reading specialist. After all, schools employ volunteer moms just like you, using phonics programs just like yours, to give developmentally slow children one-on-one tutoring time. Remember that young children who collect things, go places, do chores, create experiments, and spend time playing have the background needed for greater reading comprehension. So not only will your child be getting specific instruction, he will also have more time than a child in school to do real things, which is after all what books are written about.

Having taught nine of my 11 children to read so far, I've begun to notice certain quirky things about the way they learn. I've observed that whenever I teach one child to read, the next oldest child, who I'm not focusing on, usually learns to read at almost the same pace as the older one, even though there is usually a nearly two-year difference in age. I have come to believe now that this is because the second child has the perfect environment, but no pressure to perform. Montessori continually highlights the need for a prepared environment.

Secondly, I've observed that children from about 2-1/2 to about 4-1/2 are highly interested in the letter sounds, but after this age, learning the sounds seems more of a chore. The Montessori method calls this a "Sensitive Period," meaning the child is more aware of and interested in learning a certain thing at this time. If this period is missed, learning will take longer and be more tedious. This has made me wonder if readiness is something you can give your child, or something of an internal timetable. It seems it's a bit of both. When a child is ready, he will notice print in the environment. If you take the time to teach the sandpaper letters to your child, he will become more sensitive to the print in his environment.

The third thing I've noticed is that in beginning phonics instruction my child and I have a great start at this new game, but at some point it bogs down and the information just won't be learned. When we later come back to the same lesson after ignoring it awhile, we easily master what had previously become tedious. I used to call this the Housework Factor. Drop school, do housework for 2-3 days and anything becomes interesting to a child! I then came to call this the "absorptive phase," only to find Montessori already had coined the phrase "the absorbent mind." Her belief was that children could take in what they are ready for, and that teachers need to be very observant and respectful of when the mental light is on and when it is off.

I always wondered what made that mental light go off and on. Was it simply a matter of when a child choose to be interested or not? I now believe that when a child has been fed new information, his mind needs time to develop filing systems and connections to that information. They go into a kind of downtime, similar to the hourglass on your computer when it is processing new information. When a computer is in downtime, you can't input new information, no matter how many times you hit "enter." Once file folders and links are created for new information, the hourglass disappears, the keyboard takes input, and the child will begin to experiment with the new connections within his world. In the case of learning to read, suddenly he begins to notice those letters and sounds in his environment. The light goes back on, and he's ready for the next piece of phonetic instruction. I even learned that the best time to introduce new pieces of information is not Monday, followed by days of practice, but Fridays, followed by two days of rest from the information and then several days of practice.

Finally, like all parents, I've noticed that my very young children love story books and especially love to have favorites repeated. The younger the child the more "breakfast to bedtime" type stories they like. This is because the human mind was designed to think in story, not simply absorb facts. Two-year-olds, especially, like stories that repeat and order their lives in patterns for them. Again, Montessori noticed years ago that children best make sense of the world through story. She prepared her mini-lessons in any subject with stories which helped the children have the mental framework for the facts she would present. She presented new materials in sequential, ordered ways in the classroom so that children could find materials they wanted to practice, and know where the next harder step could be found.

In recapping these observations then, I've found there is an optimum time to teach the child the letter sounds, the basic code needed for reading. I've also learned that the code, like all facts is best learned within the context of story. The code must be fed in doses that the child can absorb. Finally, the child does best in an ordered, prepared environment with no pressure to perform but plenty of relaxed time to practice.

Thanks to the Montessori method, I've been able to develop jobs my young children can do to practice using the code - jobs that don't require my constant presence and hence my subtle pressure to perform. This year, however, I've been amazed how often the children test each other. On a near daily basis the 2- to 3-year-olds and the 4- to 5-year-olds in my co-op school will pair up to practice the letter-sounds jobs left available on the language arts shelves.

I will describe how each of these four elements will be used in each stage of learning to read.

  • Story
  • The Code (in other subjects this might be called the framework or keys to understanding)
  • Exploration of hands-on sequentially prepared attractive materials
  • A prepared teacher who introduces subsequent pieces of the framework within the context of story to a child who demonstrates readiness or curiosity or has mastered an earlier level in the short lessons

Planes of Learning in Reading

  • Age 1-2 years: Naming or noun phase, verbal babble stage
  • Ages 2-4 years: Story phase Noun/verbs used verbally, letter babble stage.
  • Ages 3-5 years: Blending letter sounds level 1 (three-letter words such as c-a-t.)
  • Ages 4 through third grade: Blending level 2 (four-letter words with two consonants such as c-l-a-p and more complicated patterns.)
  • 4th-7th grade: Spelling/Logical thinking (i.e.contingencies, if-then decisions.) This is a good time to present the code as a whole, and the useful spelling rules. This will be the subject of another article.

Order of Presentation of Letters

The following list is an example of how to divide the alphabet into manageable pieces for presentation. Though many schools begin by introducing a and proceeding to z, by presenting the letters divided this way, your child will be able to begin to use them to create words nearly from the beginning.

Once a letter has been introduced, it may be used within the subsequent blending lessons. That's because learning the letter sound will be faster within the context of words and story than by simply drilling the sound. Further, you will be modeling the blending process which will in turn develop blending readiness in your child.

  1. Sustained consonants
  2. vowels
  3. burst consonants

f, h
b, c
l, m
d, g
j, p
r, s, v
w, y, z
x (ks)

Letter Stories

The MECS software offers a letter story program that presents each letter within a mini-story. The letter b, for instance, is presented, followed by a "buh" sound, as a little boy who walks over and stands on his head to form a B. Unlike the typical worksheet that might associate a boy with the letter b often on a card so that the child has a confused association of pictures and sounds, this software was not created to practice the sounds, but to introduce them. The child has a mini-story context to think about the sound and shape of b, but later practices the sound tactilely for himself. If you don't want to purchase the software, you could introduce each letter with your own made up story. For instance, "Here is the letter m; it says, 'mmmmmm, Mommy made cookies! mmmmmmmm.'" Choose the three letters you will be introducing in the Sandpaper Letter Lesson.

Sandpaper Letters Lesson

Begin with three letters. Montessori sandpaper letters use vowels on blue cards, and consonants on red cards. For your convenience in the blending lessons later, note with a light pencil mark on the backs which letters are sustained sounds. Pick a sustained letter, a vowel, and a burst letter to begin with.

A really great introduction to teaching reading is Reading Reflex by Carmen and Geoffrey M Guinness, available on www.readamerica.com. This book quickly covers the main reading methods, the pitfalls of each, simple diagnostic tools to determine what your child knows and what he needs to know, and an entire set of phonics games and readers for you to copy and use. The basic code is separated into four parts, and you would want to introduce the sandpaper letters in the same parts in order to use the games and booklets you make from the book. The book would act as your short lesson introduction to each part, and you would follow up each lesson by making the hands-on jobs I mention below available to your child.

The Three Period Lesson for the Sandpaper letters:

For the sake of this article I will choose the letters m, a, and t to present in a first day's lesson.

1st Period

1) Trace your finger over the letter while you say, "/mmmmmmm/" To form an m start at the top left, move down, bounce up and around, come down to the line, bounce up and around, come down to the line. If you feel uncertain as to how to form letters for yourself, see the website www.bfhhandwriting.com for a great program which will help you later guide your child in letter formation.

2) Take your child's dominant index finger and trace it over the letter in the same rhythm and formation. Tell him to say, "mmmmmmm [m] mmmmmm."

3) Put away the m and take out the t. Introduce it the same way (t is formed with the rhythm, "pull down, lift up, and cross.")

Period 2 lesson

4) Lay down the t and the m. Say, "hand me the /mmmm/." If he picks up the t say, "No, that's /t/ can you pick up the /m/?"

5) When he hands you the m say, "Good. This is... /m/, say /m/. Write /m/." After he says the sound, take your child's finger and trace it over the letter in the same writing rhythm as before. Let him try on his own.

6) Lay the m back down and say, "Hand me the /t/." Continue as with m.

Continue with Period 1 introduction

7) Put away the t and m and introduce the a. Tap the top of the card and say, "Say /aaa/ with me." Be careful not to say /u/; the sound should be like the first sound you hear in /at/. Say /a/ together, say /a/ as you model tracing the card. Start at the top right of the letter a, go around and down to the baseline, then up, and back down to the line.

8) Trace a with the child's finger, give him a chance to try on his own.

Continue with Period 2

9) Lay out the m, t, and a as before and ask your child for each one individually by sound. Once selected, place the card back down and ask for the nest. This gives you child the chance to visually discriminate the shapes of the letters.

Period 3

10) Probably not in the first lesson, but when you are pretty certain your child recognizes the letters, confirm this in the Period 3 lesson. Hold up a card and ask your child, "What is this?" Do this for each card. If he can't tell you the sounds, continue with period 1 and 2 work.

Repeat the three-period lesson with each new letter introduced, adding in a new sound and gradually dropping out sounds that are mastered. As a handful of sounds have been mastered, you will be ready to begin the blending lessons, which will be in the next issue.

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