Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Montessori Musings: Learning to Read

I have bilingual children and one long-term educational goal for them is to be able to function in both English-speaking and German-speaking worlds. My son attends a German public school and my daughter is in a private parent-run kindergarten (meaning that we parents do the admin stuff and handiwork, but not the actual teaching).  While I do not homeschool, I put a lot of effort into "after-schooling", because of the bilingual aspect.

When my son was still very young, I was advised by several people including a linguist (who also happened to be the parent of trilingual children) to teach my children to read the most difficult language first.  While German grammar is definitely more difficult than English grammar, German is a phonetic language and quite easy to read.  English, on the other hand, is not phonetic and filled with exceptions to rules.

I successfully taught my son to read using a textbook called Teach your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons.  It was a great tool for my son and he enjoyed the progression of the book.  At age seven, he is now reading beyond his grade level in English, even though the rest of his education is entirely in German.

Then, after my daughter started showing all the indications that she was ready to learn to read, I began attempting to teach her with the same book.  As any mother of more than one child will tell you, each one is different.: ) It didn't take long to figure out that the book was not going to work with her!  It was absolute torture for her and she needed something much more tactile to motivate her.

Fortunately for her (and me!), the year before I had begun to take an interest in the Montessori method through my experience with Godly Play.  Taking Karen Tyler's on-line Montessori Training has put some practicals tools in my hand to give her a much more holistic way of learning.  (It has also helped me in teaching English at our local elementary school.)

Below is a photo of one of our recent lessons where she is learning to match sounds with letters.  She is in the Pink Series, the first level of Montessori reading. Here she is matching the beginning sound in the picture cards (free downloads from Montessori for Everyone and Montessori Materials ) with letter cards.  Then, she draws the letter itself in a tray filled with a thin layer of cornmeal. (I have yet to find a child that can resist playing with cornmeal!)

In the Montessori method, subjects and skills overlap so that the child can learn several things in one activity. Here she is working on phonetics, writing and sorting/classifying (a math skill) all in one lesson. 

One thing that I have learned from Karen is how to "improvise" with materials so that I am not spending exorbitant amounts on pricy materials.  Sandpaper letters are a basic in Montessori reading and writing, but I chose to spend the money on other things and make textured letter cards myself.  The letter cards that you see in the picture are textured letter stickers made from corrugated cardboard that I have attached to index cards. I spent the money saved on sandpaper cursive letters which I hope will serve her well in the future.

This is my daughter's "surprise box". She picks a letter and I fill the
box with objects that begin with that letter.  Here you can also see my alternative to the sandpaper letters a little better.

So far, we are doing well and and enjoying learning.  I'll let you know how things progress!

Linked to Montessori Monday at One Hook Wonder.


  1. Hi Sheila: Yes, I have found so many great resources/ideas online for our schooling journey. One today I saw: http://1plus1plus1equals1.blogspot.com/2011/06/montessori-minute-sensory-activities.html. I wish I would have heard about sensory bins, sandpaper letters and such earlier! Always good to see the great things you're doing!

  2. Hi Jenny, There is a great book called "Teaching Montessori in the Home: the School Years" by Elizabeth Hainstock that might interest you. It is designed for people who want to supplement their child's other schoolwork with Montessori lessons rather than being a whole curriculum in itself. Might be helpful for you in the future.

  3. Question: where did you get the corrugated letter sticker? I'm thinking I will need a little more sensory approach to writing with Z (amazingly, he taught himself to read), so I may want to do something similar. And, Jenni, I'm hoping to do some form Tot Trays for Z & J for this fall. Feel free to ask me how it's going. :-)

  4. Hi Cara, I found them at Michael's in America. You could also make them out of sandpaper and paste them onto index cards as well. There are a lot of patterns for letters on the internet. Exciting that you are considering a sensory approach! Be sure to let me know how it goes.:)

  5. I am happy to have found your blog. I too have bilingual children who are surrounded by a language/culture that is different from what we use in our home. I have begun to realize that I need to take a more proactive role in fostering their understanding of English, and have been attracted to the Montessori Methods, for many of the same reasons as you. However, starting from zero has been hard. My oldest is 5.5 and has shown no interest in reading or writing either language. I actually found your blog because I was resesarching the book Teaching Your Child to Read in 100 Lessons. May I ask how this method (the 100 lessons) fits into the Montessori principles? Although I don't have Montessori training, I would like to incorporate many of the projects and methods I've seen in the Montessori curiculum. I look forward to following your blog.

    1. Hi there Mama, Thanks for stopping by! As to how Teaching Your Child to REad fits into the Montessori principles, with my daughter I have allowed her the freedom to go as slowly with this book as she wants. I have always offered it as a choice, and at first she was not ready for it and almost never wanted to do it. Now, she does it willingly and it is sometimes her first choice over the Montessori materials. The book itself is not Montessori, but is a great complement to a reading program. And some children may prefer it over the Montessori materials, because each lesson has a picture that goes along with a text. I cover up the picture until my kids have read the text and then it becomes a game trying to guess what the picture might be. I would suggest you begin offering materials to your oldest and see what happens. Many children are not ready to read until much later. The most important thing you can do at this stage is read aloud to him/her and have him/her tell you stories, nursery rhymes, etc. Especially with bilingual children the verbal abilities are the most important at first and then come reading and writing. (My humble opinion as an ESL teacher.)