Montessori Language Activities at Home: Writing Before Reading

Montessori Approach to Writing and Reading

Writing and reading in the context of natural child development.

A large part of your child's process of adaptation during the first six years is figuring out the agreements people have about language since nobody is born with this knowledge.

Language is a system of arbitrary sounds and associated symbols that are agreed upon by people of a specific culture to represent ideas. The sounds are combined in a certain agreed upon way (spoken language) and the letters are combined in a certain agreed upon way (written language).

To be able to communicate, your child needs to learn the names for everything in the environment and the qualities (colour, shape, size, texture, weight, temperature, taste, sound, smell) used to describe them. Your child also needs to learn the rules of language such as the order of words in sentences.

Luckily, your child's brain has the capacity to absorb language subconsciously (without effort or thinking about it) simply by interacting with the surrounding environment and repeating these sensory-motor experiences. There's no need to rush the process because your child's absorbent mind functions for the first six years.

Writing before reading.

A unique aspect of the Montessori approach to language is the introduction of writing before reading.

Dr Maria Montessori observed children starting to read spontaneously about six months after they began to write.

Reading follows writing because it requires the child to work towards the unknown, deciphering another person’s thoughts. Until the process becomes automatic, your child needs to pull apart each word to sound it out, then put the word back together again to understand the meaning. This decoding process is a lot more work than writing your own thoughts.

The sequence of Montessori language lessons.

Your Montessori parenting journey may or may not include helping your child with writing and reading.

If homeschooling is one of your goals, then you'll need to know the sequence of Montessori language lessons and the age when your child might be ready for the activities. 

  • 3 years old: Play games to enrich vocabulary and help your child become aware of the sounds that make up words. Once your child can identify sounds at the beginning of words, start introducing sandpaper letters so your child becomes aware of the letters that represent the sounds.
  • 3 ½ years old: Once your child knows about 10 sandpaper letters, introduce the moveable alphabet so your child can begin to "write" by putting sounds in a row to make words. 
  • 4 years old: Introduce the metal insets first and then later introduce handwriting on a chalkboard and then handwriting on lined paper.
  • 4 ½ years old: Once you've observed your child sounding out words, introduce phonetic words on labels. This is followed by work with phonograms and sight words.
  • 5-6 years old: Introduce the article, adjective, conjunction, preposition, verb and adverb activities. This is followed by reading analysis activities, including word study and punctuation.

The writing activities prepare your child's mind and body so that the act of writing can happen spontaneously.

Tracing the sandpaper letters and saying the sound out loud requires your child's hand and mind to work simultaneously so he or she can remember how each letter looks and sounds. 

Using the moveable alphabet, your child can put sounds in a row to make words without having to form the letters with a pencil. The focus is on your child expressing his or her thoughts and making words by sounding them out. Spelling does not matter at this point. When your child suddenly realizes that he or she can put sounds in a certain order to make a word, you'll see an explosion of writing.

Tracing the metal insets gives your child practice moving a pencil in the clockwise and counterclockwise motions used to form the shapes of the letters. Working from left to right and using small movements up and down to colour in the tracing helps your child to absorb the order of writing in our culture. The next step is to practice writing the letters, first on a chalkboard and then on lined paper. 

Once you've observed your child sounding out words that he or she sees around him, such as on signs, you'll introduce activities that seem like games but are designed to entice your child toward reading.

Some activities include tiny objects to represent each word, but over time your child will no longer need the concrete item because he or she will become more interested in the words themselves. 

The big idea you'll want your child to absorb is that reading is silent communication. Your child can know what other people are thinking, without them saying it, by reading what they have written.

When your child first starts to read, he or she will sound out each word. With practice, your child's reading will become more fluid as the process of decoding becomes automatic.

Your child will soon be able to decipher words and also understand the meaning or context of what he or she is reading. When your child begins to read with inflection, you'll know he or she also understands the sentiment.  

Eventually your child will be able to read something silently and have a conversation about it, sharing his or her knowledge with other people. 

You don't need to "teach" your child to write and read.

As a general principle, the Montessori approach focuses on indirect preparation rather than teaching.

Your child will begin to write and read naturally on his or her own when he or she is prepared directly through language activities and also indirectly through practical life and sensorial activities.

As a Montessori parent, your role is to support your child in developing the hand and mind so he or she will:

  • build vocabulary to have the words to express thoughts and ideas
  • have the confidence to express thoughts and ideas
  • hear the sounds that make up words
  • understand the order of words in sentences
  • develop the tripod grip, wrist and arm muscles, and hand-eye coordination
  • distinguish the letters of the alphabet and create a mental image of each letter and associate it with its sound
  • be able to concentrate and follow a logical sequence
  • be able to work within a limited space, moving from left to right and top to bottom

You'll also want to create opportunities for your child to see you writing and reading so that your child absorbs the idea that anything that is written down can be read.

The key is to trust the process. Have faith that your child will come to write and read in his or her own time, just like how your child began walking without having been taught. Try to be patient while waiting for writing and reading to happen spontaneously rather than rushing the process. 

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About the Author

Hi, I'm Lisa. I'm an AMI-trained Montessori teacher. I help parents of toddlers and preschoolers get started with Montessori at home. Get my latest articles via the blog RSS feed. Connect with me on Pinterest and Instagram