How to Teach the Alphabet using Language Objects
The Montessori Approach to Teaching the Alphabet
When it comes to teaching the alphabet, the phonetic sound each letter makes is what's important for toddlers and preschoolers to learn first. For example, the word “cat” is made up of the phonetic sounds for /c/, /a/, and /t/.
As your child develops phonemic awareness, he or she will be able to hear and identify the sounds in words and understand that words are made up of sounds in a row.
Learning the concrete sounds of the alphabet (not the abstract letter names) and developing phonemic awareness is what's going to help your child sound out words, a skill that's needed in the early stages of writing and reading.
The first in a series of Montessori I Spy sound games using language objects draws attention to the phonetic sounds at the beginning of words. Usually children who are around 2.5 to 3 years old are ready to play this game. Eventually, sound games can be played with phonetic sounds and/or phonogram sounds (e.g., sh, th, oy, ee, ai, ar, ch) at the beginning, middle or end of a word.
4 Steps to Teaching the Alphabet using Language Objects
STEP 1: Memorize the phonetic sound made by each letter of the alphabet.
You'll want to practice saying the phonetic sound that each letter makes so that you are modelling the correct letter sounds to your child. When you say each sound, make it really short rather than drawing out the sound. You don't want to add any vowel sounds at the end of the letter sound!
- The sound for the letter "a" is pronounced as in apple and asparagus.
- The sound for the letter "b" is pronounced as in balloon and bun.
- The sound for the letter "c" is pronounced as in cube and candy.
- The sound for the letter "d" is pronounced as in domino and donut.
- The sound for the letter "e" is pronounced as in egg and elephant.
- The sound for the letter "f" is pronounced as in fork and funnel.
- The sound for the letter "g" is pronounced as in gift and gear.
- The sound for the letter "h" is pronounced as in hinge and hamburger.
- The sound for the letter "i" is pronounced as in igloo and ink.
- The sound for the letter "j" is pronounced as in jam and jug.
- The sound for the letter "k" is pronounced as in kiwi and key.
- The sound for the letter "l" is pronounced as in lace and leaf.
- The sound for the letter "m" is pronounced as in mat and mug.
- The sound for the letter "n" is pronounced as in nut and nest.
- The sound for the letter "o" is pronounced as in octopus and otter.
- The sound for the letter "p" is pronounced as in pasta and puzzle.
- The sound for the letter "q" is pronounced as in queen or quilt.
- The sound for the letter "r" is pronounced as in raspberry and rose.
- The sound for the letter "s" is pronounced as in spring and scissors.
- The sound for the letter "t" is pronounced as in tile and tray.
- The sound for the letter "u" is pronounced as in umbrella and ultrasound.
- The sound for the letter "v" is pronounced as in vase and violin.
- The sound for the letter "w" is pronounced as in waffle and worm.
- The sound for the letter "x" is pronounced as in box and axe.
- The sound for the letter "y" is pronounced as in yarn and yoyo.
- The sound for the letter "z" is pronounced as in zipper and zero.
The letter sounds are mostly straightforward, but there are a few that are commonly misrepresented. For example, the sound for the letter "x" is pronounced as in box, not xylophone (which starts with the "zzz" sound). All of the vowels are pronounced as short sounds, not long sounds as when we say their letter names.
STEP 2: Start a collection of language objects.
You can start a collection of language objects using common household items. Take a look around your house for small items such as a battery, bandaid, candle, clip, dime, floss, garlic, gauze, hook, key, lock, magnet, nickel, nail, pencil, pasta, plug, quarter, ruler, rope, sandpaper, screw, staples, toothpick, tweezers, whistle, yarn, zipper. Your child may already have a collection of realistic-looking miniature animal figurines which can also be repurposed as language objects.
Then buy a starter set of language objects and save the time it takes to search for hard-to-find beginning sound alphabet objects for letter sounds such as i, e, j, q, u, v and z.
Language objects do pose a choking hazard due to small parts. Be sure to supervise your child when he or she is using them. Keep language objects out of reach when you are not playing sound games.
STEP 3: Play the Montessori I Spy sound game with language objects every day.
It takes only about 10 minutes to play the I Spy sound game with language objects. It's a hands-on and engaging way to learn the letter sounds. If your child has an older sibling who has already developed phonemic awareness, invite him or her to play too. He or she can even lead the game! Often children learn best from peers or older children.
How To Play Sound Games
- Sit with your child and name the language objects as you take them out of a basket. Start with about three language objects.
- “I see something that has the sound /p/ in it. Do you know what I’m thinking about?” You may find it's easiest to start with beginning sounds and give the answer with emphasis on the sound while your child just listens: "I'm looking for something that starts with /mmm/.... mmmuffin! Muffin starts with the sound mmm!" Try not to say "mmm mmm muffin" to avoid adding sounds to the beginning of the word.
- Continue for as long as your child is interested. Add more language objects as your child gets the hang of playing the game.
Expect it to take some time for your child to develop phonemic awareness. Your child may not get it at first, and that's ok because it simply reflects where he or she is at developmentally. Initially your child may say "mmm...cat" and "mmm...ball". Your child may be unable to pronounce certain sounds or may choose not to say the sound and instead will just point to the object. Keep modelling and know that your child is taking it all in even if you aren't getting the verbal response you expect. Eventually it will click!
Over time, you'll naturally cover the phonetic sounds as well as key phonogram sounds (such as sh, th, oy, ee, ai, ar and ch) at the beginning, middle and end of words. There isn't a "correct" order to follow (though you may want to start with three sounds that are very different) and you don't need to keep track of progress because the focus is on exploring sounds in words at this stage. It's more important to just get in the habit of playing sound games every day because phonemic awareness is critical to your child being able to write and read.
STEP 4: Associate each phonetic sound with its alphabet letter.
Once it’s clear that your child hears and can consistently identify the sounds of our language and also understands that words are made up of sounds in a row, then introduce lowercase tactile letters (cursive or print). This step helps your child become aware of the symbols that represent the sounds so he or she can begin to associate each sound with its alphabet letter.
The Montessori approach to teaching the alphabet starts with lowercase letters. This is because only a small percentage of the letters we write and read are uppercase (capital) letters.
First decide if you want to introduce the cursive or print version of tactile letters.
Many children find the cursive letters easier to write because it is more natural to make loops and they don’t need to take the pencil off and on the page so many times. All cursive letters start at the baseline rather than at some random spot, and there are fewer cursive letters that look alike to be confused with one another compared with print letters.
But if it's not important to you that your child learn cursive, then it's certainly ok to stick with print letters!
You'll need a set of lowercase tactile letters. Tracing a tactile letter and saying its sound helps your child develop muscular, visual and auditory memory of what the alphabet letters look like and sound like.
The traditional Montessori sandpaper letters are available in lowercase print or cursive letters with blue wooden boards for the vowels and pink wooden boards for the consonants. You can expect to pay about $40-$50 for a set. Alternatively, Didax makes a similar sandpaper letter product for about $15 that features lowercase print letters.
Or, you can make your own tactile letters by cutting out lowercase letters from sandpaper or felt and gluing them onto boards. Another method is to trace an outline of each lowercase letter onto individual boards, fill the outlines with glue and sprinkle sand or glitter onto them.
How to Use Language Objects During a Three-Period Lesson with Sandpaper Letters
Select three sandpaper letters that look different and sound different. Place them face down on a table along with a small box or basket that contains several language objects, about three for each of the sounds represented by the sandpaper letters.
- The "Naming" Period: "The first sound I'm going to show you is mmm". The word "marble" starts with the sound "mmm". Continue with some other words starting with the same sound: "Do you hear mmm in mat?". Invite your child to think of a word that starts with that sound. Turn over the sandpaper letter for that sound and say "This is what mmm looks like." Show your child how to trace the lowercase sandpaper letter and then say the sound the letter makes. Trace and say the sound twice. Then invite your child to trace and say the sound twice. Then turn over the sandpaper letter and set it aside. Repeat for the other two sandpaper letters. Don't mention the name of the letters!
- The "Show Me" Period: This step makes the process of associating the alphabet letters and sounds into a fun game. First turn over all of the sandpaper letters and place them in front of your child. Invite your child to "show me the mmm" and "touch the sss" and "pass me the fff" and so on, making the sound each time and always inviting your child to trace the letter and say its sound. Repeat with each sandpaper letter a few times in random order, moving them around on the table. Then place one language object in your child's hand and name the object. Invite your child to say the beginning sound of the language object and then match it with the sandpaper letter that makes the same sound. Repeat with all of the language objects. Return all of the language objects to the box or basket and tell your child you're going to play one more game.
- The "What Is?" Period: Gather the sandpaper letters into a pile and place them face down on the table. One at a time, turn over a sandpaper letter and say “Please trace this.” After your child traces it, ask “What is it?”
Invite your child to trace any sandpaper letters anytime he or she wants to trace them. Consider installing a low shelf with a lip at the edge on which you can rest a selection of sandpaper letters for your child to explore and match with language objects.
About the Author
I'm Lisa, an AMI-trained Montessori teacher and curator of language objects for alphabet activities and phonics games. I help parents and early childhood educators use Montessori activities to make learning to read and write fun for preschoolers.