Learning to read and write the Montessori way: sound games

In my last post I talked about how we are laying the foundations for literacy for Frida. Laying this foundation is, in my opinion, very important and absolutely necessary before any sort of formal literacy learning takes place.

Frida is now at a stage in her development where she is ready for work which will have a more direct impact on her reading and writing skills, “keys” to reading and writing. We started this work a couple of months ago and I wanted to tell you a little bit more about it. However, for those accustomed to flash cards, ABCs and alphabet songs, this work may look a little unusual. In the Montessori philosophy, a child’s first reading work does not actually consist of learning any letters. Sound strange? Hopefully this blog post will make things clearer!

“I spy with my little eye…”: playing Montessori sound games

These games are the first step towards learning to read and write the Montessori way, and as such are crucial if choosing this method. They are designed to help the child recognise and be  aware of the different sounds that make up words. The child uses the skills she develops in these games to help her to sound out the first words she reads and writes.

It is really important that you use the proper sounds when playing these games. You are not naming the letters, eg. the letter ‘a’ is not ‘ay’ but ‘a’ as in apple. The letter ‘b’ is not ‘bee’ or ‘buh’ but ‘b’ as in tub. ‘F’ is not ‘eff’ but ‘fff’. It does take a bit of practice! I would recommend searching online for “Montessori sound charts” or looking in a Montessori book for the correct pronunciation of letters and digraphs (sounds which are created when two letters are combined, such as ‘ai’, ‘ch’, ‘th’ or ‘sh’).

It is suggested that these games are introduced once the child is talking close to fluently, with a strong grasp of language and a wide vocabulary, along with good pronunciation. Another way to know if your child is ready is how they react to the game – if they are not interested then it may well be that they are not ready. I know that I tried to start playing sound games with Frida a month or so before we actually started and she just was not up for it at all. When I introduced them again just a month later she was immediately interested and will now happily play for a long time, which says to me that she is ready whereas she wasn’t before.

I would also stress that it’s important to start with the sound games before introducing materials such as the sandpaper letters, as these build on the skills your child will develop through these games. 

How to play?

Level one – Choose one object, for example a pen, hold it out and show it to your child. “I spy with my little eye something in my hand beginning with ‘p’.” Then child will say “pen”. You can repeat this with various objects. When the child appears to be beginning to listen to the sounds, move to level two.

Level two – Choose two objects, with different initial sounds, and play the game. Your child now has to make a choice, affected by how she distinguishes sound. When she has mastered this stage, increase to three, then four, then five. You can be more subtle, introducing similar sounds such as “p” and “b”. When the child has mastered this, move to level three.

Level three (where we are currently with Frida) – Choose a room, garden, or illustration, and a sound which represents more than one object in it. Once your child has offered one object, encourage them to volunteer more. You are not asking your child to search for one object that you are thinking of, but rather any item beginning with that sound. Your child may also take turns to choose the sound for the objects. Use digraphs as well as single letters. Play this game often!

We either play this game using our surroundings as inspiration, or by looking at the pages of a beautiful book. Some of my favourite books for playing sound games include “Grandma’s House” and “Lots: The Diversity of Life on Earth” (both are gorgeous books which I really recommend), although any book with rich illustrations works well and we play it a lot whilst reading.

I have been really encouraged and energised by playing these games with Frida. She also seems to enjoy them and can often be heard talking to herself or to us saying “‘A’ for Albie”! And ‘f’ for fur, and ‘f’ for Frida! ‘M’ for mummy.” I think this is a good sign that she is in the sensitive period for this work.

A note on age: “Montessori Read and Write” suggests introducing the level three sound games around age three to three and a half (following level one around age two and a half, and level two around age two and a half to three). Frida is only 26 months at the time of writing. However, I felt that she was ready as her spoken language is very strong for her age, and she was able to immediately grasp the first two levels with ease. Some children may be ready sooner than the suggested ages, and some may be ready later, preferring to work on other skills. Every child is different! 

Further sound games and language work

Rhyming games – Frida and I play a game where we think of words which rhyme. I might start with I spy: “…something beginning with ‘sh’.” “Shoe!” “Yes, that’s right. Shoe begins with ‘sh’. It ends with an “ue” sound – can you think of any other words which rhyme with ‘shoe'”? Another variation is to play “I spy with my little eye something that rhymes with…”. 

We will also play games where I will make up a silly rhyme (which Frida doesn’t already know) and then she will finish the rhyme by choosing an appropriate word. She will pretty much always choose the word which I would also have chosen; it’s a fascinating look into how logical small minds are!

Sorting objects by beginning sound – This is an activity that Frida has recently been working on and enjoying. I have provided a pile of animal figures (maybe 3-4 animals of each letter) and suggested that she sort them by the sound they start with. This was fine, but once she realised she could do it she wasn’t very interested in continuing to work on it!

To make this work more interesting / challenging for her I gave her pieces of paper for each animal with the corresponding letter on (not making a big deal of the letters, just saying “This page has a ‘d’, it makes a ‘d’ sound – ‘d’ as in ‘dog, d-og’. All the animals which begin with the a ‘d’ sound can go on this page.”)

I think this is probably quite unorthodox and not what Montessori would recommend, as I have introduced some written letters here; however my main intention is the sorting rather than the letter itself – but knowing Frida I thought the exercise would appeal to her. So far we have done this with five letters (d, c, g, m, f) building up to using all five at the same time over two days, and she has been able to sort the objects with ease, coming back to the exercise with no need to be reminded of what the letters were.  She has really enjoyed this work.

Next steps

Sandpaper letters – I have purchased some sandpaper letters, and the next step will be for me to formally introduce these to Frida. I have really deliberated about whether to introduce these now or wait a little while – I was in two minds! Everything I have read on the subject says to wait until the child is confidently playing sound games at level three before introducing the letters, which I feel Frida is. She is also showing an interest in letters and punctuation marks at the moment, and just through casually introducing her to a few letters in the sorting game she seems to have remembered the sound they make with ease and shows an interest in exploring more letters (“what letter is ‘b’?”) However, I am unsure if her fine motor skills are good enough to trace the letters successfully which will of course be a factor in using the sandpaper letters as a material. It’s hard – I am mindful of wanting to wait until she is truly ready, whilst also not wanting to delay in case I miss a sensitive moment. My gut tells me to introduce them and be ready to put them away if she doesn’t seem ready, but I would appreciate any thoughts or guidance you might have!

We have the book “Montessori: Letter WorkEdit” which is great for independent letter exploration. It has rough textured letters with images (which are actually correct in terms of sound – so many books aren’t, for example including a giraffe for ‘g’ where a goat or girl would be more accurate). I have just moved this onto Frida’s work shelves with a brief explanation of what it is, and I have observed her looking at it independently a number of times as well as asking to look at it together. 

More sound games – When we move on from our level three sound games, we will not only focus on the initial sound but the initial and end sounds (“I spy with my little eye, something beginning with c and ending with t). This is level four. Once she is able to do this, we will start enunciating all of the sounds in words (“Let’s listen to all of the sounds in cat; c-a-t. Did you hear the sound after c? Let’s say cat again! C-a-t”). This is level five, at which time it is suggested to use the moveable alphabet. I feel like this will be quite far away for us so I won’t go into it now!

Further reading

If you are interested in reading more on this subject, I really recommend buying “Montessori Read and Write: A Parent’s Guide to Literacy for ChildrenEdit” (Lynne Lawrence). It is a fantastically clear guide to helping your child develop literacy skills and is well worth a read even if your child will be attending a non-Montessori nursery or school.

There are also some brilliant blog posts on this subject from Amy at Midwest Montessori (“Sound games come first” and “Sound games: Montessori I-spy“) and from Mars at Montessori on Mars (“Our first alphabet work did not have any letters“); please do read these, they are superb summaries written by dedicated Montessori mothers.

I will share more with you as we continue our journey! Stay tuned for a post about how we are laying the foundations for numeracy in the home. 

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2 thoughts on “Learning to read and write the Montessori way: sound games

  1. I would love to hear what you have decided as far as sandpaper letters with Friday. I did decide to introduce sandpaper letters with my daughter (her age is coinciding with what is recommended, though she does have some developmental delays), but realized that her tracing skills aren’t what I thought they would be, though generally her fine motor skills are pretty good. Now I’m not quite sure what to do…

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    • I think I am going to stick with them, as since introducing them Frida has already learnt a number of letters. She’s not very interested in tracing them but she’s obviously getting a lot out of them regardless (choosing to work with them, pointing out letters in our environment, etc) so I’m going to trust my gut. Xx

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