Learning to talk is a natural process. Our brains develop to hear and learn language right from the beginning. Learning to read is not a natural process. Our brains need to be trained and reworked to decode the little symbols our eyes see written down. The English language is made up of 44 different sounds, or phonemes. When our brains can translate the symbols of written language into these phonemes, we are reading.
The first step for a beginning reader is phonemic awareness, which means that the child can hear the sounds that make up a word. The child can hear that the word “dog” begins with the sound /d/, ends with the sound /g/, and has a short o sound in the middle. Phonemic awareness has nothing to do with looking at written words and everything to do with hearing. In the classroom, we cultivate the child’s sense of hearing. One whole area of the the classroom is for sensorial materials that are explored through the senses
Developing phonics skills is the next step for the beginning reader. The child begins to match their knowledge of phonemes to the letters and words they see. The teacher works individually with each child to introduce them to letters and their sounds with sandpaper letters - letters you can feel with your hand! Only the letter sound is taught - rather than the letter name - so that when a child sees an M, they immediately think “mmmmm.”
As the child masters all the letter sounds, they are introduced to building words with the moveable alphabet and always encouraged to sound out their words and spell what they hear. In the beginning, the children use this wonderful inventive spelling to write out their words. This practice in sounding out words, even if they are not spelled correctly, solidifies the child’s ability to decode words. They are mastering the code of reading, and mastery is a process!
All the while they are physically building words with their hands. Maria Montessori wrote, “What the hand does the mind remembers.”
The next step for the reader is increasing vocabulary so that the child knows a large range of words and has practice using them. Words surround the child in a Montessori classroom. Even the youngest child is taught large scientific words for things like the parts of a flower or different types of birds.
Once a child can take their first steps reading books, fluency and comprehension are encouraged by making reading a part of everything the child does. Children in the elementary classroom design their own projects and study topics that most interest them. They are guided in the ways to use books as tools for research, and given time to read for pleasure each day.