How to Get Started with The Montessori Approach to Reading

montessori reading

In my twenties, newly enrolled in my Montessori graduate program, I sat immersed in this entirely new world that turned my previous ideas of education on its head. 

I was eager, fresh-faced (I mean, I was in my twenties), and enthralled with this system that once seemed so complicated, but was coming together in a beautiful simplicity that was slowly blowing my mind. I often think of Montessori teaching as the ultimate version of “show, don’t tell”. 

Instead of a discussion, worksheets, or things to memorize, Montessori materials are designed to provide a visual symbol or representation, hands-on experiences, and manipulatives in order to create a multi-sensory approach. I found the entire process to be fully enlightening, unlocking things that I’d never before so fully understood.

A Montessori method is a holistic approach to education, encompassing nearly every aspect of a student’s development, from the very early years, through kindergarten, elementary, and beyond. The Montessori reading philosophy is no different. Montessori teachers begin early, incorporating all the senses, and integrate a variety of experiences into how they teach reading. 


The Montessori Philosophy on Reading

Dr. Maria Montessori (the founder of the Montessori Method) observed all children having sensitive periods throughout their development. Their sensitive period for language is from birth to age 6, so the majority of the reading curriculum occurs in the 3-6 classroom (preschool).

Of course, children are still learning and fine-tuning these skills in the 6-9 classroom (grades 1-3), but she felt it essential to begin during early childhood education. 

While there are many different parts, the reading curriculum comes together in a lovely, coherent way that just makes sense… kind of like a symphony. Each instrument is doing its part to create something bigger, just like each piece of the Montessori reading curriculum comes together to develop a child’s reading skills. 

In the Montessori classroom, children learn how to write before they read. It’s an organic approach since children are able to put the letter sounds they know together for a word before they’re ready to sound out a word on the page. 

When you think about it, it’s a logical approach. We teach our children the individual sound each letter makes, so the next step is to put those sounds together into a word.

Since there are several things happening simultaneously, let’s break it into parts: 

Practical Life Activities 

In Montessori schools, children learn how to write in cursive before they learn to print. Although often intimidating to adults, cursive is a more natural extension for children. They don’t have to lift the pencil from the paper, making the movement fluid and continuous. 

By extension, activities like washing tables, painting, and the tactile experience of shaving cream on a table are all early literacy activities, as the circular, looping movements of the hand and arm mimic writing. 

In addition, the use of tweezers and even picking up blocks encourages the use of the pincer grasp, the same one used in writing. In this way, Montessori is a fully holistic approach to reading. These activities are part of the practical life curriculum, which is a cornerstone of Montessori.

Sandpaper Letters

Children begin learning letter sounds and phonics using sandpaper letters. Using the pointer and middle finger of their dominant hand, they trace the textured sandpaper, repeating the letter sound. 

The use of touch, sight, and verbalization come together for more full and integrated letter knowledge. Eventually, they will use these same strokes on paper. 

Moveable Alphabet

Once a child has mastered the sounds of each letter, they proceed to the moveable alphabet, which is just what it sounds like. 

All the letters of the alphabet, are organized in order, with multiple letters of each. One of the things that makes the Montessori moveable alphabet special is that all of the consonants are blue and the vowels are red a constant visual reminder. 

Using word cards, picture cards, or their own imagination and visualization, children will use the moveable alphabet to spell words, construct sentences, and even tell stories. They begin with simple, phonetic sounds of words and move on to the more complex ones. 

Pencil to Paper

Once children have developed proper hand strength, they will begin working with pencils. 

Montessori environments have a beautiful collection of colored pencils that are beloved and used frequently by students. They begin by tracing shapes, drawing lines, and making patterns.

As they create art and work in the areas of geometry and math, they are building the strong foundation they’ll need for writing. 

Once they learn how to string letters into words and words into letters and then begin writing, there is often an explosion of enthusiasm toward writing. They’ll still use the moveable alphabet, but eventually and naturally, that will fade and the child will just be writing… and what a joy it is to see a child find that excitement in their abilities! 


Once they master writing letters and words, reading is the natural next step. Often overlapping and happening in tandem, reading is typically an organic extension of all the pre-reading, moveable alphabet, and writing work they’ve been doing. 

Now that they understand that they can look at the written word on paper, a whole new world is opening to them. They want to read everything… another exciting milestone. 

Additional Thoughts

Throughout Montessori, lessons are taught left to right and top to bottom, mimicking the way the written word is read on a page. This helps children develop eye strength and the real-world practice of reading. 

Children need to be able to discriminate between different fonts and sizes of print as well as recognize and differentiate between frequently occurring words and sight words. Reading books with your child, reading aloud, and storytelling is an essential part of every child’s comprehension, phonological awareness, and literacy. 

In addition to the practical life activities already mentioned, there are many other aspects to the Montessori classroom that help with reading development, including sorting, matching, action cards, phonetic books, and sight word collections. 

Since Montessori classrooms are multi-age, there is a community of learners that can offer help, guidance, and teaching in a way that is sometimes more effective than just getting a lesson from a teacher. Older children are role models, helpers, and teachers, especially in the realm of reading and language.


How to Teach Your Child to Read The Montessori Way

When my daughters were 3 and 5 years old, we lived in Italy for a year. And while my oldest happily skipped off to her international kindergarten school, my little one wanted no part of it. I mean, who can blame her?

We moved halfway across the world and thought we’d just plop her into a classroom full of kids who don’t speak her language. No, sir! 

Thus, I was determined to incorporate some at-home, Montessori learning however I could. I ordered a few things that I could get delivered to our tiny town and made a lot of things on my own. Since the Montessori approach to reading is such a holistic one, it was easy to include practical life activities that were actually pre-reading activities.

The practical life aspects are the easiest to pull into your daily life with young children. All you need is a bucket of water and a rag for table washing or shaving cream and a flat surface. Set out tweezers, some dried beans, and two small dishes, showing your little one how to carefully move each bean from one dish to the other. These are early literacy activities that are fun and easy!

When I was tutoring a few years ago, I bought my own moveable alphabet (there are both print and cursive options), but when we were living in Italy, my only option was a wildly expensive Montessori version. So, I made my own with paper and markers. My daughter used it until it was nearly shredded. 

While I didn’t have any sandpaper letters, sometimes you just need to do the best you can. I truly believe that the way Montessori approaches reading is a better way, one that is more natural to a child’s development. I wanted to make sure that my daughter learned her letters and sounds first, then started writing, and eventually reading. 

It might be helpful to know that I didn’t teach her cursive first. I do believe that it makes the most sense, but it was hard to do in a home setting, especially without the sandpaper letters and cursive moveable alphabet. I also think that the big picture is usually more important than getting every detail right. 

So if you’re interested in incorporating a Montessori approach to reading, I hope that this will give you both a guide, the information, and the freedom to do so in the best way that you see fit. And, of course, the best way to raise a reader is to be a reader! Read your own books and read to your child every single day.


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