One of the most common questions that I hear from parents is, “What can I do at home to help my child read?”
The urge to help your child is understandable since literacy is a fundamental life skill; when your child has mastered it, you can breathe a little easier as a parent. You may also breathe easier knowing that all children experience a sensitive period for learning a language in the first six years of life; children’s brains are hardwired to absorb and learn language from their surroundings. This natural phenomenon explains why children learn to speak their language so quickly compared with non-native adults who attempt the same feat. Adults attend classes for hours each week with professional educators and cannot achieve the fluency of a five-year-old with talkative parents. You can breathe easier knowing nature is supporting your child’s ability to learn a language, and that the Montessori method acts in harmony with nature’s developmental blueprint to aid literacy.
The best support you can give your child is to trust your child’s teacher, a caring professional who has completed intensive training and carefully prepared a learning environment with specialised materials. If you would like to reinforce or extend what is happening in the classroom, consider the following suggestions for supporting literacy from home.
Supporting Spoken Vocabulary Development at Home
Literacy grows from a foundation of spoken language vocabulary. Chances are good that you already help your child develop her vocabulary by providing names for things when your child asks and drawing her attention to and naming additional interesting things. A simple method for enhancing the effectiveness of what you already do is through the casual use of technical language.
Casual use of technical language simply means “be specific without being overly dramatic” in everyday conversation. Instead of saying “Tonight we’ll drive my car”, or even “Tonight we’ll drive the red car”, try saying “Tonight we’ll drive the Nissan March.” Rather than “We have pasta for dinner tonight”, try “Dinner tonight is grilled chicken over penne pasta with a carbonara sauce.” The specific terminology quickly expands a child’s vocabulary during this neurologically-sensitive period for language and demonstrates to children that different things have specific names. Casually use specific terms when talking with your child but don’t demand they immediately adopt the same terms themselves. They may say “car” and “pasta” for quite some time, but they will listen and absorb the increased richness of vocabulary that you are now sharing with them, and an extensive vocabulary aids your child as he/she learns to write and read.
Why We Teach Writing Before Reading
Writing and reading involve many of the same skills. In the process of writing and reading, similar skills are required but in slightly different sequences. Understanding how the sequence of these skills influences the task’s difficulty is the key to why we begin the literacy process in Montessori with writing activities that lead naturally to reading.
Writing is less mentally demanding and more accessible for children because it begins with familiar words that the child encodes into letters, discovering for herself how that word is written. Reading, on the other hand, begins with a mysterious word that, after decoding, may or may not be a familiar or understood word.
Begins with known information
– words in spoken vocabulary
Process of encoding through associating sound and letter symbols
Ends with known information
– written word from spoken vocabulary
Begins with unknown information
Process of decoding through associating sound and letter symbols
Ends with known or possibly unknown information
– written word that may or may not be part of the child’s spoken vocabulary
Children begin writing familiar words and after gaining proficiency and comfort with writing they soon begin to ask “What did I write?” which leads to “What did she write?” or “What is written in this book?”. Writing provides children with a self-directed opportunity to practise the skills required for reading.
Supporting writing at home
Phonetic Sounds – Correctly associating letter symbols with phonetic sounds is integral to both writing and reading and is supported when we teach phonetic sounds [“mmm” – as the sound made after eating a delicious dessert] rather than traditional letter names [m – as in the name of 007’s boss]. Helping your child learn to associate letter symbols with phonetic sounds is as simple as using the phonetic sounds whenever discussing letters with your child, whether those letters are in books, on building blocks, food containers, billboards, or anything else your child may notice.
Pronouncing letter that sounds similar to your child’s teacher is the best way to reduce confusion and support your child’s learning. Therefore, I recommend scheduling a brief conference with your child’s teacher to learn how the letter sounds are pronounced in the classroom.
If your child already knows the traditional letter names, you can still help them learn the letter sounds by explaining that the name of the letter is m, and the sound it makes is “mmm”. Acknowledge that m is correct, but choose to use “mmm” when you speak about letters. Many children will quickly adopt the letter sounds, while others may not. Even if your child continues to use traditional names, hearing you use the sounds is beneficial.
The ability to deconstruct words into individual sounds is necessary for writing and reading. An easy way to help your child learn to do this is by playing sound games in the car while waiting in line or any spare five minutes you can find. The games begin very simply by focusing on correctly isolating the first sound of a word – Milk begins with “mmm”. Playing “I Spy” with phonetic clues is a simple way to get started, though you may also want to try out the variations below as well.
First Sounds with Objects
- Gather 6-8 objects with names beginning in contrasting first sounds – for example Apple, Spoon, Cup, Truck, etc.
- Pick up each object, saying its name as you hold it before putting it back down.
- Pick up an object and say, “I am holding in my hand something that starts with … (say the phonetic sound several times clearly.)”
- Ask the child what the object is called
- Continue this process for a few more objects
- Continue without holding the objects and say, “I am thinking of something that starts with … (say the phonetic sound several times clearly.)”
- Wait for the child to say the name of the object, if there is no response after several seconds provide the answer yourself and move on to the next object.
- Continue as long as your child is interested, switching objects when needed
First Sounds with Pictures
- Gather several pictures which clearly emphasise one object, such as a car, a plant, a person, etc. The names of objects pictured should have contrasting first sounds.
- Pick up each picture, saying the name of the pictured object before putting it back down.
- Pick up a card and ask, “What is the first sound you hear when I say (repeat name of object several times)?”
- Say, “I am thinking of something that starts with … (say the phonetic sound several times clearly.)”
- Ask the child to point to or pick up the desired picture.
- Continue as long as your child is interested, switching cards when needed.
First Sounds with no materials
- Ask, “What is the first sound you hear when I say (repeat a word several times)?”
- Ask a child to say the first sound.
- Continue as long as your child is interested, switching words when needed.
These same games can also be played with the final sound of a word or with the middle sounds of short words. Ask your child’s teacher how sound games are played in your child’s classroom and when to begin playing the final sound and middle sound variations. Your child’s teacher is the best person to advise you on your child’s progress and when to introduce new challenges. And remember if it is a GAME, a short, fun game.
When your child has mastered the separate skills for associating letter sounds and symbols and also for deconstructing words into distinct letter sounds, then they are ready to begin writing. Since mastery of these skills often precedes the fine motor coordination required to hold a pencil, we provide moveable alphabets in Montessori classrooms for children to start writing.
Children have the choice to practice writing in the classroom with specialised Montessori materials, but if you would like to offer additional opportunities at home, you might try offering a little variation. Try a few building blocks with letters, or plastic magnetic letters for your refrigerator, alphabet stickers, or print and cut apart letters on coloured paper. You do not need to suggest or even encourage your child to use these at home, just make them available and wait. When your child begins writing in the classroom, you may soon see words written at home as well.
When your child begins writing, initially, the writing will be phonetic, meaning that truck may be written truk or truc, and hamburger may be hambrgr. Many parents are concerned with spelling, fearing that early mistakes in spelling may need to be unlearned in the future, and therefore believe they are helping their child by correcting spelling. However, focusing on spelling takes the spotlight off the act of writing, which is where the child is interested and engaged. Writing is a process that takes time to perfect, so focus on celebrating the act of writing and ignore spelling for the time being. Soon enough, your child will begin to notice spelling and ask, “Is this spelled right?” When this happens, your child has shifted focus to spelling, and you can gently correct spelling with less danger of discouraging your child’s efforts.
Offer without Demanding
As a teacher, I am encouraged when parents recognise the importance of literacy and their own role in supporting their children’s learning. I hope that parents can relax when they realise that teaching is not required in a learning environment prepared to foster independent learning. I further caution parents to carefully avoid pressuring children to perform in literacy or any endeavour in life.
The quickest way to destroy your child’s enjoyment and future desire to choose something is to demand, bribe, or wheedle your child to do the activity. Provide opportunities to practise literacy skills at home and treat these opportunities as you would any other game or song you play with your child. Since you probably wouldn’t require your child to sing twinkle-twinkle-little-star every day, don’t require them to play sound games or write every day.
Learning is fun and as important as literacy is for children, it is even more important that learning continues to be fun and does not become a chore. Stop for the day when your child’s interest shifts to something else – if you require the activity to continue longer than your child’s enjoyment today, then your child is less likely to be interested tomorrow. When we allow a child to pursue her interests, she soon develops a longer and longer attention span and chooses to devote herself to learning for long hours each day in primary school.
Your children see a literacy expert every day in the classroom, but if you want to support literacy at home, follow these steps:
- Discuss the activities suggested in this article with your child’s teacher
- Enjoy preparing writing and reading activities that allow your child to continue practising at home
- Remember, for all learning activities, keep it fun so your child will choose to keep exploring and discovering
Lawrence, L. (1998). Montessori Read and Write: A Parent’s Guide to Literacy for Children. UK: Edbury Press.
Author: Ed Stanford, New Zealand