A summary of the Montessori approach to teaching literacy (both writing and reading, a literature review of key aspects of the Montessori approach and recommendations for implementing these principles.
Montessori focuses on the movements and activities children enjoy doing, she showed children with intellectual difficulties how to weave, sew, and do practical activities. She saw how a skilful movement in one area expressed itself as a more skilful movement in other activities, ’a child who can draw will write’ (Discovery of the Child, p.186). Young children (before the age of 6), Montessori believed, are in a sensitive period for touch, refining movements, being precise and exact, so she gave them many sensorial and practical activities with deliberate movements to strengthen their dexterity, especially building the thumb and first two fingers to grip carefully. These activities also build their intellect, will and interest. ‘Psychologically we may say that their muscles and nerves are passing through a period when they are learning how to work together harmoniously’ (Discovery of the Child, p.85-6). Children later trace the geometrical and botanical forms and letters holding a small wooden rod which prepares the hand for holding a pencil and later they trace around these and the metal insets with coloured pencils and practice filling each shape with careful executed gradually curving lines. ‘When our children take a pen in their hands for the first time, they are able to handle it almost like a writer’ (Discovery of the Child, p.209).
Montessori wanted to make the process of writing as effortless and ‘spontaneous’ as possible. She believed that copying lines and writing printed letters repeatedly was ‘torturous’ (Discovery of the Child, p192). She analysed the work of educational pioneers such as Sequin who work with children with intellectual difficulties, he taught them to trace lines, draw straight lines in different directions and finally draw lines with greater complexity (Discovery of the Child, p,187). But with close observations of children with difficulties she saw that they found it easier to draw curved lines, when they tried to draw ‘l’ a ‘c’. Children without difficulties could make the straight stokes but Montessori believed it required more effort from them than drawing curved lines (Discovery of the Child, p.193). She made large cursive sandpaper letters for the children to trace and smaller cards with the letters so that children could place letters in sequence before they had mastered penmanship.
Young children I-spy style games with a small box of objects. The children are given the first sound of one of the objects and are asked to identify it. Later the child is asked to identify final sounds and sounds in the middle of a word. The children are taught the letters of the alphabet ‘according to their sound and not their name’ (Discovery of the Child, p.211). They are taught vowels first and then hard consonants, the ones they need to write their name, the ones which interest the child until, gradually over a period of time they are all covered. The order of the alphabet and the names associated with the sound are not given as this is distracting information the child cannot use to work with. These are given later. The child is given a lesson with two or three dissimilar letter sounds at a time and told the sound of the letter and the teacher models how to trace it and the ‘child learns immediately, and his fingers, already expert in tactile exercises, are guided by the light resistance of the fine sandpaper over the fact letter’ (Discovery of the Child, p.211). The teacher does the same for another letter or two and then begins the second stage. She asks the child for one of the letters and the child takes it, moves it, traces it, passes it to her. It is a warm and friendly exchange. The child is then free to practice as he likes. Subsequently, when the child consistently matches the phoneme to the letter, the teacher points to one letter and asks the child for its sound. Difficulties in pronunciation may be noticed and clarified at this stage.Spontaneous writing can occur once the child knows enough of the letters to make a word she knows. There is a box of letters and a mat with lines and the teacher gives a demonstration with a phonetically regular word. The teacher says the word slowly then reports it with a gap between each letter sound, after saying the first sound she takes the letter from the box and please it on the line of the mat, she says the second sound and finds it and continues until the word is complete. The child then follows. Although the method actually has many co-occuring steps it is called ‘spontaneous’ because ‘Once the interest has been aroused, that is, when the children grasp the principle that each sound of the spoken language can be represented by a symbol they advance on their own… [the teacher] no longer instructs but simply tends to the child’s needs. Indeed many children are convinced that they have learnt to write by themselves’ (Discovery of the Child, p.218).
Montessori’s observations brought her to the conclusion that, ’writing prepares a child for interpreting mechanically the combined sounds of the letters which compose the word which he sees written’ (Discovery of the Child, p.229), reading is introduced by having a selection of attractive objects with names which are phonetically simple and cards with the names of the objects. The child is invited to name an object of her choice and then match the card with the object. Devised in a phonically regular language (Italian), children learning this in a phonetically irregular language such as English will not write the correct spellings until they can read. A wide variety of literature becomes accessible to children who speak phonetically regular languages to arouse ‘an interest in written words’ (Discovery of the Child, p.234), for speakers of phonetically irregular languages literature is still in the environment but most children will struggle to read it without further aids, therefore phonetic words are written on cards and small booklets to arouse the child’s interest. The first group of cards contain a variety of three and four letter phonic words which can be sounded out and matched to small objects contained in a box with the cards. This is the object box 1, the second object box presents some common digraphs and subsequent cards go into ‘successive difficulties’ to give experiences of common phonetic irregularities. Later the children are given written sentences which require them to preform actions and later dramas, getting increasingly complicated. These later activities called Command Cards also provide social oppotunites which the children enjoy whilst allowing the teacher can directly observe to see how nuanced the child’s understanding of the written word is. Beginning readers are not asked to read outloud, but to do so silently and act on what they have read to express understanding. This follows the Montessori principle of mastering one difficulty at a time so learning is as smooth as possible (Discovery of the Child, p.239). In the end this establishes that ‘total reading’ has occurs, if the actions are not done correctly the teacher and the child’s peers have opportunities to gently correct their understanding.
Continued from slide 14
Continued from slide 14
While mainstream teaching instructs handwriting directly fields such as occupational therapy have an emphasises on ‘foundational components of hand writing (postural control whole body function and organisational skills) and performance components (underlying motor, sensory, or perceptual deficits that were interfering with the production of legible handwriting) (p.208 Erhart and Meade).
Jeannine Herron argues that ‘hav[ing] children pay attention to their mouth movements…string sounds together like beads on a string. The more students pay attention to what their mouths do when they make a speech sound, the more likely they are to remember the association of sound to the letter’ (p.79). Herron is a research neuropsychologist and sees the links between phonics and movement, making links between movement and knowledge helps children to learn.
‘It seems self-evident that the specific techniques and activities used to teach phonics need to be relevant, motivating, and interesting in order to hold children’s attention and to promote optimal learning.’ (Ehri and Nunes et al, p.432).
Jeannine Herron states, ‘In an effort to insert phonics back into the curriculum for early readers, publishers have created curriculums containing worksheets and scripted lessons which introduce phonics in a tedious and unproductive way. But phonics instruction does not have to be tedious. It can be joyful and meaningful.' (p.77).
Jeannine quotes Louisa Moats (1998) saying, ‘One of the most fundamental flaws found in almost all phonics programmes, including traditional ones, is that they teach the code backwards. That is they go from letter to sound instead of from sound to letter…The print-to-sound (conventional phonics) approach leaves gaps, invites confusion and creates inefficiencies’ (p.77).
Jeannine goes on to say that instruction should ‘focus on students constructing words before trying to read them’, (p.78). Jeannie gives examples from the fields of neuroscience and cognitive science by researchers such as Alyward et al 2003, Ehri (2002) and Simos et al (2002) whose studies ‘point to the fact that the foundation of reading is speech’ (p.78) coupled with studies such as Torgesen (2004) in the ‘Voice of evidence in reading research’ Jeannine presents the case that ‘encoding’ by paying attention to what the lips and mouth do and systematically introducing children to the 40 phonemes in English gave at-risk-of reading-failure children two full standard deviations in improvement without copying, worksheets and while ‘honour[ing] joyful learning, construction and discovery’ (p. 81).
Taken from Sudbury School’s website as an example of other approaches in which people come to read by themselves. This is not a Montessori approach but shows that it is not only in Montessori school’s where reading happens ‘spontaneously’. ‘People are inherently motivated to expand their ability to communicate, and this inherent motivation will result in children learning to read. However, in a Sudbury school, reading is seldom "taught" in the way we think of reading being taught. No teacher stands in front of 5 and 6 year olds and breaks words into their phonetic elements. Instead, reading is part of the culture - just as talking is part of the culture. Students learn to read, and largely teach themselves to read, because they want to be able to more fully participate in the world. The original Sudbury school, the Sudbury Valley School, has been in existence for 36 years. During this time, they have had thousands of students. No child has failed to learn to read in the school's entire history, and yet they have never had a formal reading class. This same experience is seen in learning other "basics", such as writing and math. The students learn them because they recognize that they need to learn them in order to survive and prosper in the culture.’
Expanding on the second bullet point in slide 22
In addition, children are often shown how to write at home, given the letter names and nouns which begin with these sounds as well as the letter sound. Teachers feel under pressure by parents and managers to speed up the process by hurrying the child. Montessori describes many games and playful activities, including outdoor ones, taking place as these lessons are given and I have not seen that in Montessori environments. Children are not allowed to play with the objects they have read the names of as Montessori describes, insist their friend comes immediately to read the word they have written or loudly say the letter sound ad parade with it. While the children Montessori describes often choose intellectual work over play, but play is a real option given in her method. When the child is not ready their will be more errors and less motivation. Many people claiming to teach Montessori are not fully trained or supervised so the quality of the lesson varies hugely. ‘Not all children reach the same standard of achievement at the same age. Since none of them are encouraged, much less forced, to do something they do not care to do, it happens that some children, since they have never asked for help learning, have been left in peace and can neither read nor write…If followers of the old method of teaching, which tyrannises a child’s will and stifles his spontaneity, do not think it is necessary to force a child to read before he is six, much less do I believe he should.’ (Discovery of the Child, p.234)
Sudbury school is also child centred and like Montessori has mixed age groups, having a mixed aged setting allows younger children who cannot read to be emerged in a world of readers and writers, the older students can be guides to the younger ones and motivate them with a desire to learn, so without the mixed age group Montessori interventions might also be less effective.
Evaluation of a literacy
Montessori Writing - ‘The method
of spontaneous writing’
— Rachel Hendron
What is the literacy intervention
intending to teach/develop?
Montessori education focuses on ‘assisting the natural
development of a child’ (Discovery of the Child,
p.185). Montessori believed that ‘reading and writing
is the first obstacle in school, the first torment’
(Discovery of the Child, p.185). She proposed a
method she called ‘spontaneous writing’ in which
children could be given indirect preparations to come
to writing without strenuous effort. She did not
prescribe this as a method for all children, but as an
opportunity for those who are ready.
Writing to become an effective community
• Montessori developed a holistic method for child
development based on close observations, she makes
links between each area of development; physical,
• She then emphasises relationships between areas of
development so that having precise movements, being
an active learner, being a member of a community,
applying academic knowledge, being a compassionate
helper are connected abilities.
• Therefore her method for allowing children to become
spontaneous writers is part of a whole system of an
individual child’s development.
Relationship between reading
• Montessori differentiates between total reading (full
comprehension of the meaning and beauty of the written word)
and ‘mechanical’ reading, (retranslating the symbols into
• She states that, ‘mechanical reading and writing are fused from
the very beginning…When he sees and recognises, he reads;
when he touches, he writes’ (Discovery of the Child, p.214-5)
and this ‘methods for teaching writing prepares the way for
reading’, (Discovery of the Child, p.229).
• The aim is not to teach reading or writing but to,‘use language for
practical ends [to begin] to use it in their reasoning processes
(Discovery of the Child, p.240)’ to enable the, ‘free expansion of
the individual’ (Discovery of the Child, p.215).
What is the theoretical rationale
for teaching/developing this skill?
• Montessori breaks down each skill offered to the
child into a sequence of sub-skills and presents
each step in turn. For literacy she,
‘consider[ed] the nature of writing itself, analysing
its various components and seeking to separate
these into independent exercises which could be
employed at different ages and thus be distributed
according to the natural powers of the child.’
(Discovery of the Child, p.186).
Four indirect preparations for literacy
Montessori broke writing and reading down into these sets of
1. Development the mind/body; this focuses on the hand,
movements, nervous system, intellect, will power and
engaging the mind.
2. Being able to make the shapes of the letters.
3. Phonemic knowledge of the letter sounds.
4. Mechanical reading to total reading.
• Montessori teaching is always holistic, literacy isn’t
a skill taught separately from other skills, but is
deeply embedded in all aspects of the child’s
• Montessori presents the young child as a being in a
receptive stage (a sensitive period) for language
and as making connections to her family and
locality, so verbal and oral language is part of her
necessary daily experience and out of this literacy
• Montessori reasons that the child who is able to
write her own thoughts will spontaneously become
interested in reading the thoughts of others. This
motivates her to be a ‘total reader’
• To achieve total reading it is necessary also to have
a wide vocabulary and comprehension skills. These
are taught explicitly in small group lessons where
the children learn new words, beginning with nouns
and picture cards and take part in discussions about
daily life and activities, stories, songs and question
What is the empirical evidence for
the effectiveness of the intervention?
• It is very difficult to find large scale or reliable studies on
Montessori classrooms so instead I shall first present
evidence which relates to the principle of intergrated reading
and writing and phonic based learning.
• Generally the research favours relevant and integrated
phonic programmes. Montessori proposes that a phonic
based programme which is integrated into the lives of
children and their purposeful writing and reading.
Evidence for integrated reading and
writing and phonic based learning.
• ‘Research shows that students will not apply their
alphabetic knowledge if they do not use it to read and write
(Juel & Roper/Schneider, 1985).
• The best phonics program is one that is deliberately
integrated with reading and writing instruction.’ (quoted by
Ehri and Nunes et al, p.14)
• Phonemic awareness is enhanced by reading and writing
practice.’ ( Saskia de Graaff , Anna M.T. Bosman , Fred
Hasselman & Ludo Verhoeven).
• This idea corresponds with the view that 'the acquisition
of phoneme awareness and the acquisition of alphabetic
literacy is one of reciprocal causation' (Morais, J.,
Mousty, P. and Kolinsky, R. 1998).
• ‘Initial alphabetic knowledge—that is, knowing the letter
sounds—is required for phonemic awareness, which in
turn facilitates reading development' (Morais, J. 1987).
• ‘For children who are able to read, it is easier to fulfil
phonemic-awareness tasks of higher complexity such as
phoneme-reversal tasks.' (Saskia de Graaff , Anna M.T.
Bosman , Fred Hasselman & Ludo Verhoeven).
• 'Phonics needs to be combined with other essential
instructional components to create a complete and
balanced reading program. Other sections of the
NRP (2000) report indicated the importance of
instruction to teach fluency, vocabulary, and reading
comprehension strategies…By emphasizing all of
the processes that contribute to growth in reading,
teachers will have the best chance of making every
child a reader.' (Ehri and Nunes et al, p.433).
I do not have the scope to go into a full review of the
rationale behind each of the four indirect preparations
for spontaneous writing so I shall narrow each of the
four areas into a teaching principle and examine the
evidence for it. I can only consider each very briefly
here and a much more extensive review of the
literature would be helpful to inform Montessori
1. Development the mind/body.
From the development of the hand, movements,
nervous system, intellect, will power and engaging the
mind. I shall look to see evidence for motor skills
developed in one area being transferable to other
areas spontaneously. Dr Berginer in 'Educating
Students in the Computer age to be Multilingual By
Hand’, recommends that pre-school children work with
clay, dough, string beads and sort small objects to
prepare their hands for using pencils just as
Montessori described. (Berginer, p. 9).
2. Being able to make the shapes of the
From being able to make the shapes of the letters I
shall investigate benefits of teaching cursive first.
Here the literature is very divided ‘Controversy
continues over whether one format of writing is better
than the other. Beginning writers can learn either
format; developing writers show individual differences
in which they prefer; and both formats might
contribute to writing development, but in different
ways’ (Beringer, p.31).
3. Phonemic knowledge of the letter sounds.
• From the teaching of phonemic knowledge of the letter
sounds I shall consider if studies show that there is an
advantage to giving letter sounds and names and
alphabetical order later.
• Ehri and Nunes et al’s meta-analysis found that ‘enough is
known about systematic phonics instruction to make
recommendations for classroom implementation…Our
findings are consistent with other reports published earlier
showing the positive results of systematic phonics
instruction over a long period of time (Adams, 1990;
Anderson et al., 1985; Chall, 1967, 1983, 1996a; Dykstra,
4. Mechanical reading to total reading.
To investigate the transition from mechanical reading to total reading
I will consider evidence for engaging the interest of children with
phonically simple reading and expanding from there to total reading.
Even when the language is phonically irregular. Reading silently at
first and outloud as a later skill. This is a very difficult area to find
research for, it is assumed that reading should be taught and people
test children’s ability to read by testing how well they read outloud.
There is no experimenter leaving some children without instruction
over long periods of time to compare with those being asked to
sound out the words they see in books. However, there are non-
Montessori examples of children learning to read by themselves
such as Hudson Valley Sudbury School which has very different
What are the implications for
1. There is a great deal of support from more recent neuroscience that we
should be developing the hand, movements, nervous system, intellect,
will power and engaging the mind together.
2. The evidence for teaching cursive and excluding print is not supported
in the literature (see next slide).
3. There is a great deal of consensus that phonic based programmes are
the way forward for teaching literacy.
4. Children systems other than Montessori teach themselves to read.
In general there is support for integrated phonic-based programmes. I
would argue that Montessori presents the rationale for a relevant and
cohesive literacy programme.
Print or cursive? Here I agree with Berlinger (2012) the child who is
aware of both print and cursive as possible styles of writing can
choose which she is best suited for and using a combination causes
no harm. The main focus in learning and especially Montessori
learning is that the child is enjoying writing. Montessori offers cursive
as a pleasurable challenge and using curved shapes when straight
lines are posing a problem for the child. There is sometimes an idea
that cursive is somehow historically ‘better’ than print and I think we
should avoid this. I would suggest that this is not an issue so much
with Montessori philosophy and pedagogy but practices where the
adults impose their desire for cursive letters onto the child.
However, these principles are in fact often
not followed in many so-called Montessori
• ‘Montessori’ environments differ wildly in terms of training and philosophy of
the teachers and adults who work there. There is not a consistent approach
between classrooms and schools who use the term’ Montessori’ to describe
their practice. For example, Montessori gives examples of children coming to
writing by themselves and celebrating their ability with great enthusiasm, she
clearly states that, ‘Only after a child has begun to write on his own should a
teacher intervene to guide his progress’ (Discovery of the Child, p.224).
However the parents, teachers, administrators and in some cases
governments place pressures on children to learn to write early.
• The opportunity for ‘spontaneous writing’ is often given too late. These
experiences need to be begun at the age of three and mastered before the
age of 5 if the learning is to be spontaneous. The culture surrounding the child
would ideally start before birth. Montessori describes the children saying,
‘They obviously had a special sensitivity for words and were ravenous in their
desire to master the language’ (p.220).
Montessori is a total approach to
development, the literacy aspect is not
effective as an add-on to other approaches.
The Montessori approach to literacy cannot be tacked onto other
educational style and expected to work. Many schools use aspects
of the approach advocated by Montessori in their approach.
However, to allow children to spontaneously come to reading in this
way children need to be in a wider environment (at home and at
school) similar to the one Montessori describes. It does not work to
demand a child’s obedience based reliance on external punishments
and rewards in some areas of their development (except the
minimum necessary for safety) and then expect them to handle
freedom with responsibility for a few hours a day. Certainly, children
need to be in child-centred systems with real choice and freedoms,
they need to be given time and if they are interested to be shown the
lessons by someone who is trained to do them.
The Montessori approach requires adults
with a commitment to the totality of the
Due to the philosophical nature of Montessori education, trusting that
each child has the power within themselves to learn it also takes
special adults to be the teacher and parents of these children.
Parents, teachers and administrators who want to prove and measure
growth will struggle to use this method, to use it requires a
philosophical commitment to the wider goals, it is not just another
phonic teaching strategy but a commitment to allowing the child to
develop themselves at their own pace and for their own ends.
Montessori literacy provides an opportunity
for children who are naturally ready to write
effortlessly. It does not guarantee
effortlessness for all children.
• Montessori does not state that all children will acquire literacy with this
method by 6, simple that some are ready to spontaneously acquire it at
a younger age and this gives them the opportunity to do so.
• Therefore additional methods need to be available for some individuals.
Children with additional needs often need more time, presentations of
new material to be repeated more often and less new material given in
each presentation. They are likely to need more explicit teaching and so
the method will teach literacy but not spontaneously.
• This does not mean it will cannot work for children with special needs or
children who speak other languages. Montessori gives the possibility of
each individual having their own path to language and literacy. Some
children who use alternative literacy methods may find some of the
pedagogical principles helpful.
Limitations of this presentation
• This presentation is small in scale and has resulted in
generalisations which I believe to be true but which
would benefit from a more in depth analysis.
• This cannot be a full review of all the parts of
Montessori’s literacy interventions, let alone of the
method. Her understanding of child development, her
pedagogical methods and her aim to use education as a
method to promote peace are all very detailed,
interconnected, holistic and nuanced. Here I have found
a few strands which underpin her literacy interventions
to see if they are relevant to recent research. There are
many different interpretations of Montessori’s method
and so much research that this is only a beginning.
• I have taught several groups of students using the Montessori
approach to literacy. If find that the opportunity to observe literacy
acquisition as part of each child’s total development is very
valuable in determining what lessons they are ready for, what they
need to know next to acquire literacy spontaneously and to see
which children will require explicit help from myself and possibly
other educators and therapists.
• Some children acquire literacy early and easily, including children
who speak English as an additional language and one I teach on
the autistic spectrum. Other children require intensive support.
This support can be given in a way which complements the
Montessori learning experience.
• I am happy when children write happily in cursive or print. Writing
is an expression of themselves and is a gift.
• Berniniger V. (2012) ‘Mind’s Eye: The case for continued handwriting instruction in the 21st
century. National Association of Elementary School Principals.' All rights reserved.
• Ehri L. and Nunes S. et al (Fall 2001) ’Systematics Phonics Instruction Helps Students Learn to
Read: Evidence from the National Reading Panel’s Meta-Analysis City University of New York
Graduate Center'University of Georgia, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and University
of Toronto ,In Review of Educational Research, 1Vol. 71, No. 3, pp. 393–447.
• Ehri L. (Sumer 2002) ‘Systematic Phonics Instruction: Findings of the National Reading Panel',
Graduate Center of the City University of New York.
• Erhart R. and Meade V. ‘Improving handwriting without teaching handwriting: The consultative
clinical reasoning processing’ Australian Occupational Therapy Journal (2005) 52 199-210.
• Graaff S, Bosman A., Hasselman F. & Verhoeven L. (Published online: 22 Jul 2009) ‘Benefits
of Systematic Phonics Instruction’ Pages 318-333 | Received 11 Oct 2006, Accepted 03 Sep
• Herron J., (Sept. 2008) 'Why Phonics Teaching Must Change', In 'Educational Leadership'
Volume 66, Number 1.
• Montessori M, 1967 Discovery of the Child, Random House Publishing Group, NY.
• http://sudburyschool.com/content/sudbury-model-education Saturday 5th October 2016