"The child is the future man, the foundation must be firm; the building blocks must be chosen with care." — Dr. Maria Montessori

I try to pass my love of reading to my students. I managed to snag a few of them when I read “Julie of the Wolves” aloud. Sometimes I let a child borrow one of my personal books from home, and I have also made a habit of giving our children books as gifts throughout the year. But still some of them weren't interested. There are many obstacles that block our children from experiencing the joy of a good book — video games, lack of books at home, television, VIDEO GAMES! It can be difficult enough to get them to read during the school year, but the summer is a killer! So exactly what is the Montessori approach to reading?

At Creative Minds Montessori we begin by placing our youngest students in classes in which the older students are already reading as a natural lure for the young child. What younger child doesn't want to do exactly what the older children are doing?

Some of the first exercises our young students encounter when learning to read are the sandpaper letters, metal insets and the moveable alphabet.

Sandpaper letters are cut out of sandpaper and glued onto a wooden tablet. Consonants are mounted on a red background, the vowels are on blue. Only lower-case letters are used in the beginning. The sandpaper letters offer three distinctive experiences: Learning to recognize the shape of each letter, experiencing the tactile feel of the sandpaper letter by tracing its outline just as if writing it with a pencil, and finally learning to pronounce and recognize the spoken sound that the letter represents.

Maria Montessori designed the metal insets to provide an opportunity for young children to practice the basic strokes of letters. Children often make booklet after booklet of ovals, pentagons, quatrefoils and trapezoids by tracing the frame of the shape. This helps them gain fine motor control.

But how do children put these skills and concepts together to form words? At Creative Minds Montessori, the teacher/directress will present two or three letters at a time, showing the child how to trace and pronounce each letter. She follows a “three period lesson” — a lesson made up of three steps. First, she shows the child the letter, traces its shape just as it would be written, and pronounces its basic phonetic sound. As a second step, she asks the child to show her each letter in turn, giving the child the prompt for asking for a specific letter — "please show me the 'tuh'" (t). In the third step, she points to each letter and asks the child to identify it without any prompts. As the child masters the first group of letters, new ones are added until they know the entire alphabet.

Next, our children begin to compose words with the movable alphabet, a set of letters cut out of wood that follow the same color scheme as the sandpaper letters. Our teachers assemble a basket of objects that represent simple three-letter phonetic words. The child selects an object, says its name aloud, and then selects the letter that matches the first sound in its name. They continue this for the second and third sounds, and then finally they read the entire word out loud. Gradually, our children are introduced to consonant blends (sl, tr, cr), digraphs (th, sh, ch), vowel teams (ea, ou, ui), and then words containing more than one syllable.

While using their growing knowledge of the phonetic sounds of the alphabet, our children learn to read and write increasingly complex words and sentences. The mastery of basic reading skills normally develops so smoothly that we often refer to our students as suddenly "exploding into reading," which leaves them (and their families) beaming with joy.

Once our young students have made that initial leap into reading, they tend to progress rapidly from reading and writing single words to sentences and stories. At this point, we begin a sequential study of the English language: vocabulary, spelling rules, functions of grammar and sentence structure.

As Maria Montessori said, "The only language men ever speak perfectly is the one they learn in babyhood, when no one can teach them anything!" Reading is different. It must be actively taught and consciously learned. It's important as educators and parents that we understand the mechanics behind the skill of reading. The more we understand, the better able we are to help when there are problems that need to be addressed.

Diane M. Bauso is head of school for Creative Minds Montessori, 169 Genesee St., Auburn. She can be reached at (315) 406-9495 or auburncmms.com.

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