Monday, January 2, 2012

On The Road to Reading: Eight Months of Montessori-Inspired Literacy Work

Ty hasn't really taken the typical road to Montessori literacy, mostly because he started on the journey himself, and continues to do so. I'm trying to get him on track a bit more with traditional Montessori practices, but while following his lead as well. This has been our journey so far and where we we are today, including new activities we've started working with to further his interests. There are many videos, mostly for myself perhaps, to log Tyler's amazing (to me anyhow...I'm his mom!) progress. The majority of toddlers aren't ready or interested in what Tyler is up to and that it 100% normal, so please don't feel that you need to push your child in this (or any!) area. I've simply followed his lead.

This post became much larger than I thought it would be at the start, and I ended up separating it into the categories below. If you've been following our Montessori journey most of the year, the "old" work may be somewhat of a repeat. It also may seem odd to some that both writing and phonetic sound works are included when dealing with literacy, but in Montessori, the two go hand in hand!

Older work with phonetic sounds
New work with phonetic sounds
Writing Work


At 20 months old (now 28 mos), Ty was telling me the sounds that many letters make, having never been formerly taught. This was a surprise to me. It all started when I randomly told Tyler that he was holding the letter "H" at a children's museum one day and he immediately made the /h/ sound. Over the next week I started asking him about other letters and he quickly knew twelve. For fun, the following video shows some of them:

For the next month I contemplated buying him the traditional sandpaper letters. Was he really that interested? Would this be pushing rather than joyful learning? He had the capacity to learn for sure, but did that mean he had the desire? Eventually I purchased the letters, knowing that if he didn't care about them that I would at least be wise enough to just put them away and not force anything. He would let me know. 

I started  Three Period Lessons with the sandpaper letters with Tyler when he was 22 months old. I made sure to educate myself on the primary sounds for each letter as they that are taught in Montessori Education, as many letters make more than one sound. [Letter names are of little importance for reading or in Montessori philosophy. If you're looking to learn the proper letter sounds, this Video by Virtual Montessori or this great lesson from Montessori Mom are quite helpful.] I tried to stick to the general order that letters are introduced, while also trying to use letter sounds that Tyler could make at that time.

Ty showed a real interest in the letters for a while and did well, then became less and less enthused. I stopped letters lessons all together for a while due to his waning curiosity and drive. 

At 23 months old, Tyler fell in love with a book from the library called "Sleepy ABC's" by Margaret Wise Brown. Unfortunately the letters were uppercase, but Tyler learned what sounds went with which letter quickly. After he had showed letter sounds knowledge a few months before, I began saying letter sounds rather than the letter names in many of his books. In the video below, Tyler correctly makes the letter sounds for 17 letters, often before I even asked. Tyler has a speech delay which was quite pronounced back then (his progress the last few months has been astounding!), so it was impressive to me that he could make so many sounds accurately.

I knew that it was possible that Tyler simply had the book memorized, so I checked with other books to see if he knew the letter sounds. He was pretty accurate with those as well when he wished to show me what he knew. He isn't often one to "perform" when asked.

In September, (24 mos), after seeing so many letter trays in my favorite blogs, I hesitantly created one with the letter "b". I wasn't sure how much Ty would get out of this. I can't explain it, but it's just not the way he learns. He enjoyed the objects, but I didn't see a ton of attention paid to the fact that they all began with the same letter, so I haven't made any othres. Perhaps when he's a bit older he can help me go around the house and create his own letter basket. That seems more his style.

I also used alphabet mats with a few of the letters that look the same lower and upper case, and the corresponding sandpaper letters, together. His work was to place each letter piece into the correct mat, then match the sandpaper letter to it. I would do a quick three period lesson to be sure he remembered what each letter said beforehand. He enjoyed this! Of course the letters we could use were limited. Bummer!

Around this time, I tried Three Period Lessons again with varying success. I didn't know if it was because he already knew the letters and was bored (though I wasn't too sure about him knowing them all), if it just wasn't reaching him in the right way, or if he didn't care enough. I secretly breathed a sigh of relief at times when he had no interest in the lessons though. Since he began showing knowledge of letter sounds without being taught and at such an early age, I was a bit nervous about the Tyler and the label "hyperlexia", which often is associated with the autism spectrum. Luckily had never been obsessed with letters or reading and there's no real concern; he simply knows his stuff and picks up on these things quickly, but naturally the concern would crept into my head. 

In November, Tyler became interested in an alphabet book (Leap Frog's "Animal Orchestra") that showed both lower and upper case letters for each. The book had been around for at least a yerar, though Ty never cared for it until one day when he was supposed to be picking up his toys and suddenly went for the book instead (in an atttempt to distract worked). He quickly learned almost all of the letter sounds in conjunction with the letters (I forget how many exactly...22 perhaps). The day I tried to sneakily get video was the last day he wanted to read this book to me. Ever. Lesson learned.

It should be noted that while reading familiar books to Tyler that I would sometimes drag my finger below the words as I read, and while I haven't done this often, it's something I do practice more and more as his interests peaks. I started this when he was an older infant and he was interested in me reading the Cheerios box to him every morning. I tend to follow the words in familiar books with fewer words on the page, never slowing drastically or speaking in a staggered way. My only goal has been to show him that the "stuff" on the page is telling me what to say as I go along. Recently I point out words that may look familiar to him.and Tyler will sometimes drag his finger under the words himself as I read, left to right, sometimes happening to follow right along.


Ty's interest in letters peaked again about a month ago (but still not so much three period lessons) so I thought I'd show Ty how letters come together to form words. I had shown him this before in random situations, but I knew we could really go after it now. I demonstrated for him that changing the first letter in a certain word could make a different rhyming word. I showed him things like "cat / mat / hat / rat" and "dog / fog / log"  He seemed quite intrigued, but not wildy. Whenever I asked if he wanted to work with letters he gave an excited "yeah!" and we did the work together. I then put these letters on his shelf for him to work with one his own, one rhyming set at a time. He never touched them.

Tyler now knows eleven colors easily, has had the Pink Tower and Mini Cylinders mastered for at least a month, knows about eight shapes, and can create a square and a rectangle with cubes, He has been fond of noticing and labeling sizes, taking the tiniest bite of a food he doesn't totally care for and finding the absolute biggest Christmas cookie on a tray, even in it's by the smallest hair difference. He can find a sticker that is different in line of quite similar stickers and balance a lever. This may not seem to have any relevance (and seem like bragging), but all of these activities practice the art of visual discrimination, a skill that is needed for recognizing letters and words and telling them apart. Along with Tyler's love of books and the ability to sit and listen to stories with hundreds of words on a page, it made sense that Tyler's next interest would be sight reading.  

Last week, a few days before Christmas, at 28 mos, Tyler sight read aloud for the first time. As I wrote about in a recent post, I started writing the word "dog" and "cat" with Cheerios as we ate them, which Tyler became really interested in. Many times he could even tell me what sound came next as I configured each letter. After asking me to write "dog" several times at breakfast, he sat down and drew the letter "d"...then scribbled over it as he tends to do. Excited (maybe a bit too much), I wrote down his name "Tyler" as well as "dog" and "cat" on a piece of paper and gave it to him along with paper and a pencils so he could have a visual of the words in case he wanted to write them. It was way too much to expect, but you just never know with Ty, so I grabbed my video camera. Instead of catching some amazing leap in writing, I watched him scribble out each word, reading it as he scribbled out each..."Bye-bye dog, bye-bye cat, bye-bye Tyler". I didn't know he could read them until that moment! I knew I hadn't read the words aloud to him that I wrote on the paper. He truly read them! I'm amazed how calm I kept myself in the video below...I really wanted to scream in delight!

Since then he has been asking us to write the words "sun" "dog" "cat" "Tyler" and "Mama" all over the place...on his new Magna Doddle, on paper, on a steamy mirror...wherever. The interest is absolutely there.

Then, the day after Christmas, Tyler attempted to sound out his first word. He had acquired new spoons in his stocking which said "LOVE" on them, all in capital letters, though we hadn't gotten around to mentioning this fact yet. During lunch, Tyler started inspecting the mysterious word and tried to sound out each letter, left to right. While it was difficult to hear what he was saying and I don't think he was too correct with most of it, he did sound out the letter "V" correctly! He then looked up at us with a big smile! He knew that he had just attempted to do something really neat and had done one letter correctly! The fact that he recognized "Hey, this is a word...wonder if I can figure out what it says" is such a huge milestone! This, along with the sight reading, happily kicked my Montessori Mama butt (which had been taking a relaxing little holiday vacation) into high gear.

One new game that I decided to introduce to him was an "I Spy" type of game, and a rather traditional one in Montessori education. I chose several of his animal figurines (it could be any group of random objects) that made the "correct" phonetic sound, called him over and asked if he wanted to play a game. Ty almost always eager for new activities, so he ran over and sat down. I then put several of his animal figurines in front of us and said "I'm thinking of an animal that starts with /e/ (for example). Then on to the next until we had gone through all of the animals.

He understood this immediately. The second time we played I wasn't fast enough between questions and he started playing by himself, grabbing the cat, for example, and saying "/c/, cat" and putting it aside. I then grabbed more animals and we tried again, as the below video shows. I was a bit surprised at how easy this was for him and will likely start playing a letter sound hunt game, asking him to find something in the room that starts with a particular sound to make it more challenging.

What I decided to do next was to expand upon his work with the sight words he wanted us to write out for him. I drew pictures of each then wrote the words, lowercase of course, for him to match underneath each picture.

After a couple days of not being the least bit interested, he gave it a go and did great! There was real pride in his face as he matched each correctly. True Montessori would use nomenclature style cards for this activity for self-checking and correcting, which I plan to do next time I have access to a copier.

Using the Melissa and Doug Magnetic Letters that he received for Christmas, I also thought my little magnet lover may enjoy matching the magnetic letter to the written letter on his magnet board. Really, the best thing to have would be the Montessori Moveable Alphabet, especially as I'm not 100% satisfied with the appearance of some of the letters, but these will have to do for now.
That said, Tyler has had no interest in this activity so far. He wants the letters to lock-in, like a puzzle. Instead of the magnetic letters I guess I should have gone with the Melissa and Doug See and Spell puzzles. I will try this activity again soon.


 Tyler went ahead of me a bit with this whole writing business, starting to draw some letters in the late spring/early summer (21-23 mos old) after watching me draw them with chalk in the driveway. He would sometimes draw "T" (for Tyler) and "H", another important letter for him. If you asked him "would you like to draw the letter "T?" he would sometimes do it, but he's also a child who knows when someone wants him to do something...and therefore won't. You often have to catch him in the act! He drew a "d" just a week or so ago and has gone through many, if not all, of the primary "scribbles" that children progress through.

Circles are currently his favorite thing to draw, though he has recently drawn faces with eyes and a mouth, and names his drawings at times. I was delighted one morning, a month or so ago, when Tyler told me that he was going to draw a giraffe, then drew something that could certainly pass for a giraffe (in my eyes at least) and then did the same with a football (both shown in the photos above)! His hands seem ready at times to exhibit the control needed for tracing.

To follow his lead, I've recently introduced the idea of tracing with shape stencils, which prepares a child for writing letters. With an especially keen interest in coloring lately, this seemed to be the perfect time. While the Montessori Insets are typically used when children are beginning to learn how to write words, I don't have the funds to buy the fabulous geometric cabinet, and I wasn't lucky enough to win any in any recent giveaways either! So, instead, we have use thick plastic stencils that I have from my scrapbooking days for now.  

 I have started Tyler with circles as it's his favorite right now and a natural shape for toddlers to draw. While a Montessori child is typically shown how to hold the stencil with one hand and trace with the other, I knew the work would be tricky enough for Ty without this worry, so I taped the paper and stencil to the table for him. I demonstrated the work, then took his hand and showed him how it felt to push the pencil along the edges of the circles. This hand-over-hand work isn't typically done, but I knew it would benefit Ty at this young age.

Tyler really enjoyed this work and has wanted to use the stencils over and over! He certainly has a ways to go, but of course his interest and motivation is key! Below is his second attempt.

To prepare Tyler for tracing and inset work, I have also used puzzle pieces (shapes) to allow him finger tracing and pencil pressure practice. Again, this is traditionally done with the Geometric Cabinet, but the above puzzle worked quite well. I demonstrated how to hold the piece with the pincer grasp with one hand and to trace the perimeter of each shape with the index finger on his other hand. We're not sure which hand is dominant for Tyler yet, it seems to depend on the activity, so I let him guide me.

So now, enter in the Montessori-style salt tray. Though this all may be too much work to introduce in such a short period of time (less than a week), I'm curious to see how he does with each. Introducing and observing gives me a lot of clues on where our journey needs to go next, even if it means heading backwards.

I had done salt writing with him once in the spring, though not in hopes of him drawing letters. Back then it was simply an intro to the concept of drawing with fingers in the salt. This time we had more of a purpose. The goal was to work on drawing the letter "c" which is in one of his sight words, "cat".
After demonstrating, I had him trace the letter several times to get the feel for how the letter is formed. He then gave it several tries, often saying the "c" sound or the word "cat" as he traced.
 First attempt at drawing "c". After a while it just became fun to play and draw random shapes in the sand, but that's fine. I will demonstrate again and again before I place this on the shelf.

Amidst all of this pressing on along the literacy path, I feel like i need to go back with Three Period Lessons (if he's willing...) and be sure he knows all of the sandpaper letters. The "problem" with that is that he isn't always keen on telling me something if I want him to tell me, even if he knows it. He is a child who makes me work a bit harder than most, but I'm always up for the challenge! Knowing if he's ready for the next step can be tricky because of this though. It seems I constantly find out what he knows by accident. Hopefully we're on the right path!

Linking-up with Living Montessori Now and 1+1+1=1


  1. Awesome post. My 21-mo-old son isn't quite ready to blend yet, but he's very very interesting in letters and sounds and he's starting to "spell" (he calls it "AB") nonsense words with his magnet letters on the dishwasher so we might be getting closer. I'm totally going to bookmark this and follow some of your suggestions with my own little guy. Thank you very much for sharing!

  2. It looks like you guys are on the right paths! That is so exciting that he is beginning to read and write. I look forward to seeing his progress in the new year. I look forward to this journey myself. Sometimes I think it's better to just have things available in the environment for the child to absorb at will, in a way that they want to. Instead of focusing on formal lessons, saving that for when the child shows a stronger interest.

  3. This post is awesome! Thank you! I don't know how you prevent T from dumping the sand (towards the end of your post) from the Melissa & Doug container. Miracle worker. One other thing I wanted to add to your amazing approach are Miss Rhonda Readers books. Have you heard of them? They are like BOB books but colorful and fresh. We love them! I bet T would site read from them. Check them out...

    1. Preschool Prep DVDs and Books are amazing too if you haven't checked them out already. I'm a preschool teacher and use all of the videos and the kids obsorbe sooo much.

  4. Thank you all for the lovely comments!

    Marnie: I've heard of the Miss Rhonda Readers but I don't have any...though now I would love to have some for Ty! We have some of the BOB books as they were in a pack of books I bought at a consigment store, but I'm not to keen on how bland they are. Thank you!

  5. Wow, thanks for this post! My 22 month old is fascinated by letters too (and has been for the last 2-3 months). He knows ~10 sounds by sight of the letter and points them out everywhere (though he calls "y" YoYo and "v" vase thanks to the M&D letter puzzle!). I've been torn between following his lead to go with it and risking him being bored by the sandpaper letters and other language lessons when he gets them more formally later. But I bit the bullet and ordered them recently and in the meantime I have pages and pages of "writing" letters with markers that I get to enjoy! It's great to see the other activities you did with him and how they worked out at such a young age!

  6. What wonderful work you've done with Tyler, Jen! The videos are adorable, and I really appreciate your thorough descriptions of the work you've done. I love that you're so receptive to Tyler's responses and to following his lead. Thanks so much for linking up with Montessori Monday. I added your sandpaper letter/salt tray photo and post link to the presentation and idea part of my post at

  7. you are right to describe Ty's progress as amazing. My son is only a month younger and has not yet shown any interest in letters. its so fascinating how different kids are. Your activities are great. I'll book mark this post for when Goblin shows an interest.

  8. Thanks ladies! Ty does the work, I just follow along! It truly is neat to see how every child progresses differently! That's just one of the reasons I don't tag my posts by age...he is likely both "behind" and "ahead" on his learning and interests in comparison to any other child. Most every kid is!

    Thanks for postting the photo and for the FB link, Deb!

  9. My son is 27 months and he Reads over 50 words or more. I just had him tested and he is reading at kindergarten level. He also counts to 30, knows all his shapes and colors. He has learned in his own playing apps on the iPad. It's so crazy!!! I was told that if he has it and enjoys it to keep stimulating his brain so I signed him up at Kummons learning center.

    I'm just scared for what will happen when he starts actual school. He will be so much more advanced. I don't know what I should do.

  10. Can you let me know what the Melissa and Doug container you are using is? I've searched for what looks like it could be it and am coming up empty handed! :) Thanks!


    1. I have the SAME question! I know I'm seeing this post a few years late, but I'm starting Montessori preschool with my son in the fall and I'm interested in making my own salt tray. Buying a Melissa and Doug toy for the box is WAY cheaper than buying a salt tray (+ I get a M&D toy and I love them ;) ) If you could direct me to what toy came out of that size of box, I'd appreciate it!

  11. Montessori learning is so wonderful for kids! Both of my children also are in Montessori and early readers as well. I'm wondering though, why are you choosing not to start him with cursive letters?

  12. I love it!! Keep up the great work!

  13. Amazing and love the info. Have you ever heard of Souns? The director of the school i went to created them. you might be passed using them but may be interesting to you. my littlies use them. they are easy to handle and great fir little hands to use. not sure of the website but the school is called Counterpane Montessori School. Thanks again for all the info. Aimee

  14. the program Jolly Phonics- is great for teaching sounds, not letters!

  15. Great post!

    Would love for you to link it up at my new Empty Your Archive link party which is a chance to dust off great posts from your archive - there is a focus this week on reading - would really love to see you there, Alice @ Mums Make Lists x

  16. I'm just getting began with montessori home school. Thank you for this publish. I am thrilled to understand how you have created yours, I am hopeful of making my own pellets as well.

  17. Where did you get your sand Trey which holds the letter also thank you