Phonics and Montessori Phonics Education

Phonics helps children learn to read by correlating sounds with letters in the alphabet or written syllables. It’s important because the development of reading in children depends on an understanding that letters and letter patterns represent the sounds of spoken language, and an understanding of phonics forms a bridge between written and spoken language that helps children “decode” writing by  words by sounding out words using phonics.

It’s important to focus on phonics in preschool, partly because it provides a strong foundation for more complex language skills later on, but also because young children are in what Dr. Maria Montessori described as the sensitive period for language, which lasts from birth to age 6, and allows them to rapidly internalize and master new language skills.

Children who learn using phonics exercises develop higher proficiency in reading, and is especially helpful for children who struggle recognizing written words, because phonics helps them recognize the sounds in the word that they read. Phonics helps children with letters and syllables, which not only improves reading speed, but also assists in comprehension.

When it comes to reading, comprehension is more valuable than speed for building language fluency, and phonics exercises that require matching letters, syllables, simple words, and sounds with images help children “connect the dots” in learning how letters work together to form sounds, and common objects and concepts that those sounds represent. Phonics increases comprehension by improving reading accuracy,  which in turn leads to greater self-confidence in language skills for the child.

Benefits of Phonics

When children are taught the phonics method of reading, it leads to increased competency & proficiency in their language skills at a younger age. This gives them a head start on reading & writing, and helps build confidence in their language skills that makes learning new materials a fun experience. Here are some of the key benefits children typically see from using phonics:

Increases Vocabulary

Phonics helps children to learn the parts of a word by sounding out letters & syllables, which they can utilize when they encounter new words for the first time. This helps increase their overall word-recognition and allows them to more rapidly add new words to their vocabulary. As they practice reading, phonics becomes internalized, and soon they can recognize new words in a natural, fluid manner.

Helps Decipher Words

Deciphering a word is the process that children use to sound out the various letters & syllables of a new word using phonics. As they learn the sounds associated with the letters & syllables, their linguistic abilities grow and they are more able to decipher new words. This builds the child’s confidence in their reading ability, and helps them progress from simple to more complex reading materials.

Encourages Reading Skills

The increased confidence and independence that phonics provides children helps reduces frustration with learning to read, and encourages them to read more frequently. This helps immerse children in a rewarding process of reading, and allows them to confidently undertake new & more complex reading materials. Children feel ready to pick up new books, armed with the ability to sound out new words as they go, which helps them ascertain meaning and leads to the development of superior language skills at a young age.

Increases Cognitive Abilities

The English language has picked up many linguistic components from other languages, and as a  result it doesn’t necessarily follow predictable rules. This can lead to frustration and confusion that undermine the reading competency of young children, but by using phonics it provides children with the tools to create their own mental map of the language, and encourages them to read more frequently. Phonics is a wonderful tool for helping children develop reasoning, analysis and logic, and helps increase their cognitive language skills.

Supports Writing Skills

By using phonics to sound out letters and syllables, children are not only able to read more effectively, but also more able words and sentences through their sounds while they write. Many children write by saying words in a sentence in their head and then writing the words on paper – but they often encounter frustration with spelling that can be an obstacle to early writing. Phonics helps them sound out the parts of a word to themselves, which helps them overcome obstacles from difficult words and helps them write words & sentences more proficiently.

Montessori Phonics Education

When phonics is taught using the Montessori Method, the focus is on learning groups or sets of letters rather than the entire alphabet. Letters are introduced by their sounds, rather than names, and taught in manageable groups to help children rapidly begin using letters to encode and decode words. Visual association is an important part of the learning process as well, and simple words are associated with specific objects. Rather than a process of rote memorization for thousands of words, phonics helps children build language competency by breaking the language down into a collection of only 44 sounds.

The sensitive periods of child development are important in learning phonics. These are the periods of rapid growth & development that Dr. Maria Montessori described when children are able to rapidly absorb information and master new skills – and they play a large role in helping children master language skills like reading. The Montessori approach to phonics is holistic in nature, and encourages children to discover and recognize the sounds that each letter makes and learn the relationship between the sounds, letters and words. Instead of focusing on rote memorization of the letters to create words, the child’s focus is directed to the combination of letters and sounds that comprise words, which children can then use to more easily decipher the words they read.

The Montessori method approaches phonics education holistically, and attempts to engage multiple senses in the learning process to bolster association and increase learning retention. One approach to multi-sensorial phonics education engages the sense touch by using letters made from sand paper. Children can trace the outline of each letter with their fingers, and feel the sensation of the sand paper as they simultaneously pronounce the sound associated with it. This provides a tactile association between the shape of the letter and its individual sound that helps children learn more effectively. As children continue to their linguistic growth and development, then can then progress from single letters to simple words, then short phrases eventually compete sentences.

Montessori Methods For Teaching Phonics

The Montessori method for teaching phonics has proven to be a highly effective tool for building language competency in preschool children as young as age 4. Dr. Maria Montessori described a number of activities to effectively introduce children to phonics principles, such as:

Teaching Sounds Before Letter Names

In the Montessori approach, letters are first introduced by their sounds instead of their names. They can introduced in six groups of four letters each, and must be proncounced clearly to ensure that children learn the correct sounds. Again, the alphabet is not introduced in contiguous order, but instead by how useful the letters are for helping children form words.

Teaching Lowercase Letters First

In Montessori schools, lowercase letters are introduced first, because most of the words that children will encounter when they first begin reading are composed of lowercase letters. Uppercase letters are introduced later, after children feel confident with the phonic associations in the lowercase alphabet.

Teaching Short Vowels First

Children are also introduced to words with short vowel sounds first, because they are likely to encounter those first in early reading. Short vowel sounds are found in words like “cat”, “bed”, and “sit”. Their simplicity makes them easier to pronounce and memorize, and short words that contain them are an easy transition in complexity from single letter sounds.

Using Sandpaper Letters

Sandpaper letters have a rough texture, which helps children associate the tactile sensation of tracing the shape of the letter with their fingers to the phonics associated with it. This reinforces Dr. Montessori’s holistic approach to education that involves using eyes, ears, and hands as part of a coordinated learning activity that reinforces learning and bolsters the child’s retention of language skills.

Using The Moveable Alphabet Box

The small moveable alphabet is a wooden box containing 26 wooden letters, with vowels painted in blue and consonants in red. It is a tool used in Montessori learning to teach reading, spelling, and writing, and provides children with a tactile dimension to learning phonics similiar in nature to the sandpaper letters. When children can feel the shapes of letters, it helps reinforce the phonics they associate with them, and by putting together letters, they learn the process of encoding words.

Embracing Montessori Phonics Education

Over a century of Montessori learning has demonstrated the benefits of phonics education for children, especially in a multi-sensory environment where phonics is taught in accordance with the principles outlined by Dr. Maria Montessori herself. Phonics has proven to be highly successful in helping children building foundational language skills and confidence in their own abilities, and because of this is now being adopted by the mainstream educational community as well.

Phonics is not without controversy, but the national adoption of phonics by countries including Australia, the UK, USA, Singapore, the Bahamas, and Nigeria is a testament to the growing popularity of this natural, organic method for teaching language. Learning sounds & object associations is a fun and enriching experience for children, and gives children a head-start on language skills that often puts them ahead of their peers throughout their entire school careers.

Ultimately, phonics is a valuable tool for giving children the best possible introduction to language skills, and provides both linguisitic context and familiarity  that helps children forge ahead as confident, self-directed readers and writers. It should be no surprise that the ability of phonics to empower children to learn on their own is one of the reasons that Dr. Maria Montessori chose this method of learning. Teaching children recognize the sounds of letters and syllables empowers them with the ability to look at a word and discern the most reasonable sound of the word should be – which fosters higher proficiency and valuable independence in literacy.