The Montessori philosophy believes in children learning to write before reading. This is because developing motor skills makes it easier for the child to adapt to reading.
The ability of the child to visualize the words comes from motor memory and deconstruction of the word in to letters.
The ability to read on the other hand is developed by the child being able to connect the sounds of letters and combining them into a word.
So how does a child reach a point where they are able to recognize and pronounce letters and eventually build them up to form a word?
In the Montessori approach, children are introduced to sounds of the letters before they get to know the names of these letters when learning to read.
Learning the phonic sounds of the letters rather than their names first reduces confusion when the child is reading. The names of the letters are taught later when the child has a better grasp of the sounds.
Montessori education uses a number of reading materials and Montessori language activities that help in this process of reading.
Their aim is to help the child activate all their senses during learning by seeing the sounds, hearing the sounds and feeling the sounds. This is where sandpaper letters come in.
What are sandpaper letters?
The Sandpaper letters are key materials in reading that are found in a Montessori classroom, they are lowercase letters of the alphabet presented in small pieces of sandpaper.
These letters are presented to the children in lowercase because most words in the environment are in lowercase too and Montessori strives to be as realistic as possible in their teachings.
The letters are cut out in sandpaper and mounted on a strong background preferably of different colours. There are patterns representing all the 26 alphabets with both consonants and vowels.
Montessori teachers are responsible for creating these visual reading aids from naturally available materials in the environment.
The main objective of this Montessori material is to help children in the memorisation of letters and sounds.
The child uses motor and visual memory while touching and seeing the letters on the sandpaper to help them read.
The colours the letters are mounted on depend on whether they are consonants or vowel, with consonants being mounted on pink while vowels are mounted on blue.
How sandpaper letters are used
In a Montessori environment, the teacher begins the sandpaper introduction by offering the child a selection of any three common letters. It can be a combination of vowels and consonants that can preferably form a word.
They present one of the letters first, and demonstrate tracing the letter with their fingers while saying the sound of that letter out loud.
It’s important to remember the initial introduction of the sandpaper letters requires the sound of the letter rather than their names which will come later.
After that demonstration, the child is left to practice their independence by tracing the letter several times while they pronounce its sound.
The second letter with its spoken sound is given after the child has had enough of the first letter, and the third letter subsequently follows.
The teacher encourages the child to repeat the process of tracing and pronouncing the patterns over and over again until the process becomes part of the child's muscle memory.
The final step is putting all three letters before the child and observe how they trace and verbalize each letter.
The teacher needs to take notes on which letters or sounds have been mastered to help them keep track on the child's progress.
Motor patterns are learned as the child traces patterns of the letters. It’s therefore important that they trace the patterns of the letters correctly as it is a reflection of their handwriting development.
Once the child has developed good tracing mastery, they are then introduced to pencil and paper. The teacher can also include other modes of tracing and shaping to help the child have a better grasp of the letter formation.
The more vowels introduced at the beginning of this practice, the easier it will be for the child to build words in the future.
Purpose of sandpaper letters
Dr. Maria Montessori came up with the sandpaper letters to help children develop their sensory impressions of the letters to enhance learning.
The introduction of the shape and sound of each letter made learning easier for the children in that developmental stage.
The multi-sensory approach provided by these sandpaper letters was found to work best for children still in a tactile stage of development between the ages of 2 and 4.
The sandpaper letters are used as reading and writing aids in the Montessori curriculum. They provide sensory stimulation through touch, vision and sound that complement the natural environment of learning in a Montessori classroom.
Children are able to feel the letters, hold and trace them out during the manipulation and construction of words.
They give the child independence to work at their own pace after the initial introductions are made by the teacher. They enable the child to build on their muscle memory when repeatedly tracing out the letter of the alphabet.
The foundation of the child's handwriting is sourced from their mastery of their sandpaper letters.
The child's awareness of sounds is heightened through constant pronunciation and mimicking of the teacher’s instructions. This is subsequently followed by building words using the letters, starting with simple two or three letter words.
The sandpaper letters help the teacher keep track of the child's reading progress. Where the letters gave more than one sound, the child is able to learn in manageable bits with the less frequently used phonetic sounds being taught later.