The Guidepost Approach to Developing Strong Readers (Who Love to Read!)
A Deep Dive into the Children’s House (preschool-kindergarten) Language Curriculum and how it empowers advanced literacy skills in 3 to 6-year-olds.
In many ways, the signature feature of a Montessori Children’s House (preschool-kindergarten) is its language curriculum.
From the moment a child enters at 2.5 to 3-years-old, she begins building the foundation of literacy with engaging games and hands-on study of phonics. Once she’s in her capstone Kindergarten year, all the preparation and work up to that point blossoms to create an “explosion of literacy”—she reads books with comprehension, composes her own sentences in carefully crafted cursive, and studies advanced grammar and vocabulary that her peers in conventional programs won’t see until 3rd grade.
To make this unprecedented progress possible, the child is provided with individualized support from her guide (teacher), tremendous liberty to learn at her own pace, and an intentionally designed sequence of engaging materials that guide her from one achievement to the next.
Let’s take a journey through the innovative Montessori language curriculum, year by year, to discover its core materials and methods.
Year 1: Building the Foundation
In the first year of Children’s House, there are many materials and activities that support a child to directly and indirectly build foundational literacy skills. Indeed, nearly everything in the classroom is designed to serve the goal of literacy. Most of the sensorial materials, for example, are designed so the child must grasp the pieces using the pincer grip he’ll need to write. And practical life materials are arranged logically so that steps are completed from left-to-right, helping to familiarize the child with the same spatial progression used when reading.
Out of all the materials and activities, however, three are the centerpiece in the first year: Sound Games, the Sandpaper Letters, and the Moveable Alphabet.
1. Sound Games
With an engaging series of sound games, the child learns to isolate and recognize the sounds found in words. Over time, the child attunes his ears until hearing and isolating each individual sound in a word is automatic.
To play the game initially, the guide will present a series of miniature, familiar objects to the child (e.g., a dog, cat, mop, mat, bag etc.). Then, like an I-Spy game, the guide will tell the child that she’s thinking of something that begins with a certain sound, “buh” for example. The child will look through the objects until he finds the bag, and the guide will prompt the child to tell her what sound the word begins with.
As the child progresses, the game is adapted to provide a new level of delight and challenge. The child, for example, will be asked to find objects based on ending and middle sounds in addition to beginning sounds, to scan the entire classroom to find objects containing a particular sound, or, when playing with a group, to find a particular classmate whose name starts or ends with the chosen sound.
Because a young child is fascinated with language in general, gaining the ability to isolate sounds in words is inherently motivating. And because rich spoken language is all around him, in the classroom and at home, he receives near constant practice and reinforcement of what he’s learning. The result? The child isolates and focuses on the very foundation of phonics—phonemic awareness—in a rapid, enjoyable way. He builds the foundation of literacy without rote drills, and without the added challenge of recognizing abstract symbols at the same time.
2. Sandpaper Letters
The Sandpaper Letters are a sensory-rich language material that helps the child connect the sounds he’s learned to their written representations. Mounted on boards, pink for consonants and blue for vowels, are cursive letters of the alphabet etched with sandpaper. This material capitalizes on the child’s desire to explore the world through touch, while simultaneously bringing the abstract symbols to a concrete, physical form the child can interact with.
Working with a few letters at a time, “m”, “t”, and “a” for example, the guide will present each to the child. She will demonstrate how to trace the letter using her index and middle finger and then say the sound the letter represents. Then the child, breathless with anticipation from waiting through this short lesson, traces the letter for himself and listens as the guide repeats the sound. The guide and child will practice with that set of letters until he can produce the sound each letter represents merely by looking at the symbol. Gradually, the child will work through the rest of the alphabet—sometimes learning them all in as little as two weeks!
Like the sound games, there are various activities and games the guide will play once there are a few letters the child is familiar with. He may try to find a classmate whose name starts with a particular letter, find objects in the classroom that begin with a letter, or think up his own words that start with a letter. Over time the child learns all the letters of the alphabet. Soon, he moves on to studying phonograms—sound-symbol combinations like “sh” “ee” and “th”—in the same way.
3. Moveable Alphabet
Writing with pencil and paper is a challenging fine-motor task. The child is often ready to compose words of his own creation, using what he’s learning through the sound games and sandpaper letters, before he has the hand strength and coordination necessary to write. The moveable alphabet allows the child to advance to the next stage of literacy while he’s still working to gain these fine-motor skills.
The moveable alphabet is a series of solid, wooden letters, red for consonants and blue for vowels. Once the child has learned all the vowels and a set of 5-7 consonants using the sandpaper letters, the guide introduces the child to this material. Initially, the guide asks the child to choose three of the sandpaper letters he’s familiar with, to trace them one at a time, and to find the letter in the moveable alphabet that matches. Once the child understands that these materials represent the same concept, he is invited to select moveable letters that he recognizes without first connecting them to a familiar sandpaper letter.
Over time, the child works to create words using the moveable alphabet and gradually progresses to “writing” phrases, whole sentences, and short stories. The hands-on material is enticing and the child delights in “building” sentences in much the same way as he enjoys building with blocks. The moveable alphabet allows the child to transform the abstract work of written communication, to a real, concrete, physical task that he can hold in his hand and viscerally understand.
Year 2: From Decoding to Reading
As the child starts the second year, she transitions from “writing” with the moveable alphabet to writing in sand, on a chalkboard, and on paper with and without guiding lines. Progressively, she builds the hand strength and coordination to write with ease for long periods of time. And finding joy in her newfound ability, she often goes in search of more opportunities to write—both at school and at home!
Similarly, the child transitions from recognizing symbols and their connection to corresponding sounds to actual reading. She begins to decode the symbols into their component sounds and recompose and synthesize them into a recognizable word. Over the course of the second year, the child moves from decoding single phonetic words, to studying non-phonetic “puzzle words”, to reading books for fun and studying advanced grammar.
1. Phonetic Reading
The child begins reading phonetically using Phonetic Object Boxes. Often with the same objects used to play sound games, these boxes contain miniature, familiar items with corresponding printed labels.
During the initial presentation, the guide mirrors the sound games by telling the child she is thinking of a particular object. However, instead of asking the child to find the object based on a component sound, she writes the name of the object on a strip of paper, folds it like a secret message, and asks the child to read the message, sounding out each letter, in order to determine the object she’s thinking of. As the child practices sounding out each letter, the guide supports her in blending the sounds together to form a complete word. Once the child recognizes the word, she searches to find the matching object. After a few rounds, the child is ready to practice independently using the printed labels.
In addition to matching objects with labels, the child plays games matching pictures to labels, reading phonetic booklets that include illustrations on the page opposite each word, and reading cards without pictures independently or in small groups.
Just as recognizing the sounds in words became automatic through practice with the sound games, the process of blending sounds together becomes automatic through practice with phonetic games. And just as the child has constant reinforcement through daily language exposure, she has frequent practice reading in her daily life. She realizes with joy that almost everything—from her juice box at lunch, to her shampoo bottle at bath time, to the road signs she sees on her daily walk—has words she can sound out and read.
2. Books to Remember
Once the child has had practice blending sounds to read words and has been introduced to some phonograms such as “th”, “ee”, and “ai”, she is introduced to a controlled-vocabulary series of books, called Books to Remember.
With these books, the child has the opportunity to read real picture books with engaging, dramatic stories, rather than boring or repetitive little readers. These books, in parallel with the other areas of the language curriculum, begin with the basic phonetic sounds and progress systematically through phonograms and non-phonetic puzzle words like “the” “my” and “of”.
The books are generally read in sequence, with preparation from the guide for unfamiliar puzzle words, challenging or new phonograms, and support with vocabulary. For each book, there is also a series of comprehension questions that the child works on independently, in a small group, or with her guide. Once the child has had practice, she is excited to take the books home to showcase her new reading skills with her parents. Each week, the child has the option of bringing home a book, keeping track of the times when she reads it to her parents, and trading it for another book the next week.
3. Function of Words
Because of the child’s sensitive period for language and her newfound ability to read, the child is easily fascinated with studying grammar. Like all other skills, however, the grammar curriculum in Children’s House diverges from standard lectures and worksheets, and is re-imagined to meet the child at her level.
Just as the child is prepared for reading by first becoming attuned to the sounds found in words, she is prepared for the formal study of grammar by first becoming attuned to the different kinds of words found in a sentence. This study is called “Function of Words” and includes materials, games, and activities for the different parts of speech—from the detective adjective game, to the logical adverb game, to games that involve reading and acting out different verbs.
The goal of these games is not to teach the word “noun”, “article”, or “adverb” although the children often learn anyway through recognizing the name of the games. Rather, the goal is for the child to have hands-on, practical experiences with the different roles that words can play in one's communication.
Crucial to each of these games is a Symbol Box, a set of sensorial materials to help make the parts of speech fully real to the child. Verbs, for example, are symbolized by a big red circle, and adverbs, which modify and describe how an action is done, are represented by a smaller orange circle. As the child creates her own sentences or reads the sentences of others, she connects each word to a symbol corresponding to its role. She builds an intuitive grasp that nouns tell you what a sentence is about and that adjectives tell you what kind of thing you're referring to.
Through the systematic study of the function of words, the child builds a solid sense of the grammatical order of words, how they all relate to one another, and how they can add vibrancy and color to her own writing.
Year 3: An "Explosion of Literacy"
In the capstone Kindergarten year, the child often experiences what Montessori dubbed, an “explosion of literacy.” The joyful and systematic preparation for the past two years suddenly comes to a head and the child leaps to a whole new level of ability—much like the younger child who goes from crawling to walking seemingly overnight.
In contrast with a conventional kindergarten program, designed to introduce children to school for the first time and start literacy study from scratch, the Children’s House language curriculum is designed to capitalize on the child's leap in reading ability with the opportunity to read increasingly challenging texts and to do more advanced study of grammar and vocabulary.
1. Word Study
Now that the child is able to sound out many words and read stories with comprehension, one of biggest bottlenecks to the child’s progress is the size of his vocabulary. Throughout the past two years of Children’s House, he has been exposed to rich spoken language, precise language for materials and qualities in his lessons, and targeted vocabulary in the language curriculum. In the 3rd year, this focus on vocabulary is further enhanced with formal word studies.
For this work, the child usually completes matching activities, moving from more familiar to less familiar words while observing the spelling conventions. The child studies synonyms, for example, and goes beyond “beautiful” to “lovely”, beyond “clean” to “immaculate”, and beyond “old” to “ancient.” The child, still in a sensitive period for language, is fascinated to discover such delightfully long words, to be able to read and pronounce them independently, and to know what they mean.
Throughout this study, the child moves from studying the masculine and feminine versions of various words, to the actions of animals like “neigh” and “roar”, to homographs like "lead" and homophones like "see" and "sea", and irregular singular and plural pairs like from "foot" to "feet." This dedicated study of words alongside continued reading practice creates a virtuous circle. Reading provides increased exposure to the words being studied—and studying the words formally improves reading comprehension.
2. Reading Analysis
Building on the word function work the child started in his 2nd year, he is gradually introduced to reading analysis. With these activities, the child works to more formally begin the study of grammar. Using many of the same grammar symbols used perviously, the child diagrams the relationship of words in increasingly complex sentences, first with an engaging game involving the guide and eventually independently.
Starting with sentences that contain one subject and two verbs, the child gradually moves to analyzing sentences with multiple subjects, verbs, direct or indirect objects, adverbial phrases, and more. Through this systematic study, the child is also introduced to various writing conventions—from the use of capital letters and punctuation to indicate the beginning and ending of sentences to the use of commas to indicate a list and eliminate the necessity of repeated conjunctions.
Again, the goal is not to teach vocabulary like “preposition” or “conjunction” though this often occurs, but to support the child in creating a mental filing system that allows him to hold each piece of a complex sentence in mind while he reads.
Familiarity exploring complex sentences is crucial for reading comprehension. Without this practice, a child who encounters long sentences with multiple subjects, verbs, or parentheticals can easily get lost. Reading analysis empowers the child to go beyond sounding out the words and building an expansive vocabulary. He explores the relationships and structure of sentences themselves, and builds a predictive intuition for the common directions a sentence can go.
3. Interpretative Reading
As the child continues to advance through the Books to Remember series and study advanced grammar, the guide offers him an opportunity to bring all his skills together with interpretative reading activities. These activities are challenging and require the child to utilize all he's been learning to this point—sounding out words, recognizing puzzle words, activating his vocabulary knowledge, and using his intuition about complex sentence structure.
For this activity, the guide works with a small group of children and hands a sentence on a slip of paper to one child to read silently. The sentences are dramatic and taken directly from literature, and thus provide the child with one more opportunity to explore the sentence structure and vocabulary he encounters in books. After the child reads the sentence, he acts it out in front of the other children while they guess what the original sentence said.
These sentences are far beyond what one would expect a kindergartener to be able to read. Moving from single actions and a simple structure to increasingly complex sentences, the child can eventually read and then perform compound sentences that require advanced literacy skills as well as memory retention. Acting the sentences out for another child or group to guess is both motivating and engaging, while practice reading these formulations aids with reading comprehension.
By the end of the 3-year Children’s House program, the child is more than prepared for elementary school. Indeed, she’s far ahead of her peers and ready to use her newfound ability to read in increasingly abstract and challenging ways. She's ready to read for a purpose—to learn about the vast world of knowledge all around her.
And since she has been guided step-by-step with a curriculum designed for her abilities and interests, she sees challenges as exciting, effort as worthwhile, and reading as deeply rewarding.
In short, her journey though Children’s House has helped her become a strong reader who loves reading—one who’s ready, heart and soul, for the next challenge!