Montessori schools teach children to read phonetically. That is, they don’t focus on names of the letters of the alphabet, but rather the sounds the letters make. When a Montessori student is introduced to “a” for the first time, the teacher calls it “ahhh” (as in “cat”). Phonetic vowels are short vowels, the ones you hear most often in three letter words: cat, pen, lip, hop, and cut. Phonetic “c” is the hard c (k) and “x” is the only letter that uses two sounds (k and s).
Once the Montessori student has mastered the sounds, he or she can begin to read phonetically. We usually start with the Pink Series–two and three letter phonetic words that can easily be sounded out. Pink series words are often known as CVC words–consonant-vowel-consonant. (They can also be CV or VCC.) This is decoding at its earliest stage. Students have begun to combine individual sounds into words that have meaning. Separately, j, e, and t are just sounds. Together, they create the mental image of a jet.
After the Pink Series, students move on to the Blue Series, where words are still phonetic but involve blends and include doubles (two f’s or words with both c and k). A blend is a combination of consonants where both sounds remain distinct. For example: flag and camp. Both of these words can be read phonetically, but they’re not CVC words anymore. They’re CCVC or CVCC. There are books for both the Pink series and the Blue, but as you can imagine, the topics are pretty limited. MSO uses BEST books along with Primary Phonics readers (I actually remember reading these as a child), and while I can’t say that they’re the most stimulating stories I’ve ever heard, but they do fit the students’ reading levels.
As you can also see from the covers, Montessori teachers introduce a few sight words, like a, the, I, go and to. Sight words are words that cannot be read phonetically. Children have to memorize them and they’re usually taught according to how often they appear in the English language. However, the Montessori method of teaching reading focuses less on memorization and more on reading through knowing the sounds letters make.
On Wednesday, we’ll explore how Montessori deals with those pesky non-phonetic letters. English is a complex language and there are more exceptions than you can shake a stick at. As Montessori teachers, we see phonetic reading as the launchpad for emergent readers. Some students are naturally sight readers, though, and we have no desire to beat them over the head with a system that doesn’t work for their brains. (We’re child-centered, remember!)