A Better Future for Phonics
Montessori was staunch in her conviction that phonics was necessary for children to become strong readers, that they must learn to decompose words into their component sounds. She believed that, in learning just a few dozen phonemes and their common spelling patterns, children thereby had the power to unlock any word on the page. With phonics, the world of literacy was unveiled. With phonics, they could read.
There has been bitter disagreement on the best approach to reading instruction, however, and for the past century, the “Reading Wars” have raged unabated. ‘Sold a Story’ is the latest salvo from the front lines of these wars. In this short podcast series, journalist Emily Hanford recounts the battle between the two predominant approaches to reading instruction, whole-language and phonics. She contends that the evidence is clear, both scientific and anecdotal: phonics is the effective approach for teaching children literacy.
Although this recent case for phonics may seem to vindicate phonics advocates (such as Montessori) and portend an end to the wars and a better future for literacy education, it carries within it the seeds of its own destruction. If these seeds are not rooted out, it doesn’t matter whether there are dozens or hundreds of studies verifying that children become strong readers when taught via phonics. The seeds will become weeds that will grow and choke out any progress.
Like Montessori, other proponents of phonics argue that for children to become strong readers, they must first learn to decode words, to match spoken sounds to abstract symbol(s) on the page.
"The children are sitting in rows. Their teacher is at the front of the room. They’re reading a story called “The Pet Goat.” The teacher is tapping on the book as the kids read the words. The whole thing has a bit of an old-fashioned schoolmarm vibe to it."(2)
But when teachers and parents object that these same traditional methods have left children bored, miserable, and rebellious for millennia, when they fear a return to a rightfully hated and discarded past, phonics advocates ignore their concerns or hastily brush them aside, as Hanford does, saying:
“The impression is that it’s boring. ... [But] Good reading instruction isn’t boring for children. Maybe adults find parts of it boring. But this shouldn’t be about what adults want. It should be about what kids need.”(3)
When no effort is made to explain what makes for good reading instruction, when the methods presented are indistinguishable from and unapologetically described as an “old-fashioned” approach, phonics skeptics will be forgiven for remaining unconvinced.
For parents and teachers who want more than base skill development—who want children not just to make sense of words on a page, but to love reading, to see it as an incomparable tool for both work and pleasure—then implicitly or explicitly equating phonics with a method perceived as crushing a child’s joy and destroying the love of reading is anathema.
Phonics, as Montessori and others have asserted for over a century, is what helps children become strong readers but, what Montessori was alone in proclaiming, we don’t have to choose between learning important skills and the child’s enjoyment now and into the future; we don’t have to choose between the method and the child.To achieve a better future for phonics, to win not just the current battle, but the whole war, this seed must be rooted out. Phonics must be decoupled from its traditional approach, and a better method, one that optimizes for both joy and skill development, must be pursued. Montessori lights the way.
Phonics without the Schoolmarm
Almost every aspect of the Montessori early childhood classroom is directly or indirectly supportive of literacy. Practical life curriculum builds virtues like concentration, love of effort, and attention to detail, sensorial curriculum refines a child’s observation, reasoning, and fine motor skills, and a rich exposure to language models clarity and precision in communication, to name just a few. One of the keystones of her approach, however, which illustrates the masterful integration of skill development in phonics with the child’s enjoyment, are the sandpaper letters.
The sandpaper letters are perhaps the most iconic Montessori material: the letters of the alphabet cut out of sandpaper and mounted onto individual wooden boards, pink for consonants and blue for vowels. The basic approach is for the child to look at the letter on the card and trace the shape with his fingers, following the same motion used when writing, as the guide pronounces the sound the letter represents.
A key aspect of the sandpaper letters is that the child is first prepared for them. The end goal of recognizing the connection between sound and symbol is broken up into two separate tasks: recognizing the sounds comprising words and matching sound to symbol(s). This division lightens the cognitive load on the child, both by gradually proceeding from the more concrete and directly perceivable to the more abstract and by allowing him to focus and gain mastery on one aspect at a time. The result is that, before ever seeing a letter, the child knows all the sounds of the alphabet and can quickly identify them in any word he hears. The child’s ears have been attuned so that hearing the component sounds of words is automatic. The child has already conquered the first step of phonics before ever seeing a letter on the page.
The most significant way this preparation is achieved is through object-sound matching games, called ‘sound games.’ Like an I-Spy game, the child will be given a variety of familiar objects and then asked to find the one that starts with a specific sound. If asked to find the object that starts with a ‘buh’ sound, for example, the child will grab the bag. The games progress in difficulty as the child attains mastery, until he can find objects by beginning, ending, or middle sound.
Another critical feature of both the preparation and the formal introduction to the sandpaper letters is the timing. The sound games typically start when the child is around 2.5 years old, and the sandpaper letters are introduced when the child is 3. This is because children at this age are in a sensitive period for language: a time when they’re deeply interested in sounds, words, and rhythm, a time when they can, almost effortlessly, learn any language(s) present in their environment.
The traditional approach to phonics starts with older children, 5 or 6-year-olds, who are quickly nearing the end of, or have already moved on from, this sensitive period. This means the task of learning the connection between sounds and symbols is both less interesting and more difficult for them. What, for a 3-year-old, is a captivating and engrossing activity, becomes, for a 6-year-old, a dull and draining bore, often requiring an increasing effort from parents and teachers to provide the motivation for continuing. By contrast, the 2.5-3-year-old is inherently deeply interested and therefore supplies his own motivation to learn and go ever deeper in pursuit of mastery.
Just as important as timing is the sensorial nature of the lesson. Young children love exploring the world through touch. They want to feel, hold, and manipulate objects. Rather than asking the child to sit still and listen to a lecture or to painstakingly write pages of the same word, the adult can capitalize on the child’s fascination with the tactile sense while building essential skills. As the child traces each letter with his fingers, he simultaneously learns the sound they represent and refines the fine motor skills he’ll need later for writing, ingraining in his mind and in his muscle memory each distinct shape.
The tactile nature of the lesson also makes the abstract sound-symbol connection more cognitively accessible to the child. It’s not just a sound with a vague connection to a picture, but a sound connected to a physical object whose contours he can define with his own hands. The abstract becomes more real. This, too, lightens the cognitive burden, making learning to read that much easier, more rewarding, and more motivating.
The timing and sensorial features of this material are made still more powerful by the individualized nature of the approach. Each child has immense freedom within the structured curriculum. After the guide offers brief, digestible lessons introducing new materials to the child, he is free to choose what work to do, to repeat it as many times as he wants, and to go as fast or as slow through the curriculum as he needs.
There is no debilitating pressure to keep up with an unattainable pace set by the average of the class for the child who needs more time and practice. Nor is there stultifying boredom for the child who longs to race ahead and meet new challenges. Instead, each child can pursue mastery on his own schedule and to his heart’s content, with no contrived roadblocks to hamper his motivation or enjoyment.
This, as a schematic, is the Montessori approach to literacy, whether the child is barely out of toddlerhood and just beginning to make the connection between sound and symbol on the page, or is an elementary student and joyfully diagramming complex, interesting sentences of his own creation. The curriculum is designed to prepare the child for each new cognitive leap at the precise moment when it will be most intellectually stimulating. It engages the child’s senses, making the abstract more accessible while providing an additional motivational impulse. It gives the child unprecedented freedom and personalized attention, untethering him from the lockstep formation that was necessary in the traditional classroom.
This, most importantly, is a method that understands the need for both crucial skill development and a child’s freedom, joy and interest. The goal of this method, though, is not to achieve a delicate “balance” between the best pieces of phonics and whole-language. It is not to create a watered-down compromise, a tug-of-war between antithetical interests, or a motley collage of discordant elements, but an entirely new, integrated approach. One that looks closely at the developmental strengths and needs of children, designs curriculum and methods that pursue both skills and enjoyment fully, and therefore re-thinks and turns nearly every educational paradigm on its head.
With this kind of no-compromise method, one that doesn’t sacrifice the child to the method or the method to the child, there can be a better future for phonics. There can be a future of strong readers who love reading. With Montessori, a method that shatters the false dichotomy between phonics and joy, there can be a future that spells peace and, at long last, an end to the “Reading Wars.”
- This is contrasted with methods like the whole-word approach, which explicitly discourage sounding words out and instead encourage developing readers to rely primarily on information like context clues or word shape to figure out what the word might be.
- Hanford, E. (Host). (2022, October 27). The Battle (No. 3) [Audio podcast episode]. In Sold a Story. American Public Media. https://features.apmreports.org/sold-a-story/
- Hanford, E. (Host). (2022, November 17). The Reckoning (No. 6) [Audio podcast episode]. In Sold a Story. American Public Media. https://features.apmreports.org/sold-a-story/
Samantha Blaisdell earned a B.A. in Secondary Education with a focus on Spanish and ESL from Spring Arbor University and a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Idaho. After working as both a brick-and-mortar and online teacher and as an engineer, she discovered and fell head over heels for the ideas and method of Montessori. Samantha lives in Idaho and, in her free time, enjoys reading, spending time outside, and playing with her cats.
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