A Direct Comparison of Montessori Reading Programs

After my review of Reading Programs last month, I received several requests to compare my program to the others mentioned. That’s fair. My intention for the previous article was merely to explain why I didn’t use those programs, but I understand how an article like this one might help folks make their own assessments.

Dwyer Reading Folders

I believe my program is most similar to the Dwyer Reading Folders. I will be quoting from NAMTA Journal Vol. 29 No. 3 for this comparison (not Basic Montessori, which is what I used in my other article).

Dwyer is a (mostly) speech-to-print program. All of the work with sound games, Sandpaper Letters, and Moveable Alphabet is explicitly speech to print.

Philosophically, the program seems to be against explicit instruction, emphasizing “exploration” and “indirect preparation.” This might be because the program is made for children in the first plane of development. I am only experienced with children in the second-plane; my program is explicit.

Both our programs understand that the child’s spoken language ability is the key prerequisite, but I only mention it in passing. Ms. Dwyer spends a couple pages discussing the matter. I’ll restate this important point: children need to hear and enjoy rhymes, songs, and stories. This is a non-negotiable prerequisite and it is one of the great joys of life.

At the Phonogram Folder level, the instruction becomes print-to-speech, reading and decoding only, with very little spelling work. The child selects the /ae/ book and then reads words with /ae/ spelled in different ways. For example /ae/ spelled EI: rein, feint, skein, vein, veil, reindeer.

There are follow-up work exercises that are visual and not connected to the spellings in words. The exercise titled “The Test” has the child write the Basic Spelling, say AI, and then all of the spelling alternatives AI= AI AY EI A_E. I am not convinced this is a valuable exercise.

Rhyme and Reason Reading ProgramDwyer
Who is it for?Made for 6-12+ year oldsMade for 3-6 year olds
Orientation A speech-to-print program.A speech-to-print program (initially).
Phonemic AwarenessPhonemic Awareness is a foundational exercise and is a core element of the program. This is done through sound games and sound objects.Phonemic Awareness is a foundational exercise and is a core element of the program. This is done through sound games and sound objects.
Scope and SequenceSystematic scope and sequence.None.
HandwritingIntegrated, part of every lesson.Integrated, part of every lesson.
Material CreationA digital download.
The materials are designed, you print and cut them apart.
DIY. I’m not sure if anyone sells printable. They probably do.
MaterialsGuidebook with lessons.

Sandpaper Letters, Moveable Alphabet.

Picture cards, word booklets, decodable readers.
Sandpaper Letters, Moveable Alphabet.

Phonogram Folders
Decodable ReadersIncluded. Simple and short.None. The program suggest that the guide make her own.
Letter NamesExplicit prohibition until the Basic Code is mastered.Explicit prohibition until the Basic Code is mastered.
PhonemesAmerican Accent
44 phonemes identified.
42 phonemes taught.
British Accent?
40 phonemes identified
2 duplicates (/k/ spelled C or K)
4 missing (/the, ks, OO, ng/)
Basic CodeYes. Explicitly defined.
(Finished in Green Series)
Yes, Taught using Sandpaper Letters.

The program says “40 sandpaper letters all together. 25 of the sounds are single letters, 15 of the sounds are represented by more than one letter.”
Advance CodeTaught with the same method as the Basic Code.Taught using Phonogram Folders. Spelling is no longer featured.

The 14 folders have the Basic Code spelling on the outside. Inside the folder are a series of booklets with alternative spellings.

The child works through these with minimal guidance from the teacher reading the words in the booklets.
Multisyllable wordsTaught in the Pink Series.Not addressed.
IntegrationI include several story lessons about how English spelling came to be.Program makes the connection to history and other cultures but no child-facing stories are given.

There can be a reasonable debate about when children are ready to move away from speech-to-print instruction into just plain-old reading. In my opinion, Dwyer moves to plain-old reading too quickly. My thought is that I would rather have a skilled reader move through my program rapidly, already understanding how to read, than not have enough scaffolding for a child who needs more practice with the weird English writing system. I never want to leave a child behind.

I generally like the Dwyer Program, but I feel like it’s incomplete and it leaves a lot for the guide to figure out. The pamphlet is small, a mere 40 pages, the lessons aren’t scripted and instead it relies on someone having taken formal Montessori Training to really understand the program. My copy of this book is used, and the previous owner marked the margins with a lot of notes and question marks; they didn’t seem to “get it.”

A note about Basic Montessori: The Basic Montessori book uses almost exactly the same program but is not as careful as Ms. Dwyer was in her explanations. It makes strange categories of “alphabet sounds” and “phonogram sounds” which is a distinction that is only possible if letters make sounds (they’re both just sounds). In later lessons Mr. Gettman definitely states that letters/phonograms make sounds (which is not speech-to-print and not what Ms. Dwyer or Maria Montessori said).

Waseca Reading Program

This program has some elements of a speech-to-print like the original Montessori Method, but it is attempting to merge it with Orton-Gillingham instruction, which is a print-to speech method. These programs are incompatible.

Our programs appear similar due to the use of color coded card materials, but the overlap is mostly superficial. (I didn’t realize having the same color scheme would cause such a hoopla, if I did I would have changed it!)

I actually derived my rainbow colors from Rainbow Phonics, not Waseca. This is a proprietary program made by Guidepost Montessori Schools and was taught in my Montessori Elementary training. This is the program I used to teach students to read in my first classrooms and I liked it. I first tried to modify it because there were elements I didn’t like, and I ended up making something completely new: The Rhyme and Reason Reading Program was born.

My reason for not using Waseca is largely scope and sequence based, which I’ll get into with more detail below, but I also don’t like Orton Gillingham (unpopular opinion), I think OG is too slow and too complicated for children.

Something to note: In the Waseca Card Material Lesson, the target spelling pattern is on a special card that stays face up while the student spells. This means the child isn’t spelling from memory. I think this actually negates an essential part of the Montessori method. The child should be spelling each sound from memory. This is more difficult, yes, but it builds a stronger neural connection. The stronger connection means that they will rapidly automatize this connection and will be able to read sooner.

Rhyme & Reason Reading ProgramWaseca
Aesthetic– Rainbow order
– Eight card sets per color, 56 card sets.
– Each card set has ~11 words.
– Drawer contains: Picture card, word booklet, decodable reader.
– Rainbow order (two additional colors)
– Seven card sets per color, 63 card sets.
– Each card set has ~9 words.
– Drawer contains: Picture card, word booklet, picture label.
Back of the cardBack of picture card has word in cursive and print.

Print letters are separated by phoneme.
Back of picture card has word in cursive and print.

Target spelling is in a different color.
Phonemic AwarenessPhonemic Awareness is the foundation to the program. The guidebook includes six lessons with follow-up options for “sound games.” Emphasis on segmenting and blending skills.
Detailed notes are given for each phoneme to play these “games.”
Special cards are made for each phoneme.
Not incorporated.
Sound-to-printThe child explicitly learns to connect all 40+ phonemes to letter-symbols using Sandpaper Letters and/or pencil and paper.
The student very quickly moves to the materials.
“It is best approached after working with sand paper letters to recognize letters and their sounds and some blends. As the guide moves into spelling three letter short vowel words with objects, the Waseca Reading Program can be introduced.”
LessonsAll lessons needed to teach this program are included, with follow up suggestions.

20 lesson templates total.
Very helpful notes are provided on how to teach the program.

1 Lesson template is given for the standard sequence. (below)
Card Material Lesson– Say a word from the picture.
– Segment the sounds in the word.
– Write the word letter by letter, from memory.
– Read back the written word.
– Show the spelling pattern in the drawer with a special card.
– Say a word from the picture.
– Segment the sounds in the word.
– Write the word letter by letter, while looking at the visual prompt.
– Match the label card to the written word.
– Read back the word from the label card.
To demonstrate masteryRead from the word booklet.Read from the word booklet.

Separate Writing Practice sheets.

Work through separate workbook.
Decodable ReadersBasic, short, no illustrations.

Included with purchase, one for each drawer (56).
Integrated with other areas of the curriculum, beautiful illustrations.

Sold separately.
Scope and Sequence TheoryMy sequence was developed by using the framework from Diane McGuinness, starting with a Basic Code and adding complexity. I determined which spelling patterns were most important by using spelling analysis done by Greg Brooks.This sequence of presentation in the Waseca Reading Program follows that used by the Orton-Gillingham Approach to reading.
Isolation of DifficultyOne spelling taught at a time.Up to 4 spelling patterns taught at a time.
Red 1T O PF A T R N P M D S C H
Red 2M A NJ V B G
Red 3D I GI W X L
Red 4W E BO
Red 5C U RU
Red 6F S L
Red 7H V Jreview
Red 8K Z Y
OrangeBlends. Initial, final, CCVCC. Variety of letter combinations.
Blends. Initial, final, CCVCC.
Grouped by letter.
Compound Words
(End Basic Code)
Rime endings. (Why?)
Aquan/aA_E, O_E, I_E, U_E
Three-syllable words
BlueA_E, O_E, I_E, U_E
/ee/ Y
/ie/ Y
/ae/ AI AY EI
/oe/ OA OW OE
/ie/ IE I Y
/ee/ EA EE IE EY Y
/ue/ UE EW OO
Open-syllables for A E I O U Y
/s/ C
/j/ G -DGE
PinkCompound Words
Closed Syllables
Open Syllables
Three Syllables
Double Consonants
/s/ C
/j/ G

I don’t hate the Waseca program.

After writing out the scope and sequences I realized that to anyone else, it probably just looks like alphabet soup. But the scope and sequence is a major reason why I did not choose to use/adapt this program. What I hoped to emphasize was that Waseca’s scope and sequence does not isolate the difficulty of learning a writing system.

Waseca teaches many alternative spellings early in the program. These additional spelling patterns are not needed for phonetic spelling. They are needed for correct spelling and for reading uncontrolled text. We eventually want correct spelling and the ability to read uncontrolled text (that’s the whole point), but that’s not the goal at the beginning- at least not for me.

The goal at the beginning is for the child to understand:

  1. Words are made of sounds. Spoken words are real, they’re concrete.
  2. Letter-symbols represent those sounds.
  3. You can write down the sounds of your speech. Writing is an abstract version of speech.
  4. You can read letters to remake those words.

Only after those four foundational elements are mastered should the “real world” complexity of English be brought in. Reading and writing are mirror images of each other, so the distinction is difficult to make, but it’s important to me.

Another way of putting this is to think about numbers.

  1. We start with the Golden Beads. The beads are real, they’re concrete.
  2. Number-symbols represent those quantities.
  3. You can write down the quantity of beads. Writing is an abstraction.
  4. You can read numbers to remake those quantities.

It would be inappropriate at this juncture to introduce “number alternatives” like binary, hex, or Roman numerals. (These are some “number alternatives” for Seventeen: 17, 021, 0x11, XVII, and b10001)

Final hunch: I think Waseca intended to have this program as a supplement (or remedial program) for children who had experience in a primary class. Children who had already worked with Sandpaper Letters and Moveable Alphabet. This would explain why Red 1 requires the student to already know so many letters/sounds and why there isn’t a phonemic awareness component built in. I do not believe this program is appropriate for emergent readers.

Pink, Blue, Green Reading Program

This program is print-to-sound, which means there is very little overlap in our programs. Many people make PBG programs with a variety of add-ons. Some programs use extensive sight word memorization (usually Dolch words), some treat consonant clusters like a single unit, some use rime analogy, “missing vowel” cards, and “word families.”

These programs often have picture cards and word booklets like I do (though of course, they are not rainbow colors).

Some people make better versions of this program than others, Some pay lip service to speech-to-print. But fundamentally, they are not based on the Montessori Method of reading.

I believe (this is just my hunch) that these programs are derived from conventional-school phonics programs and Balanced Literacy methodology. Then given the appearance of a Montessori program by using cards, Moveable Alphabets, and Sandpaper Letters. This is like calling a toy “Montessori” simply because it’s made of wood.

Some quotes from various training materials on PBG:

“Dr. Maria Montessori specifically developed the Montessori Pink, Blue, and Green Series to break down the essential English Phonics into a straightforward format.” (This is not true. Maria Montessori never made a reading program for English-speaking classrooms.)

“Pink Series words should be presented to the student who has learned most of the pure sounds of the consonant letters and the short sounds of the vowels.” (Letters making sounds)

“The Italian language itself is a phonetic language that does not require any specific language materials to help the child learn how to read.(Maria Montessori developed the specific language materials the Sandpaper Letters and Moveable Alphabet to help children learn how to read in Italian.)

“While there are many phonetically spelled words in English, there are even more that use ‘phonemes’.” (Every single word uses phonemes.)

Accurate spelling of English requires a visual strategy.” (This is the Whole-word memorization strategy.)

Words that contain blends or any of the 42 phonemes are not CVC words.” (Every word used phonemes, including CVC words.)

There are many words that are spelled as phonemes in the English Language like “ough” or “ear” that create distinct sounds and need to be memorized.” (OUGH and EAR are spelling patterns, not phonemes. Letters don’t make sounds.)

“Students will begin by using concrete objects and pictures to recognize whole words, then they will match word labels to pictures, and finally reading words without the picture.” (That is literally the three-cueing method.)

“The only way to effectively learn to read English is to apply an educated-guess sequence to any not yet familiar word. (Are you kidding me?)

I won’t be coy, I do not like Pink, Blue, Green. With the exception that we are both teaching English-speaking children to read, I don’t see meaningful similarities.

At least one creator of PBG wouldn’t like my program either, so I guess we’re even.

“Most programs focus on all the ways to spell one sound, rather than all the sounds one letter or letter combination makes. This means the information the child needs when doing an educated guess sequence is not readily available. Unless the child is given all the sounds to try out when they encounter a letter or letter combination, the program is an upside-down sound-symbol association.”

Oh, hey, wow; I wrote a lot. Thanks for sticking with me. I hope this helps.

Edited to add: This is a comparison between my program and Montessori reading programs. Compared to non-Montessori programs my program is heavily influenced by Sound Steps to Reading and Phono-Graphix. Perhaps fittingly, both of those programs are actually derivatives of the original Montessori Method.

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  1. Can I ask why the vowel-consonant-e words come after so many vowel pairs (in the yellow and green sets)? Just curious since just about every other material I’ve seen – phonetic reading books, Explode the Code workbooks, and others go to the vowel-consonant-e words (vc-e) right after consonant-vowel-consonant (cvc) words. Thanks!

    1. No, that’s a good question. VcE is the most common way to spell the long vowel sounds in monosyllabic words, so it makes good sense to teach them early. I struggled on this part of the scope and sequence, and I honestly think it’s optional.

      My rationale was that the split digraph, VcE, is a more complicated spelling pattern than “regular” digraph like AI. But I completely understand why someone else would choose to teach them earlier.

      In my book, I say you can teach this pattern earlier if you think your student is ready for them, at the same time that you teach the first spelling for the “long vowel” sounds. So you would teach AI and A_E at the same time, this would be especially good practice for an older student.

      I do think you should teach consonant clusters (CCVC, CVCC, and CCVCC) before you teach any digraphs.
      The reason is that “one letter = one sound” should be rock solid before you introduce the idea that “many letters = one sound”, and especially before “letters that aren’t near each other = one sound”

      So teaching VcE right after CVC words doesn’t make sense to me.
      Is it going to prevent a child from learning to read if you do it that way? No, they’ll probably learn just fine. But I think it’s more confusing to go in that order.

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