I was sent a great question on Instagram: Why do you use the Moveable Alphabet during “sound games?” In my training, I was told not to introduce the Moveable Alphabet until the child had mastered several of the Sandpaper Letters.
This question is referring to the phonemic awareness, “sound games,” lessons I have in my Reading Program lesson book where I use the Moveable Alphabet.
Short answer: These phonemic awareness lessons are not reading or spelling, so they don’t violate your training instructions. The children will not use the Moveable Alphabet letters independently until they have been explicitly taught a few sound-letter correspondences.
I don’t believe the prohibition is actually about the materials, I think the prohibition is about the prerequisite skills that the materials represent. The child can only begin to spell phonetically (with the Moveable Alphabet) after they have connected some sounds to letters (with the Sandpaper Letters).
Furthermore, elementary students do not actually need to use the Sandpaper Letters at all. I recommend using pencil and paper for children over six if at all possible.
Longer answer: The Montessori Method of reading instruction is a speech-to-print methodology: children learn to read by first learning to spell.
That necessarily means you need to get a few things in order.
- You have to be aware of the speech sounds in your language: English has 40+ phonemes.
- You need to connect those sounds to letter-symbols. In Montessori, this is traditionally done with the Sandpaper Letters.
- You will break the sounds in words apart and write them down. In Montessori, this is traditionally done with the Moveable Alphabet.
- You read back what you’ve written.
Basic Auditory-Only Sound Games
In the Language area of traditional Montessori classrooms there are “sound games” that help the child become aware of the speech sounds in language.
Here are some sample lessons:
Initial Sounds Lesson: The guide may first present a figurine of a pig or an image of a pig. Guide: "What is the first sound in 'pig'?" Student: /p/
Segmenting Sounds Lesson: The guide may first present a figurine of a pig or an image of a pig. Guide: "What are all of the sounds in 'pig'?" Student: /p - i - g/
Blending Sounds Lesson: Guide: "What word is /p - i - g/?" Student: "pig"
These are done as purely auditory exercise. But why? Our ultimate goal is to help the child connect the speech sounds to letters, we don’t need to keep the letters secret.
What I’m proposing, and what I believe the research supports, is that using letters builds a better neural connection. This means the student will learn faster, and the connection will be stronger.
There is nothing harmful about letter-less sound games, please continue doing them, especially for the student’s independent follow-up work.
The Spiral Theory
Instead of thinking of these skills in a linear fashion, learning skills in a defined sequence, and not proceeding until the student has mastered content, I encourage you to think of them in a spiral, where later lessons will will help the student build mastery in earlier lessons when you “circle back.”
The student does not proceed to the next stage until they have mastered the previous skill.
In the spiral model, the student does not need to master the skill before proceeding, because we will constantly be revisiting it.
In the spiral model, we are going to be connecting speech and print in a variety of ways, directly and indirectly, connecting kinesthetic, visual, and auditory modes of learning simultaneously.
Phonemic Awareness with Letters
These lessons are identical to the ones above, but with a crucial difference, the guide is going to use letters.
Initial Sounds Lesson: The guide may first present a figurine of a pig or an image of a pig. She has the Moveable Alphabet letters PIG. Guide: "What is the first sound in 'pig'?" She slides her finger under the letters as she says "pig." Student: Pointing to the first letter as he says the sound: /p/
Segmenting Sounds Lesson: The guide may first present a figurine of a pig or an image of a pig. She has the Moveable Alphabet letters PIG. Guide: "What are all of the sounds in 'pig'?" She slides her finger under the letters as she says "pig." Student: Pointing to each letter as he says the sounds: /p - i - g/
Blending Sounds Lesson: She has the Moveable Alphabet letters PIG. Guide: "If this is /p - i - g/, what is this?" She points to each letter as she says the sounds, then she pushes the letters close to each other. Student: Pointing to each letter as he says the sounds: /p - i - g/, pig.
Now, to be clear, in these “Sound Games” the student is not being quizzed on which letter represents /p/. These are not reading or spelling exercises, they are phonemic awareness exercises. The child does not need to remember the sound-symbol correspondences himself because in all of these exercises the guide is pointing to the letter and saying the sound (or vice versa). In reading and spelling, the child needs to know those sound-symbol correspondences independently.
This is a wuzzy distinction, and you might ask “Isn’t the student going to learn their letters this way?” I say: Yeah! Probably! Isn’t that great!? By the time you introduce the Sandpaper Letters, the student will already be halfway there!
The major benefit to using letters is the indirect preparation and the reduced cognitive load, especially for longer words, consonant blends, and more complicated manipulation.
After the student is aware of the phonemes in words, you can begin formally connecting those sounds to letter-symbols.
In my lesson book I call this lesson “Sound to Symbol,” because at the elementary level, I recommend using a pen and paper instead of the Sandpaper Letters. No matter what material you use, the purpose is the same: explicitly connect one phoneme to its letter correspondence and learn how to write the letter.
Write a Word
The Moveable Alphabet lets the child practice spelling/writing without the difficulty of manipulating a pen and paper. It is an irreplaceable tool for students who do not have their fine motor skills sufficiently developed to write in long hand, but it is not strictly necessary for elementary students.
You can begin writing phonetically (with or without the Moveable Alphabet) after just a handful of sound-letter correspondences have been introduced. As the child learns more of these, they will gain more proficiency in writing independently.
And to wrap it all up: While you’re working on Sound-to-Symbol lessons and Write a Word lessons, you will simultaneously be practicing phonemic awareness using letters!
I hope this answered the question and cleared up confusion. If it didn’t, drop a comment below!
Have a nice day,