Teach from Speech to Print

Listen to the post.

By the age of six, children know around 15,000 words; that’s the same number of words Shakespeare used in all of his collected works.

Let’s take a moment to really appreciate this achievement. Each of these words is just a different combination of 44 individual sounds with such subtle differences as ‘pen’ and ‘pin’. The child is able to listen to a river of breath, bent into hisses and hums by the mouth and throat, break that stream into discrete words, and assign each of those words a meaning. 

Not only that, they can repeat the entire process in reverse. The child can have a thought, recall the words, construct a grammatical sentence, and produce a stream of complex sound sequences. 

This dance between speaker and listener repeats an uncountable number of times during a person’s lifetime.

What does that have to do with reading?

When children learn to read and write, they are not learning the language; they already know it. In learning to read and write, they are learning a new way of transmitting and receiving that language. 

When we teach from sound to print, we are starting with what the child already knows: the spoken language.

Is this really Montessori?

Most readers of this blog will have heard that Maria Montessori taught writing before reading. I want to really clarify what that means. It is not merely that she taught children how to hold a pencil and form letters. The original Montessori Method of reading taught spelling first.⁠1 

She taught children to turn speech into print

“Writing on the other hand, [...], means that the child translates sounds materially into signs.” (Montessori [1912], 2000, p. 200) 
“Once interest has been aroused, that is, when the children grasp the principle that each sound of the spoken language can be represented by a symbol, they advance on their own.” (Montessori [1912], 2000, p. 219) 

Only then did the children experience “an explosion of reading.”

“It may be asked what is the average time needed for a child to learn how to read. Experience has shown us that, beginning from the moment when a child writes, it takes an average of fifteen days to pass from this lower form of activity, writing, to the higher one of reading. Accuracy in reading, however, is almost always attained more slowly than that in writing. In most cases a child will write very well but read only fairly so.” (Montessori [1912], 2000, p. 235) 

This is exactly what The Rhyme and Reason Reading Program does, with a few carefully chosen accommodations for English.

So how is this done?

At a high level, this is the logic of a speech to print reading program:

  • Sensitize the child to the sounds of English through phonemic awareness exercises. The core skills to develop are segmenting and blending.
  • Connect each of the phonemes of English to a letter-symbol. Maria Montessori did this with Sandpaper Letters.
  • Have the child write words from speech. Maria Montessori did this with the Moveable Alphabet, but you can use a pencil and paper if the fine motor skills are sufficiently developed.
  • The child reads back what they’ve written.

With repeated practice, the child will be able to recognize spelling patterns in everyday writing (not just their own transcriptions) and can read from print.

speech to print

You might have some objections. This method of reading instruction is different, like really different, from conventional phonics programs.

Ok, but how will the child learn to read? This is all just spelling and writing. 😒

Writing systems are a code. Codes are reversible. Reading and spelling are mirror images of one another, not separate, unrelated skills. Reading is decoding, spelling is encoding. These skills are complementary and transferrable.⁠2 A study by Ehri and Wilce in 1987 demonstrated that learning to segment and spell (encode) produced higher scores on reading tests than the same amount of time spent only learning how to blend and read (decode).⁠3 

This is weird. I want to keep teaching the “normal way,” from print to speech. 🙃

One of the principles of Montessori education is to move from concrete to abstract. When we start from speech, we are starting with real language and moving to arbitrary symbols that represent that language.

Not only that, but for print-to-sound decoding in English, you are you are starting with our infamously inconsistent writing system. There are 280-400 different letter combinations that we write with that map to 44 phonemes. 

I like to imagine this as an office organization problem. 

For speech to print, you start with 44 folders that represent the phonemes of English. These never change, and the student already knows them. As the student learns spelling patterns, those folders get filled up. For example, the /j/ folder will contain J, G and -DGE and a few exotic spellings.

For print to speech, you don’t know how many folders you get, but it’s somewhere between 280-400. Each folder represents a spelling pattern in English. As the student learns more spelling patterns, they get more folders and each folder can contain 1-20 different sounds. The A_E, EA, EI, AI, AE, AY, AIGH, EIGH folders all contain the sound /ae/, but that’s not all. The EA folder contains /e/, /ae/, /ee/, /a/. This repeats for every one of those 280+ folders. 

A final note

All proficient spellers are proficient readers.⁠4 Learning to spell is highly correlated with reading outcomes. This is because spelling requires recall memory (memory without a prompt), whereas reading relies on recognition memory (memory with a prompt). The extra effort of learning spelling patterns helps you easily recognize those same patterns when reading. There are readers who can’t spell, but there are no spellers who can’t read 

The Rhyme and Reason Reading Program

I created The Rhyme and Reason Reading Program for my own classroom. It draws on both the original Montessori method and modern evidence-based instruction. If you found the blog post insightful, then the full program will give you explicit instruction on how to teach with this method.

1 Read more about this in The Discovery of the Child.

2 Reading Reform Foundation Newsletter No. 49, p. 21

3 Ehri and Wilce, “Does Learning to Spell Help Beginners Learn to Read Words?”

4 Bruck and Waters, “Effects of Reading Skill on Component Spelling Skills.”

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