To reiterate from PART 1: My top three tips for promoting literacy and language skills at home are…
- Talk and listen!
- Read together!
- Promote language as holistic!
To expand briefly:
Talking and listening is an incredibly powerful way of helping your child to develop language skills. It allows you to model all sorts of conversational and semantic skills, including tone, cadence, inflection and context. You can also use these conversations to introduce new words to your child in a relevant manner, helping your little one to develop a broader and deeper vocabulary.
Reading together is so simple yet so effective. It not only introduces language but helps your child to develop a positive relationship with words through that special shared experience. Having good quality books in your home environment helps your child to build the relationship between spoken and written language. It’s ideal to have books where your child can reach them independently as well as taking the time to read them together.
Promoting language as holistic means finding opportunities to explore words and meaning as they apply to other subjects. Rather than viewing words as a separate subject of their own – like “English” – a young child should view literacy as a perfectly natural and intertwined part of every learning experience! So if your child spontaneously shows interest in a dragonfly that’s fluttering through your garden then you can use that moment to introduce the nouns, verbs and adjectives that might relate to that little creature. There are so many of these natural, embedded language experiences each day and they can be more impactful than planned activities because they are relevant to your child’s natural curiosity!
Teaching language lessons at home:
There are also lots of ways to integrate more ‘formal’ language experiences, but it is important to be balanced and positive in your approach. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to “teach”. Remember that your child has an incredibly powerful absorbent mind, so a lot of language learning will happen very naturally. Try to ignore the ‘peer pressure’ of friends (or commercials!) making you think that other children are reading or writing fluently in early childhood. The vast majority of primary schools have absolutely no expectations that a child will be reading or writing by the time they enter their first year of school. So any ‘formal’ reading or writing skills acquired during early childhood are an added bonus, but they are not a prerequisite for school and they are not “the norm” for most children. By all means create lessons, arrange environments and promote experiences but don’t feel that you need to pressure your child.
Part 2: Language activities
Early language games
I spy games:
It's an oldie but a goodie! Play "I Spy" with your child but use phonetic initial sounds. You can play this spontaneously or with a structured activity. On a walk to the park you might spontaneously say "I spy something beginning with p" for 'plant' or "Something beginning with c" as you walk past a cat. At home you might more deliberately gather some items from around your home for the game - a sock, a book, a pencil, a teddy and a glass (just make sure you name the objects first so there's no room for confusion - that is, say "this is a teddy" so your child doesn't call it a "bear"). Then say "I spy with my little eye something beginning with g".
Rhyming is such a useful language skill and it helps to train the ear to listen for 'end sounds' (which can be harder to identify than beginning sounds). You can rhyme spontaneously through songs and stories. You can also arrange activities such as rhyme matching with objects (shown below). In our example below we have three pairs - a glass star and a car, a toy fox and a box, a toy cat and a toy rat. We name all the objects first then place one of each pair into the bowl. The child then finds each partner! Little objects tend to fascinate children so they are a great way of drawing in your child's interest! You can also use cards (either purchased or home made) to sort by rhyming sounds. In the second picture below we have a pile of 'at' sounds and a pile of 'ug' sounds with cards to sort (cat, rat, mat, hat, bat and slug, jug, mug, rug, bug).
There is no end to the possibilities for card games that involve language. Your child doesn't necessarily have to be reading the words - you can do the reading while the verbal language washes over your child and they absorb the sight of the written words. The card games can focus on vocabulary and nomenclature - not so much on 'reading' or 'letter sounds', but just on introducing new words and concepts. For instance, in the photos below we are matching baby animals to their parent while introducing the terms associated with these lift stages - calf and cow, puppy and dog, duckling and duck etc.
Teaching Letter Sounds
A Montessori classroom will use 'Sandpaper Letters' (aka Tactile Letters) to initially introduce letter symbols. The use of the tactile element helps to promote a muscular memory, as well as a visual recognition, of the letter shapes. So it is ideal if you can replicate this at home. You may be willing to invest in Sandpaper Letters or you might choose to make your own! You can do this by printing large letters from your computer (ideally onto card!) and then making them 'tactile' with sandpaper or felt. If you have the patience then you can actually cut pieces of sandpaper or felt into the letter shapes and secure them. If you'd like a quicker version you can place glue over the top of each letter and pour on some sand (or polenta or glitter - anything that will create a rougher/different texture from the card). You might need to fix these up regularly, as they won't be as long lasting as commercially produced Sandpaper Letters, but they can still get the job done!
Once you have your Letters you can use Three Period Lessons to introduce each letter sound and associate that sound with its symbol! Remember that the Montessori approach is to teach PHONETIC SOUNDS first. That is, 'a' for 'apple' not 'a' for 'angel'.
To do this choose a pair of letters at a time that contrast in appearance and sound. For instance, b and d are a bad couple because they look too similar. Similarly, s and f aren't an ideal match because they sound similar phonetically.
Once you have two contrasting letters following these steps (using 's' and 'p' for example):
Place one letter in front of the child. Trace the shape with your fingers as you say its sound. Repetition is helpful here! Your child should trace the letter and can try the sound too.
"This is s. S. This is s."
Remove that letter and place the second letter in front of your child. Repeat the process.
"This is p. P. This is p."
Place both letters in front of your child."Point to s" (wait for your child to point). "Point to p" (wait for your child to point).
Move the letters around to change their position and ask again.
"Point to p" (wait for your child to point)
"Point to s" (wait for your child to point)
If your child consistently identifies them correctly, move to Period 3.
If your child makes errors when identifying the letters then return to Period 1.
Place one letter in front of your child. Ask,
"What is this?"
Wait for your child to articulate the phonetic sound for this letter. Then remove it and place the other letter in front of your child and again ask,
"What is this?"
Wait for your child to answer.
You may then like to conclude by placing both letters on the table and saying "Today we learned s and f." You might then like to ask your child "Shall we play a game with these letters?" (such as the initial sound games outlined below) or you might say "I'll show you where we can put these letters on the shelf so you can choose them again another time".
Polenta / sand tray
As soon as your child starts exploring the letters you can introduce a sand/polenta tray. It helps to reinforce the recognition of the letters while also promoting pre-writing skills. Place your tactile letters close to a tray/box holding fine sand or polenta. (You can place that tray/box onto a larger tray if you want to contain spills!). The child traces the shape of the letter then recreates those movements in the sand.
The example here actually shows numerals, but it is the same set up for letters!
Using Letter Sounds for Initial Sound Games
Initial sound games are great fun and help to reinforce the sounds associated with letter symbols. You can play these with your child or set them up as independent explorations.
Start with one letter at a time. Place your tactile letter (or a printed letter) on a tray with a collection of objects (or printed pictures) that begin with that sound. So you might choose 's' first and collect a sock, sponge, scissors, spoon etc. This just helps your child to relate the sound to the letter symbol.
Then you can progress to initial sounds sorting. Start with 2 or 3 letters at a time and arrange sorting activities where your child can place objects alongside their 'initial sound' letter. As your child masters this you can introduce more and more letters at a time or even progress to matching one object to each letter of the alphabet!
You can use items found at home (sock, spoon etc) or you can collect little 'objects'. If you have trouble finding these you can print your own pictures (websites like Pixabay.com allow you to use free images!).
Using letter sounds for word-building
Once a child is comfortable with letter sounds they can start 'word-building'. This construction tends to happen before deconstruction (reading) and before writing. So your child may not be able to read yet and may not be able to actually write letters, but he or she may be able to make their own words if they have access to the right materials!
To engage in word building your child needs a material that has multiples of each letters in a form that can be moved around and reused. In a Montessori classroom we use the Moveable Alphabet. You may be willing to invest in one (there are cardboard versions available that are cheaper than the wooden sets, though they don't last as long), or you might prefer to make your own. You can make your own either by printing cards or with materials from a shop (eg. magnetic letters, threading letters etc).
Whether you’re making your own or buying them, remember that plain, consistent colours are ideal to minimize the ‘distractions’. Montessori Moveable Alphabets are usually red and blue or pink and blue, with the consonants in one colour and the vowels in the other. Highly contrasting colours are used to differentiate between the two (eg. pink and blue) and are a deliberate ‘point of interest’ to show the difference between consonants and vowels. This is particularly helpful because short phonetic words tend to follow the pattern of consonant, vowel, consonant – so the colours help narrow the field down when a child is searching for a letter. If you’re making your own you can stick to these colour schemes – if you’re buying them then it’s ideal if you can find a set with one colour for consonants and the other for vowels, but the next best thing would be to have all letters in the same colour (not a different colour for each letter, or several colours).
The advantage of buying a set, rather than making them, is that a physical ‘letter’ can be held to give a tactile feeling of the letter shape. A printed letter card is only a visual cue, without that additional feeling.
The cardboard version of the Moveable Alphabet showing contrasting colours for consonants/vowels and the 3-dimensional (not printed) letters to offer a tactile sensation as well as a visual.
If you make your own letters you can present them in a sorting box, such as a craft box purchased from Spotlight/Lincraft, or a fishing tackle box purchased from a hardware store.
Place this on the shelf and allow your child to experiment! He/she might build words spontaneously from personal creativity, or you might also like to provide objects/pictures for inspiration. If your child knows the letters c,a,t,d,o,g then place a toy cat and a toy dog next to the Moveable Alphabet to let him/her try making those words!
Using letter sounds for reading
Once your child is familiar with lots of letters, and has succeeded with some word building, you might like to try reading!
Again you can make your own materials here. Remember to use phonetic words, since your child knows letters by phonetic sound, and start short! Nouns are also a logical place to start because they are most concrete (that is, it's easier to sound out the word 'cat' because it's a familiar noun rather than sounding out 'cut' which is a slightly more abstract verb).
You can, again, collect objects or make cards with phonetic nouns. Make a word card for each object/picture and let your child 'sound out' the words to match them.
You could, for instance, print (and laminate if you can!) a set of cards to match little toys or printed pictures for phonetic nouns like;
cat, dog, peg, hat, tap, bat, rat, log, cup
Once the shorter words have been mastered a child can try longer words like;
rock, sock, picnic, clock, camel, frog, duck, magnet, kennel, piglet
Don't be alarmed if your child engages in some non-linear strategies, such as 'guessing', 'whole word recognition' or going from the 'initial sound'. These are problem-solving skills and reading skills. As adults we don't read by sounding out a word letter by letter, so it's not a bad thing if your child sometimes implements other strategies such as instantly recognising a familiar word or using a few known letters to 'guess' the word.
Your child might also enjoy playing the “Noun Game” and “Verb Game”.
The Noun Game consists of a series of cards with phonetic nouns written on them. Your child sounds them out then uses blue-tack to fix the label to the relevant object in the house. It's like a treasure hunt!
Short Phonetic Nouns around the house:
tap, mop, mat, pen, cup,
Longer phonetic nouns:
blanket, sink, desk,
The Verb Game again utilises cards but this time they state phonetic actions! To play together you can hold up a card for your child to read, or your child can play independently by picking the cards. Your child sounds out the letters and performs the corresponding action!
Short Phonetic Verbs:
run, hop, kiss, tap, hiss, sit
Longer phonetic verbs:
stomp, blink, wink, swim, clap, drink, snap/click (fingers), stand, jump
After your child masters the reading of single words you can start introducing phrases and sentences. Initially your child could build phrases or sentences, by putting together an article, adjective, noun and verb (each on a different little card). You can start with phrases first, like "big pig" and "wet frog", before introducing the other grammatical elements needed to build it into a full sentence, "A big pig" then "A big pig grunts". After your child is building sentences then he/she can read sentences that you've prepared.
It is important to remember that the possibilities are endless! Don't get too caught up on official "Montessori" lessons - there is no need to follow every lesson or use official materials (unless you are formally homeschooling your child with the Montessori curriculum). Just take some inspiration from Montessori language principles - start with phonetics, involve muscular memory and movement whenever possible, allow for repetition, let word building come before reading and provide indirect preparation for writing. From there be creative! Invent your own games, be spontaneous and - above all else - let language be fun and natural! Don't turn it into a chore or a laborious lesson, let your child explore the joy and excitement of language!
A few tips and extra resources!
Where to find ‘objects’ for language games:
Little objects and miniatures for language activities can be found in all sorts of places. Once you start looking you will be amazed at how regularly you find something perfect!
“Two dollar shops” (like Cheap as Chips, Ned’s and so forth) often have little objects at very affordable prices. Toy stores may also have doll’s house furniture and accessories that are suitable. Another surprisingly useful resource is erasers! Lots of stationery shops (or department stores like Kmart) have novelty erasers that are shaped like different objects.
What materials do you need to purchase?
Potentially none! You could absolutely create a rich, inspiring language environment without spending a single dollar.
If you would like to purchase materials – the most fundamental Montessori Language materials would be the Sandpaper Letters and the Moveable Alphabet. These can be repurposed for a range of experiences so they can be a very worthwhile activity.
To buy Montessori materials try Think Education for the most reliable quality, or consider cheaper sources like Educating Kids or Amazon or secondhand materials from eBay.
There are also many other language materials and games that can be purchased. Whenever you consider an item just ask yourself whether you could make it yourself, and then weigh up the financial cost of the purchase versus the time-cost of preparing the material yourself.
Blogs / online resources with more literacy ideas:
Free Montessori printables for making your own cards: