Montessori Monday: Word Building with the Large Moveable Alphabet
Our Montessori classroom is rich with language, from the casual conversations children enjoy between friends and teachers to the formal lessons in decoding, reading and writing. We understand that children's language acquisition is highly individualized, representing a complex combination of the quality and quantity of language they hear, the written text to which they are exposed, and their own personal development.
And yet, our language materials are quite simple: early materials introduce children to phonetic sounds. Later materials build upon those sounds to put together simple words. More advanced materials introduce more complicated words and structures, eventually leading to the full complement of grammar materials. We recognize two distinct strands in language development: reading and writing. Children often learn to read at different rates than they learn to write. They may be advanced in one area and struggling in another. How can this be? Simple: the process of reading includes matching symbols (the written letters) to sounds and combining those to understand meaning, while the process of writing, which begins with meaning and then unpacks it into segments of letters. Teachers observe each child carefully to identify his or her path toward language mastery, and offer lessons accordingly (although not always in the same order!)
The Large Moveable Alphabet is an early example of word-building, supporting the child as he or she begins the arduous tasks of deconstructing ideas into the individual letters than comprise their names. Children begin with accessible, three-letter phonetic words, sounding out each comprising part, identifying the letter in the box of moveable letters, and placing it in its appropriate place on the mat. It's common in early lessons to see children identify all three letters accurately, but place them out of order, or to miss the unique sound of the vowel and place only two letters. By beginning with just three letter words, children are able to see patterns in their own world-building: consonants often precede vowels and vowels are usually followed by a second consonant.
Children who engage with word-building in this way are often better prepared for the more advanced words, noticing, for example, that each word needs at least one vowel or, as is illustrated above, that complicated sounds can be made by using two consonants together. Building the words with the large alphabet pieces allows children to focus on the word rather than the formation of the letter shape with a pencil, so a child's understanding of word construction isn't limited by his or her fine motor control. As throughout our materials, even these alphabets focus on only the skill the child is learning, isolating that concept so that it can be fully mastered. And, like the other materials, the seemingly simple box of letters, in reality, is quite complexly designed. Montessori materials make complex concepts accessible through self-correcting, child-centered, elegantly designed didactic materials: the world, literally at the child's fingertips.