You might be wondering how a child can learn to write before having learned to read first.
It has to do with the relative ease of encoding versus decoding.
The act of writing means expressing your own thoughts in written form. You already know your own thoughts because they come from within.
On the other hand, reading requires working towards the unknown. When words are written by another person, you can only understand the thought once you read the words.
Note that I'm talking about "writing" in terms of word building using a Montessori moveable alphabet, not handwriting with a pencil and paper!
There's a lot confusion about "writing before reading" amongst parents who are beginning to learn about Montessori methods of teaching the alphabet and reading. It's often misunderstood as meaning that children start handwriting before learning to read.
Although a child may have begun handwriting practice, the important pre-reading skills is the ability to encode words by putting sounds in a row to build words, not the ability to hold a pencil and form letters on paper!
Writing is an encoding process.
To write a word, your child needs to segment the word into its individual speech sounds, find the written symbols (letters) that represent those sounds and then build the word by putting the letters in a row.
Reading is a decoding process.
To read a word, your child needs to recall the speech sound that each letter represents, say each sound and blend them in the right order to hear the whole word and understand its meaning.
Writing comes first because it's much easier to encode words than it is to decode words.
In the beginning of learning to read, before decoding becomes automatic, this "sounding it out" process of pulling apart each word and putting it back together again is a lot more work than writing your own thoughts!
Most children will learn to read during the process of putting sounds in a row to build words.
When you first introduce the Montessori alphabet box, your child may simply enjoy putting letters in a row even if the "word" doesn't make any sense.
Children will realize that they can put sounds in a certain order to make a word when you model it.
This is followed by the realization that any words that are written can then be read!
It might happen soon after your child starts to work on word building or it might happen a few months later, but word building WILL naturally lead to reading.
A Montessori moveable alphabet bridges the gap for a child who knows some alphabet sounds but isn't yet developmentally ready for handwriting, meaning that the hand is not yet physically ready to form the letters of the word with a pencil on paper.
Using the cut out lowercase alphabet letters that are in a Montessori alphabet box, preschoolers can begin to "write" words while they continue to develop the pencil grip through fine motor activities that strengthen the hand and develop concentration for later handwriting.
How will you know when your preschool or kindergarten child is ready to start writing words with moveable alphabet letters?
Your preschooler doesn't need to have mastered all alphabet sounds before you show how to think of a word, hear the individual sounds and then put the Montessori moveable alphabet letters in a row to build it on a mat or table.
If you're not sure about your child's letter sound knowledge, then show your child the alphabet letters in no particular order.
Can your child recall and say the speech sound that each written symbol represents, for about half of the alphabet letters?
If yes, then it's probably time to introduce word building using a Montessori alphabet box. The reason I say "probably" is because their success with this pre-reading activity will also depend on having enough phonemic awareness to hear most of the sounds in a spoken word.
The Montessori moveable alphabet isn't intended to be used as a spelling activity!
Encourage your child to think of words to build and don't worry about correct spelling at this time.
You can expect that your child will build words phonetically (and might miss hearing some of the sounds in a spoken word) instead of using convention spelling. This is also called inventive spelling. It's part of the normal process of learning to write.
For example, it's completely normal for a 4 year old to think of the word "alligator" but build it as "algitr".
That's because preschool and kindergarten children are relying on their existing phonics knowledge and they still have more phonics to learn, and their phonemic awareness is still developing.
Sometimes preschoolers struggle to think of words to "write". Or, the word they want to write has many sounds and it will be very challenging for them at this stage to segment it and hear all of the sounds.
Many homeschooling families use prompts such as Montessori language objects or pictures representing short phonetic words. Some examples include mini replicas of a pig, cat, dog, net, web, rug, box, lid, bulb, nest and desk.
If your child is already totally comfortable with handwriting but not yet reading, then he or she probably won't be that interested in using a moveable alphabet. If that's the case, you can skip the moveable alphabet and instead encourage your child to write words to express his or her own ideas using a pencil and paper.
The more your child writes to develop encoding skills, whether that's with a pencil or using the Montessori moveable alphabet, the closer your child will get to discovering that they can sound out and read what they have written without you having to "teach reading".
Then the focus is on doing Montessori reading activities to offer your child opportunities to develop decoding skills and learn more advanced phonics so they are set up for success with reading decodable beginning reader books.
If you'd like to be guided through the entire 4-step process, check out The Playful Path to Reading. It's the Montessori reading program that will give you clarity, printable materials and support at each step along the way.