Spelling Comes Later
Montessori goes about many things differently.
It might not be what you initially expect, it might look different, but understanding the purpose, the intention, what children are gaining, makes things logical and intuitive.
Montessori gets a bad rap for not caring about spelling. First, we introduce children to writing before reading, which is just crazy, and then children get to write whatever they want however they want, without any correction or spelling tests. Aren’t there any rules?? Isn’t spelling important??
Let’s back up.
It’s true: we begin with writing, rather than reading. Writing is a more natural, simpler process.
We’ve been playing games with words since a child’s first days in a Montessori classroom. Let’s think of colors. If you’re wearing pink, raise your thumb. I’m thinking of a color that begins with “b” (that’s “buh,” if you’re wondering, not “bee”).
First, making categories, helping a child come up with a list of items that have something in common. Then, honing this skill — I’m thinking of a specific item, and this is a sound in it. Aha! Sounds! Words are composed of sounds.
Thanks to English, not all these sounds are audible, and some letters make more than one sound, or a different sound in combination. Remember this when we get to spelling.
“The mind is ready before the hand.”
We’ll introduce these simple sounds, such as “b,” via the Sandpaper Letters. Remember ‘“b?” Let’s think of words with “b.” Banana. Boy. Bell. Blue. Yep. Let’s look. This is what “b” looks like.
We introduce all the letters in this manner. When a child has a large collection of sounds under her belt, we’ll begin with the Moveable Alphabet.
We’ll play that familiar game. Let’s think of colors, or animals, or people in our family. I have a cat. What’s the first sound in Cat?? C. Here it is! I can find each of the sounds in cat, and lay out the appropriate letters. We can compose words while a child is still working on penmanship. The mind is ready before the hand.
Let’s go back to writing in English. The sound “ee” can be made myriad ways. Key, see, weird, please, just as a few examples. The initial goal of writing is joyful expression — I have this new amazing way to express myself!
When something is new, worrying about getting it just right, being corrected, stifles the creativity. Imagine a child writing a story with the Moveable Alphabet, stopping mid-thought to wonder how to spell a word. The flow has been dammed, creativity and imagination stopped with concern about getting it “right.” Have you ever been writing, feeling the words fill the page effortlessly, going straight from your mind to the page or the screen? In that moment, do you stop when you see those red squiggles indicating your flow was faster than your fingers? Do you stop to ensure you’ve gotten all the apostrophes in the right place, you’ve not forgotten any letters, or even whole words?
“We start with joyful expression”
This is not to say spelling isn’t important. Spelling is very important. There is a correct way to do things, and we want children to want to do things the right way, to know that vacuum has two u’s, the difference between they’re, there, and their, and all the hidden silent letters in English.
But we don’t start there. We start with joyful expression.
Really, spelling comes with fluency in reading. A child reads “the” enough times and we don’t need to show them how to write it. Occasionally, we need to give gentle reminders, “If you want to write ‘love,’ and you want other people to know what you’re thinking, this is how you write it.”
We also have several materials for spelling. Sandpaper Phonograms introduce two-letter combinations that come together to create a different sound, such as the “oa” in goat, or boat, or oak. Phonogram Booklets give children a chance to practice reading these letters in combination, becoming familiar with recognizing these combinations and identifying them as one sound.
Alternate Spelling Packets build on this knowledge, giving lists of words that are ever more options for making a selected sound. Remember the “ee” example? How about “s,” which is the sound in Cinderella, cent, and sent. How about “ie,” which can be “ee,” as in field, or “ie,” as in pie. How about believe, where that notorious “ee” sound is created not one but two ways, neither of which is the most common, “ee.”
We create cards for children of words they just need to memorize, Puzzle Words. Ocean, love, the. Puzzling, indeed.
And we expect children to start with spelling things correctly? Is your head spinning yet?
These unique spellings are intuited, memorized, logicked-through as a child practices reading all day, every day. As she reads signs and books and cards, as he reads lists of strange words that don’t follow these rules we’ve made to muddle our way through English, as she reads a word she says every day and doesn’t recognize it until the lightbulb goes off, so THAT’S how you write that! Huh.
Yes, spelling is important. But really, spelling only developed as literacy became widespread, after the printing press was invented and we needed common ways to write words, as we made this arbitrary cultural agreement, with our language influenced by Latin and French and German and every culture who ever set foot on those islands of the European Coast.
Humans have a much longer history of oral tradition, of sharing stories through generations, of recalling what you ate for lunch or what you did yesterday or how much fun your vacation was. We begin there with the children, sharing from your heart, mundane or profound, not worrying about spelling.
Spelling comes later.
Written by:Charlotte Wood