When my oldest started at a Montessori school for Kindergarten, I noticed all the kids who had attended preschool there were already reading. My children since have gone there for preschool as well, and are able to read beginner books at age 4, and advance pretty rapidly after that with some practice.
My youngest son is eager to read on his own (he just turned 4), and asked me to buy him some sandpaper letters so he can practice on school breaks as well. So, I thought I’d share with you how to use them, in case you have some eager pre-readers at home as well!
Children can begin working on this as soon as they have the attention span and interest. A likely time is soon after their 3rd birthday, although kids vary greatly! Don’t push them too hard as it will make this less fun, just a few minutes a day on a consistent basis will provide the best progress. And, don’t expect them to read instantly, just make it fun and anticipate that many kids will be reading sometime in their 4th year. (I have one highly gifted son who was almost 5 when he started reading independently, so it took him almost 2 years… so it’s not about smarts, they just have to get interested and ready!)
First thing to know is, in the Montessori system children are not taught the letter names until later in the process. You will never hear them singing the alphabet song, for example. Instead, letters are always identified by their sound, which is one of the big reasons these kids are able to sound out words at a younger age. (This leads to some funny conversations, like my son telling me “I couldn’t work on sandpaper letters today, because the mmmmm was missing”.)
When you use the sounds try to minimize the “uh” sound at the end, just say the letter sound – so “t” should be a sharp “t t t” sound, not a “tuh”. Start with the more common consonants, and with letters that tend to begin words – so B, C, R, S and T might be some good early ones. In general vowels come after consonants and you should use a “short” vowel sound (a as in hat, e as in bet, i as in hit, o as in hot, u as in hut).
You will need 2 things – a set of sandpaper letters (here is the set I purchased on Amazon.com) and a small tray or plate with some loose sand on it – enough that the child can draw the letter they are working on in the sand.
To use the sandpaper letters, first identify a few you will focus on (1 or 2 in the beginning, children may be able to cover 3 or 4 once they are comfortable with many sounds).
Set the first letter in front of the child and next to the sand tray. Tell them the sound it makes, and trace the letter with your finger in the way you would write it (so do the strokes in the correct order for writing). The child should then repeat the sound and trace the letter. Once they have done this a few times they then try and draw the strokes in the sand tray. If they don’t like it or are ready to move to the next letter a quick smoothing of the sand gets it ready for the next try.
The lower case letters are the ones they will see most often in books, etc – so I would suggest starting with those the first couple of lessons. Once they understand what they are doing, bring out both the upper and lower case of a letter when you work on it, so they understand both have the same sound and they learn to draw both.
See the post on “Pre-Reading: Next Lessons” for the next steps on teaching your little one to read!