Joyful Literacy Learning the Montessori Way

How can children delight in learning to read and write? Here’s a glimpse into the ingenious interactive activities Dr. Maria Montessori developed to teach children the sounds and signs of language.

In the bright and animated classrooms of Boulder Montessori School you can often hear children eagerly playing the game “I Spy” as they search for an object that might, for example, “begin with ‘sh.’” “It’s the sheep!” is the jubilant reply. Lively songs and rhymes reinforce the ability to hear a word as a set of phonemes blending together, the basic building blocks of spoken and written words.

Advancing to the next level, Boulder Montessori School students connect a phonetic sound with the symbol (or letter) that represents it in written form. Dr. Maria Montessori created a specific hands-on activity to help children make these essential connections between sound and symbol at an early age: sandpaper letter cut outs mounted on paper cards.

Photo 5.1 - Sandpaper letters





Sand Between the Fingers

Sandpaper letters introduce the alphabet in a visual, tactile, and auditory way. Tracing the rough letters with a finger while hearing the teacher slowly say the phonetic sound (for example, “huh,” rather than name of the letter “aitch”) provides a child with more sensory input than just seeing the visual shape of the letter. Working on his own, he repeats the tracing motion while saying the sound of the letter. Lower case letters are presented first because they are encountered more often than capital letters while reading (for example, there are only four capital letters in this paragraph).

To extend the use of the sandpaper letters, learners also draw letters in a tray of sand. The only tools necessary are two fingers, which are also used to trace sandpaper letters and will later hold a pencil. The letters drawn in sand are easily shaken away so mistakes are not permanent.

Another favorite activity involves collecting objects from around the classroom that begin with each sandpaper letter sound. In the photo (below on the right side) children found a mat, a map, and a marker for the “m” as well as objects that begin with the other three letters.

Photo 5.2 - Writing





At Boulder Montessori School, the next step in working with sandpaper letters leads to blending phonemes into words. For instance, using the four letters “a,” “m,” “h,” and “t,” the teacher slides “m” and “a” together, to make “ma.” Adding the “t” at the end creates “mat.” Other words that are made from these letters are “hat,” “ham,” and “tam.” This word building is applied to loose letters of the moveable alphabet as described in last week’s blog “Igniting Creativity.” Students can express themselves by composing words (as we would with Scrabble tiles) while other activities prepare them for actual writing with pencil and paper.

Putting Pencil to Paper

Before attempting to write letters on paper, other activities prepare fine muscles in the hand to control a pencil. Lightness of touch is developed in the “Practical Life” activities that require careful handling of glass and other delicate objects. Drawing with crayons or painting helps build hand strength. Many Montessori materials, such as cylinders with knobs and puzzle pieces, position the hand in the same way as a pencil grasp. These favorite works are repeated with pleasure and make early writing something children love to repeat.

Photo 5.3 - Cylinders






A traditional Montessori “work” which is a child’s first introduction to pencils is a set of pink metal stencils topped with a blue inset piece. As pictured in the photo below, this activity coaxes children to either draw inside the pink frame or around the outside of the blue inset. In this “work,” the colorful pencils and variety of geometric shapes of the insets entice the children to learn proper pencil grip and pencil control while practicing the straight and curved lines that they will later use to form letters.

Photo 5.4-Letters





Once children show interest in writing, perhaps by writing letters in their art or asking to write their name, there are many activities available to them for practicing letters and words. Many of these “works” involve pictures with labels, which indirectly support word recognition as well as writing. The color tablets from the “Sensorial” area can be matched to color names then written in small booklets. Upper case letters are also introduced once writing sentences and names create the need. After experiencing successes in writing, both through structured exercises and by freely writing words or letters, children feel pride and self-confidence as future writers.

Photo 5.5-Writing





-Written by Patty West; edited by Dana L.

-Photos by Boulder Montessori School teachers

Don’t miss Boulder Montessori School’s special parent education night this week! Gain insights into the Montessori education and Montessori parenting at this fascinating and informative free event open to the public. You’ll have an opportunity to see the Boulder Montessori School in person, meet school administrators, and have your questions answered.

Event: Parenting Your Independent Child

When: Thursday, January 29, 2015
7:00-8:00 pm

Where: Boulder Montessori School
3300 Redstone Rd.
Boulder, CO 80305

Be sure to RSVP to Amy at (303) 494-5814 or email





Boulder Montessori School is a nonprofit, nondenominational independent school founded in 1973 offering outstanding toddler, preschool, and summer programs serving children 18 months to six years old. One of the leading and longest-serving Montessori preschools in Boulder, it is nationally accredited by the American Montessori Society (AMS) and the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).

Boulder Montessori School’s dedicated, highly qualified teachers are all American Montessori Society (AMS) or Association Montessori Internationale (AMI) certified.

Applications are accepted year-round, a variety of scheduling options and lunch from the on-site kitchen are offered, and scholarships and full-day summer programs are available.

Address: 3300 Redstone Rd.
Boulder, CO 80305


Phone: (303) 494-5814