Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Memory and Reading

I think I have already mentioned somewhere in this blog that I, admittedly, do not have the best memory, but I do remember quite a few things about Bea when she came to the school last summer. She had lived in New York since birth until then (she was 5); she had a powerful, strong voice that's declamation-ready; and she had, much to my envy, a very good memory. Once, she recited a whole story about Moses and his sister Miriam to me and when I asked her mom about it, the mom said that she read that Moses story to Bea for three consecutive nights; on the fourth night, Bea said that she will tell her mom the story and she went on reciting the whole story, almost word for word, almost in toto, and in the exact same tone and diction her mother used.

While her memory is amazing and amusing, it posed some real issues concerning Bea's reading. What happens is that she relies on her remembering how the words were formed and said (by someone else before) instead of blending the sounds of each individual letter in a phonetic word and discovering for herself what the words say and convey. The tendency is for her to get confused. So, because she has encountered the word "nap" before, she knows how to read n-a-p as nap, but when you give her p-a-n, she'll still say it's nap.

Reading is a skill, and just as any other skill, learning how to read requires a set of sub-skills first. These reading sub-skills were discussed in detail in a book by Carmen Mcguiness and Geoffrey Mcguiness called Reading Reflex: The Foolproof Phono- Graphix Method for Teaching Your Child to Read, and I want to focus on two here.

One is that we have to know the codes, which are actually the letters. Children first experience sounds, the spoken language through the people around them. Sitting them down and showing them the codes/letters which represent these sounds is an obvious prerequisite. In a Montessori classroom, there is more emphasis on letter sounds (like a in apple, buh as in bat, guh as in gum-- so we don't use ice cream for the letter i) than on letter names (like how we sing the normal alphabet song with the letter a pronounced as 'ey'/long a--and then bee, cee, dee, ee, ef, gee, eych--that's for the letter h--I'm just amusing myself here). In class, we don't usually sing the usual alphabet song (the one that ends with "Now I know my a, b, c..."); we sing SSRW's ABC Song (which focuses on the sounds and goes "A, a, apple. Buh, buh, ball. Cuh, cuh, cat, etc.). Below are the letters and the words that begins with their sounds (these are the ones in the song):

a - apple; b - ball; c - cat; d - doll; e - egg;
f - fan; g - goat; h - hand; i - inchworm; j - jam;
k - kite; l - lamb; m - monkey; n - noodles; o - octopus;
p - poodles; q - quilt; r - rail; s - sun; t - tail;
u - umbrella; v - vase; w - wagon; x - box (ks); y - yarn; z - zoo.

Here's Nigo, 2.5, with the Sandpaper Letter b and the Alphabet Bucket. Inside
the bucket are little replicas of objects that begin with the letter sound b (buh).
The children listen for the buh sound in the beginning of every word. It also helps the
children see that the code/letter b represents a sound, the sound they hear when they
hear ball or boat or butterfly. It helps them connect the symbol and the sound--so the
symbols and the sounds are not taught in isolation. This activity also builds vocabulary.

In this picture of Ram and Javi, both 3, you can really see Ram, making
the sound for the letter a. The children can work in pairs and they can
play a little guessing game. One will hide an object in the bucket, the other
will guess what the hidden object is.

Here's Matteo, 4, working with two buckets and doing a sorting activity.
Any good Montessori material must have a Control of Error. In this case,
auditory discrimination/harmony serves as Control of Error. The teacher
can say,"This is a rock. Can you say rock. Do you hear guh or rrr?"

Here's Micah, 2.5, working with the Sandpaper Letter and making the letter o
on the sandbox. The Sandpaper Letters are made with sandpaper (thus the name)
and they are made that way so the the children can feel the code/letter and establish
a certain muscle memory. Obviously, this is also preparation for writing.

Bea, because she has excellent memory, knew all the letter sounds and their symbols. That's also why dyslexia was thankfully ruled out.

So we go to another sub-skill; and I found, after working more with Bea, that this was where her challenge lied. Another sub-skill is looking at the codes from left to right (at least as far as reading in English is concerned). Training the eyes and the mind to go from left to right is so critical that in fact, beginning Montessori Language presentations involve patterning and sequencing all of which are done from left to right. Practical Life activities such as pouring, spoon or tong transfers are also done from left to right. Most Montessori presentations are precise and purposeful (how they hold the Knobbed Cylinders, with the pincher/three-finger grip, is actually indirect preparation for writing).

This was the reading sub-skill that Bea was not able to master. She got used to and caught up with how they were taught how to read in her old school: They had the children remember ending sound combinations like -ag, -an, -at; and just add and change up beginning sounds to form different words like b + ag = bag; r + ag = rag, and so on.

So here's what I did:
I printed a mat like this, laminated it, and used it with the Movable Alphabets.
Blue letters, which are consonants, go inside the blue boxes; red letters, which
are the vowels, go inside the red box--that's Control of Error. Bea can take any
blue and red letter from the box, and place them over the mats, she will then
blend from left to right (1, 2, and then 3--so they're numbered). Of course, she'll
end up making non-sense words like yiy, wiy, zic, etc. It's fun and funny and I like
it because then I'm certain that she is not just memorizing how the letters were
put together and how they were read. By putting random c-v-c letters together,
Bea would encounter "words" she couldn't have heard before.

Here's Matti, 4, working with the mat and the Movable Alphabet. Some of
the materials I make are grand like The Bead Stairs with Clay or
Ordinal Numbers in the Barn. Some are as simple as this mat. But
regardless of the scale, when you make a material to address a child's
learning need, you will see that if it works, the benefit is profound.
That's why the role of a teacher as an observer is important. As Maria
Montessori said, "The teacher must derive not only the capacity, but the desire,
to observe natural phenomena. The teacher must understand and feel
her position of observer: the activity must lie in the phenomenon."
Also, "One who desires to be a teacher must have an interest in
humanity that connects the observer more closely than that which
joins the biologist or zoologist to nature."

While some issues may be resolved using the traditional Montessori materials,
sometimes, a little variation is necessary. Before I made this mat, I used just
the Movable Alphabets. But Bea was still having some trouble, so there had to be
an Isolation of Difficulty (another Montessori principle). I also wanted her to work
more independently, without me having to point at the letters with my finger or a
pencil, reminding her to go left to right all the time.

After a few sessions, here's Bea, pointing to the letters of the word,
moving from left to right, and blending. Since her memory is good,
sight words (such as the, with, have, etc. and some verbs, adjectives,
and adverbs) were easy for her to remember. Now that the school is over
(for this part of the world), Bea is now reading phonics story books that have
c-v-c, c-v-c-c, s/l/r-blends, and sight words. This is why I never hesitate
to make a material, no matter how small or big, even if it's just for one child.


  1. What a great post - very informative. I'll be sure to refer to it when I begin our letter materials with James. Thanks for sharing!

  2. I really enjoyed this post! Thank you!

  3. What a great activity for getting the left to right thing. I have considered making sliders but I like this mat better. I wonder how I could make it for ccvc/cvcc words and make sure it worked.....?

  4. Hi Annicles, about ccvc/cvcc words, from my experience, if the children have enough practice blending cvc phonetic words, cvcc comes easy and we usually just need the Movable Alphabet or the word cards/picture cards we have in class. No more mats--I think it will be a bit tricky to use the mats with cvcc because they might end up getting words like rihq or luwy--might be unnatural to read (though still fun)?

    So when I begin presenting cvcc words, I just use the Movable Alphabet first. I put the first 3 letters first like "pan" then I can say what that word means and then I'll go, "Let's try putting 't'. Pan-t, pan-t, PANT. That's a different word now." And then I can go ahead and say what it means.

    With the ccvc (l/r/s-blends), I usually start with the SSRW Ferris Wheel Song (the one for blends). You can listen to an excerpt of it here (it's number 7):

    Beginning blends (l/r/s-blends) are trickier, right? Because up until this point, they have been doing consonant-vowel as the beginning of words. So I just want the children to experience through song first and experience saying/singing the blends first so they go tra, tre, tri, tro, tru, etc.

  5. Hi Mars! SO packed with information. I have to admit I feel a bit rusty. I have been going over your post and researching Montessori once again. I really appreciate your posts.

  6. Really enjoyed this post. Very informative. The mats are a great idea. I am going to try them with my younger son.
    Also, checked out the post that you had written about the clay bead stairs and am quite sure that that will quickly become a favorite of my sons, too.
    As for your letter sound buckets with the language objects...did you make those or did you purchase them?
    We have a similar work, but love the loo of yours.
    I have grabbed you button for my blog.
    Really can't wait to read more of your blog...what I have read so far is excellent.

  7. Hi, great post!
    You have been featured on The Montessori Goldmine, please pop over and have a look, if you are not happy with the post please let me know, I will happily remove it. If you are happy, please help me spread the word, help yourself to a badge and tell all your friends. Thanks,

  8. Hi Mars, I love what you've done to your blog! Very nice!

  9. Really would love to know where you got those buckets from and where can i purchase those little items from?!


  10. The buckets came from a local supplier here in the Philippines--a local maker of Montessori materials. You may call them at +6322325134 to inquire.

    The little items are bought from all around and over, just collected over the years. I heard that there's a website where you can order little items online. I have yet to find out and check out the website though.

  11. Hi, earlier I asked where we could get an object for each letter of the alphabet and I was so obsessed with doing this activity for my child, that i have been searching all day. Here are some links I found helpful; -alpahabet tubes, but you may purchase just the objects at - type "alphabet objects"

    hope this helps

  12. Hi,

    I hope my posts are not annoying now, but I found another great option for your great alphabet bucket ideas. They are magnetic foam objects from and

  13. Oh thank you so much, Ayana! These are very much appreciated. :)

  14. What a great post, so informative and I love the idea with the mats. These are really great activities for children.

  15. Thank you! I learn something new. I also want to applaud you for your passion & dedication as a teacher! You are a gem!

  16. Wow! Can't wait for my little one to do this too!(:

  17. I'm so excited for your little one, too, Kaity! I'm sure he'll enjoy Montessori! :-)

  18. Thank you, Noline and homeschoolsg! Your words are motivation for me. :-)

  19. I did this before, the cvc blending, with a student I tutored for reading. Though I must say my materials were pretty cheap back then. Great idea of letting the kids mix all the letters up and let them read it anyway. I'm actually thinking of doing this (again) for my little boy. You know I've been doing a lot of your projects at home already. Haha.
    My boy is 4 and I already taught him phonetics. I want to move forward with this and start with blending letters to make words. Thanks for another great idea. :)

    1. I'm excited for you and your little boy, Camille! To me, there's nothing quite like the sound (and sight) of a child learning to read--so I'm so excited that you'll get to experience that with your own child this summer. :)

      As I mentioned in our little Facebook exchange, I suggest starting blending two sounds first (a consonant and then a vowel). I found that that eases the child into reading more successfully. Do let me know how it works out for you. :)

      Have fun!

  20. Ang galing! i really like this post. It helps children to read at a very young age. It's best na tutukan talaga ang bata sa pagbabasa and start lang sa mga simple words para di confusing. =)

    1. I'm glad you liked this post, Mary Joy! It's true--it's a lot of going through the step-by-step, isolation of difficulty, and observing the child's pace. :-)

  21. I love the materials <3 I wonder if there are any Montessori shops in Manila? Oh how I miss teaching CVC! It's such a challenge at first, but it is also a major milestone once they decode those 3 letter words!

    1. Thank you, Jae! I haven't seen a Montessori store here in Manila, but I know of a supplier who provides for schools. :-)

      I do love guiding the children through CVC, too! It brings them such joy when they are successfully able to do the blends after much practice!