In the Montessori Children’s House program, students learn letter sounds before the letter names. For example, they learn that the sound of “d” is “duh,” not “dee” and the sound of “b” is “buh,” not “bee.” (See our blog post about Language in the Children’s House for more information.) Spelling is not the focus during the Children’s House years because the focus is on children hearing and learning the letter sounds rather than recognizing the letter names.
By using the Moveable Alphabet, children are able to put different letter sounds together to form a word (long before they have the hand strength necessary to hold a pencil). When a young child is asked to form the word “photo” with the Moveable Alphabet, she sounds out how she hears the word, letter by letter.
“Fuh”, “oh”, “tuh”, “oh”.
She would likely place out Moveable Alphabet letters like so:
While the word is spelled incorrectly, it is phonetically correct. This “spelling” is age-appropriate for a student in the Children’s House.
Later, once students have a firm grasp of letter sounds and have associated the letter names with these sounds, we work to introduce phonograms, which are when you put two sounds together to make a new sound (think, ee, ea, y, e-e all make the sound “ee”). With this work, which often begins during the Children’s House and continues into Lower Elementary, students become aware that there are options in spelling and become conscious of how to spell words when writing.
Once the child begins to internalize the phonograms, we can begin to explore the complexities of the English language. (Unlike Dr. Montessori’s native language of Italian, English is not a phonetic language; there are so many exceptions to every rule!) We practice reading “sight words” and finding “rule breakers.” This feeds the interest of the Lower Elementary student, who naturally begins to show an interest in how to correctly spell words.
Spelling is reinforced through extensive reading. The more a child reads, the more they will be exposed to spelling patterns. As a result, children are able to edit their work to identify words that don’t “look” right in context and begin to self-correct. In addition, children use a variety of strategies to determine the correct spelling of a work. Things like “have a go,” where the child will write a word that is misspelled, then write it again to see if it is correctly spelled, and if not try again until they get it right. Another strategy children may use to spell longer words is to “chunk” the word into single syllable pieces. As they move to Upper Elementary, children are exposed to Latin roots, which helps them understand the spellings of many English words.
Keep in mind that even with more emphasis on spelling in Elementary, guides will not correct students’ spelling while writing rough drafts of reports or stories. We allow the children to focus on developing their skills of self-expression. The expression of the idea and the flow of creativity is more important than the limiting, halting prospect of getting every word right. Corrections are made during the editing stage of the writing process – whether individually, with a peer, or with the assistance of a guide. As children begin to create more polished work to share with others, such as the letters to pen pals shown above, they are more internally motivated to edit and correct their spelling.
Lower Elementary students keep their own personal spelling dictionaries, in which they can write words they want to remember how to spell. It allows the children to help themselves! It also teaches the very basic and beginning steps of learning how to use a dictionary. But most importantly, the words the student put into their personal dictionaries have meaning to them.
Just as with all other areas of the curriculum, the Montessori approach to spelling is rich, interdisciplinary, and meaningful.
For more on what you can do at home to support this work, take a look at this blog from How We Montessori.
Margaret Jarrell has a long history with Greenspring Montessori School and she currently provides Administrative Support. Margaret taught for more than a decade, most recently for five years in our own Lower Elementary Program, prior to taking on the role of Director of Admissions. In 2015, she, her husband, and her newborn daughter moved to Florida after her husband received a wonderful employment opportunity. We were so sad to see her go, so eventually, we worked out a way for Margaret to work part-time remotely. She now turns her considerable expertise to support administrative staff, guides, parents, and prospective families. Learn more about Margaret.