Later in the week I’ll be posting about how Tabitha is learning her letters, but before I do that I thought it would be interesting to review all the skills she has mastered to get to this point. There seems to be a lot of pressure nowadays for two year olds to learn their alphabet, but I deliberately avoided teaching Aaron and Tabitha any letters until they were at least three years old. At such a young age, there are so many better things for them to focus on (although I have never discouraged an interest) that will prepare them thoroughly for learning abstract concepts like letters and numerals. One of the things I love about Montessori is how it breaks down complex skills into small, logical steps. Right from the beginning, the activities build skills that will eventually help children to be ready for reading and writing.
Writing is a very physical action, so many practical life activities are great for promoting pre-writing skills. Whole hand activities are designed to strengthen all the muscles in the hand. From about 9 months babies can transfer objects such as balls, fruit or pinecones from one container to another. From about 18 months toddlers can learn to transfer water with a baster or sponge, and transfer objects with tongs.
Wrist turning activities help the child to develop wrist strength and flexibility. These activities include dry and wet pouring, sweeping, jars and lids, turning with a spatula, nuts and bolts and keys and padlocks.
As their fine motor skills improve, toddlers and preschoolers can work on activities that promote a pincer grip or three finger grasp similar to that used when writing. Transferring with spoons, pipettes and tweezers, pegging and peg puzzles all encourage children to use a three finger grasp.
Another important physical skill needed for writing is hand-eye coordination. Threading and posting are both excellent activities for developing this and can be easily adapted for different abilities and age groups.
In Montessori settings, children use metal insets to develop pencil control by tracing shapes in a counter-clockwise direction, similar to writing letters. This is one part of the pre-writing scope and sequence that we haven’t done, partly because the insets are expensive and partly because the children have always had free access to art supplies and seem to get plenty of mark-making practice that way. Drawing around peg puzzle pieces, drawing with stencils, making marks in a salt/sand tray, tracing over a wipe-clean workbook and tracing over chalk with a wet paintbrush are all good alternative activities.
Reading involves more cognitive and sensorial skills, such as visual and auditory discrimination. Matching, patterning, sequencing and sorting activities help to develop vocabulary, encourage visual perception and a sense of left to right movement. There are endless possibilities and variations using toys, household objects, commercial games and puzzles, or some of the many free printable materials available online.
Toddlers can use sound cylinders and musical bells or other instruments to develop their auditory discrimination, whilst preschoolers often enjoy playing “I spy” or rhyming games. Ideally, children will be familiar with the initial sounds of words long before they are introduced to the letters.
With so many skills to learn before they are ready to read and write, there is no rush to teach letters! By focusing on practical life and sensorial activities first, children will master many of the necessary skills and will find learning to write and then read much easier than being thrown in at the deep end.
If you want to find out more, there is a very interesting series of posts over at Vibrant Wanderings which covers early Montessori language skills:
Early Math and Language Skills Part 1
Early Math and Language Skills Part 2
Early Math and Language Skills: Pre Writing
Early Math and Language Skills: Pre Reading