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Friday, July 30, 2010

The Movable Alphabet

The basic movable alphabet used in a Montessori classroom are flat plastic “cut-out” letters roughly corresponding to the sandpaper letters in size, shape and color (pink consonants, blue vowels). Children who know enough sounds can begin to use these to build words. A small word or two could be pieced together on a table and then copied if that is what the child wishes. Or if not, she can have a friend read it aloud, or even turn it into a read-and-do game; for example, “hop.” Longer words and sentences can be formed on a rug. As a child's skills grow, he begins to write creative stories or even messages to friends or family. Soon after he reaches this stage of competency, he ceases to need the movable alphabet.

“Alis! Come see what we made! A really long word! Can you read it to us?”
I go to see this very pink word so very long that they have placed it on a rug on the floor. This is what I see:


I dive in, pronouncing each sound in as rapid succession as I can.
“Is that what you were trying to write?” I ask. They are laughing.

“No? Do you know why this sounds so funny?” They shake their heads.

“I need some blue letters. Those blue letters let me open my mouth so I can let the sound out. The blue letters all have open-mouth sounds. Come with me.” And we walk over to the shelf where the movable alphabet tray resides.

“See these blue letters? They are very special. They are the first important sounds you made as a baby.” Now I am pointing to the letters in their trays as I say. “Back then you knew how important these sounds were when you said 'a-a-a-a-a!' or 'o-o-o-o-o!' or 'i-i-i-i-i!' or 'e-e-e-e-e!' or even 'u-u-u-u-u!' You were very smart as babies." Pointing at the letter a, I tell them. "When you said that loud 'a-a-a-a-a,' your loved ones heard you and came to see what was wrong. You knew these sounds were important when you were a baby. Don't forget to use these important sounds now."

"Pick your favorite open-mouth sound and take its letter back to your rug, See if you can make a word you can actually pronounce now that you have your favorite important blue letter.”


The terms consonant and vowel will be introduced at a later stage.


Children in a Montessori classroom begin to use the classroom's analytical tools for language, both auditory and verbal, at the age of three. Of course, these first-year children are at the very beginning of their school experience, and in any given classroom they will vary in both age (by a few months) and in interests. So the role of the directress involves piquing their curiosity and often waiting. Once the directress determines that a child is normalized, a child's own agenda has priority.

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