The Montessori Movable Alphabet: What it is and how to use it

All children learn and grow at their own pace while in early education. Because some children progress faster than their peers, the Montessori education model uses tools such as the movable alphabet to help all children continue to progress at their own pace. Learning to read and write are critical skills.

The Montessori Movable Alphabet is a wooden alphabet used to teach children how to read, write, and spell. It allows children to learn these skills at their pace and before they have the motor skills needed to use a pencil, rather than waiting for the curriculum to say they are ready.

There are many ways to use a movable alphabet to help children learn more about and progress in their language skills. The Montessori Movable Alphabet is a perfect tool to allow children to advance in their education even if their hands are not ready to use a pencil.

What is the Montessori Movable Alphabet?

The Montessori Movable Alphabet is a useful tool that is typically used in a Montessori learning environment. It is used to teach children how to read, spell, and write.

The Montessori Movable Alphabet contains several copies of the alphabet constructed out of wood. These letters are stored in a wooden box that has compartments for each letter to be sorted in alphabetical order. Consonants are usually colored red while vowels are blue.

This learning tool is founded on the idea that children can learn to read and spell earlier than most schools begin teaching them to. In other words, kids can read and spell words before they even have the fine motor skills to use a pencil, pen, or another writing utensil to write them.

Use of the Montessori Movable Alphabet prepares children to write before the two skills of reading and writing. Because children learn to read first, they are better prepared to learn how to write when they are ready.

This learning tool also allows children to increase their knowledge of the alphabet. It also increases their written language skills as well. In addition to its basic uses, the Montessori Movable Alphabet can be used as a “learning extension” that teachers can use to increase language competency in their students. The Movable Alphabet is very versatile in its uses and is actually one of the most diverse materials used in the Montessori Curriculum.

Children in a Montessori learning environment begin using the movable alphabet between the ages of four and six. It is a crucial part of Montessori’s preschool learning model.

In some cases, the movable alphabet is a child’s first experience with written language. Before this point, children primarily communicate with their voices. Even before children are ready to start spelling with the movable alphabet, they can hold the letters and memorize their shapes.

Another purpose of the movable alphabet is for children to start symbolizing their thoughts in a physical form. This prepares them to start constructing words, sentences, and phrases with a writing utensil. Before children get to this point, they start with individual letters and eventually move onto constructing single words.

How to Use The Montessori Alphabet

When teaching children the movable alphabet, teachers use different exercises at different stages in the child’s learning and development.

The first exercise children complete with the Montessori Movable Alphabet is sorting the letters alphabetically. Once a child becomes familiar with the alphabet and the sounds of each letter, they can move onto more complex exercises. Learn how to introduce children to the alphabet as well as some of these more complicated exercises below!

Introducing Children to the Movable Alphabet

Invite the child to use the alphabet by setting the open box in front of them, the lid stored underneath the box. Ask the child to find the letters that correspond with different sounds.

Using other Montessori learning tools during this process can be helpful. Sandpaper letters teach children how to identify letters by tracing them with their fingers. The same is then repeated for the movable alphabet letters. The child should continue to practice finding and identifying the letters until they are confident with the movable alphabet.

After the exercise is complete, have the child put the letters back in the box. Have them put the letters back in alphabetical order, working left to right.

Three Letter Words

Once a child has learned to identify letters they can begin to form three-letter words. Like all Montessori exercises, the child should be invited to participate in the exercise. The exercise should only begin once they have shown an interest in participating.

Set the open box with the lid underneath it in front of the child. Start by suggesting a simple, three-letter word for them to spell. Show the child a picture of the word as well as its correct spelling. Although this will eventually be phased out, it allows them to connect words with objects and ideas.

The child should be asked what sounds they hear when the word is said. For example, ask them what sounds they hear when you say the word “dog.” As you repeat the word for them, emphasize the first sound. They will then choose the letter they think best represents that sound from the box. Repeat this process for each letter in the word.

Although it is appropriate to assist children struggling with this exercise, be careful not to do the work for them. Rather, assist them by emphasizing the sound of letters they are struggling with.

After you complete a three-letter word, you should move on to another one. For each word, you should not read the words because this is just a word-building exercise. After the child completes their exercise, the letters should be returned to the box as described in the previous exercise. This can increase the child’s organizational and sorting skills as well!

Short Phrases & Short Stories

Once a child has established a vocabulary of words to spell, they can move on to this exercise. Rather than forming individual words, they will be constructing short phrases. Use picture cards to help teach children this exercise as well.

After the child can form several phrases, they can begin learning about how to structure sentences. A skill that will prepare them for the next exercise, forming stories. Ask the child to create a story with their words. If a child needs assistance, you can use picture cards again.

Once the child has completed the exercise, have them sort the letters back into the box alphabetically.

Signs a Child is Ready to Use the Movable Alphabet

You will need to be observant to notice when the child is ready to use the movable alphabet. Children are typically about 3.5 years old or older when they are ready to begin to use and learn using a movable alphabet. At the very least, they should be able to recognize 3-4 consonant sounds and one vowel sound to begin using this learning tool.

Prerequisites for using the movable alphabet include being able to analyze words and recognize the sounds that different letters make. This is because they will need to be able to reorganize the words using graphic symbols (the wooden letters) for the sounds in the word.

Even without those prerequisites being met, a child may still be ready to start working with a movable alphabet if their interest level is high and they are familiar with at least half of the 26 letters and at least 2-3 vowels. With this level, you’ll need to be sure to help the child use words that can be spelled with their limited knowledge of letters.

Children will be ready to use the movable alphabet once they begin recognizing the sounds of letters. This can be manifested by the mimicking or repeating of sounds. This shows that they can associate sounds with specific letters and may be ready to form words.

Of course, the decision is ultimately up to the parents and teachers of the child to determine when they are ready. As mentioned previously, each of us learns and grows at our own pace. A child should never be held back if they are ready to learn with a movable alphabet before the “proper” or “typical” age.

Here are a few other tips that may help in deciding if your child is ready for a movable alphabet or not:

  • They know the letters of the alphabet.
  • They know the phonetic sounds of each letter (and even some phonemes).
  • They have the ability to sound out and even read short phonetic words. (Just because they don’t do it all the time, doesn’t mean they aren’t able to. A child could be fully capable of doing this, but only do it when they feel like it. If this is the case, they still have this ability.)
  • They show an interest in the material, or movable alphabet when they are presented with it. (This may be one of the best indicators that a child is ready. If they are ready for this new material, they are more likely to show interest in it and want to use this tool. On the other hand, if it is too advanced or too simple, the child won’t show as much interest in the materials.)

How to Have a Supportive Learning Environment

Children love to learn, especially when they are in a supportive learning environment. The difference from typical learning environments is that the teacher is not in charge of the learning experience. The child leads the learning, and as the name denotes, the teacher supports.

Although traditional schooling sets the pace at which children should learn, the Montessori learning model emphasizes children learning at their own pace. Children will naturally spend more time on some concepts and less on others. This will allow them to feel more confident in their learning and therefore master the subjects easier.

Always allow the child to dictate their own pace of learning. If a child is forced to go faster or slower than they need to learn, it may harm their progress and they may even lose interest in learning. Having the teaching and learning process be “child-led” can be a bit scary and unfamiliar at first, but it is both necessary and beneficial to their overall learning.

Allowing children to be autonomous in their learning is critical. If they are allowed to be independent in leading the process and learning at their own pace, they are more likely to maintain interest in the task. This can actually help them learn faster. Teaching children in this way may also help them become lifelong learners.

Do not pressure your child to use the Montessori Movable Alphabet or even to learn how to do anything in particular. If they show interest in it, then you move forward with working on that particular skill. A fundamental aspect of the Montessori learning model is letting children progress as they want and need. Rather than forcing the child to learn what the standard curriculum says they should be learning, Montessori teaching meets them where they are at.

Instead of pressuring them to learn, provide them with plenty of opportunities to do so. These do not all need to be guided learning opportunities. When children are in an environment where they are encouraged to follow their own interests, they learn a significant amount on their own.

Parents and teachers can assist children in learning by answering their questions; however, the exploring ad experimentation should be done by the children themselves. This teaches children an important skill that they will use throughout their life. A supportive learning environment teaches children to figure things out on their own.

Current education curriculums focus on controlling how, what, and when children learn. This dictated learning environment does not emphasize personal exploration or individual growth. It creates an educational environment that is “one size fits all.”

The Montessori learning model recognizes that no two children are the same and will therefore learn differently too. It is important for children to explore and learn about the world on their own and in their own way. By giving them a space in which to do so, they can learn in the way that is best for them.

As you introduce the Montessori movable alphabet to your children, remember these principles. Always start by inviting them to participate and only continue if they consent to do so. This will lead to a learning experience that is more beneficial to them and less stressful for you.

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Stacy Jones

When I became a foster mother, I started researching different parenting and education ideas. Learning about the Montessori Method has been intriguing and fascinating, and I have enjoyed watching the little ones in my life learn and grow from incorporating Montessori elements into our family's lifestyle. Montessori For Today was started to provide answers to my own questions, which will hopefully become a great resource for others to learn about the Montessori Method, Montessori Schools, and how you can incorporate elements of Montessori into your own home and lifestyle.

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