Phonics versus “Look Say” or “Whole Word” method in teaching reading and writing.  2

The English language is based upon 26 individual letter sounds or “phonemes”. Their are combinations of the letters that when combined create new sounds of course. Reading and writing English was traditionally taught using a phonetic approach. This means, children would be taught the sound to say each time they looked at a symbol (eg h or t). The beauty of this phonetic system of learning to read and write is that power is given to the child to then use this knowledge of individual phonics to decode any word they encounter. Essentially, the words and vocabulary you can acquire when you have a strong knowledge of phonics is potentially endless. Children are able to decode unfamiliar words by remembering the phoneme that matches each letter in the word. The Montessori method teaches reading and writing using this phonetic system. 

The other method of teaching children to read and write that has become popular in the USA is the “Look Say” method. This was introduced and championed by John Dewey, (the same man who brought us the Dewey Decimal System that we use to catalogue books in our libraries).

The “Look Say” method is an approach that teaches children to read and recognise whole words. For example, a child may be shown the word “cat” on a flash card and is told,  “This says cat”. The child, over time, then learns that when they see the symbol (cat), they are to say the word “cat”. Essentially, the Look Say method treats the English language as if it were Chinese. The Chinese written language is a Logographic language, meaning there are thousands of detailed symbols that represent individual words. The failure is however, that the English language is supposed to be a phonetic script. When we fail to teach children phonics properly, and if we teach them using the whole word approach, they are required to memorise thousands and thousands of words by rote and are incapable of decoding new words they come across independently. Instead of their brain having to remember only approximately 26 letters and their matching phonemes, children who are taught the Look Say method have to use their memory space to remember each and every word as a symbol. 

This can also have the effect of drastically reducing a child’s vocabulary because they have no way of decoding new words they have not been explicitly taught to recognise. 

Many educators in America blame the widespread use of the Look Say method in American schools as the reason behind the increasingly declining literacy and numeracy rates in the USA. 

Written language has always been a tool for human kind to express their thoughts and record their beliefs and history. The phonetic approach to reading and writing enables children to have the power to use language to express their own ideas, expand their vocabulary and read new words independently. 

{MATERIALS} The Sandpaper Letters 0

The Sandpaper Letters are, the alphabet cut out of fine sandpaper and mounted on a strong backing. The vowels are mounted on a pale blue background and the consonants on a pale pink background.

This material is designed to help children learn the phonetic sounds of each letter, as this is the way the teacher introduces them. The Phoenicians, many centuries ago, discovered that they could represent each of the sounds of language with a symbol. This discovery meant that any word could be represented by a few symbols. There would be no need to have a new symbol invented to represent every word and idea. The written language would not be such a difficult task of memorization. They could figure out new words, as it would be made up of symbols already known. Therefore, today new words are easier to decode as long as you know how to sound out words.

In Montessori the sounds of letters are taught before the child is introduced to the names of letters. If the sounds of letters are isolated then there is less confusion. That is why we teach the sounds of each letter first, before we teach the names of the letters. When the child has learnt the sounds of all the letters they then can move onto what is called the Pink Boxes, these have objects that are spelt using three lettered phonetic words, which are built using the moveable alphabet. This is then developed into reading three lettered phonetic words. When they have mastered this level they then move onto the blue level, which is 4-5 lettered phonetic words.

 The letters are taught by hearing the sounds, seeing the representation in the form of a letter and by feeling the way it is written as they feel the letters with their fingers.

It is always important when you are showing a child how to feel the letter that they feel it in the way it is written, as a motor pattern should be learned correctly the first time. Children need to hear sounds in all the parts of the words; therefore they need to hear the sound of a letter they are learning in different parts of the word. When children practice these exercises, they will begin to realize the sequence of sounds in words.

The Sandpaper Letters are taught in what is called a ‘Three Period Lesson.”

 Two letters are chosen that are contrasting in shape and in sound. They are introduced to the child, by the adult tracing the letter with their two forefingers and saying the sound it makes, the child copies, and the lesson continues on. This is shown in full at,  “I Am Montessori” online. This way of teaching helps the child to remember the letters by their sounds, this then enables them to form words. Children also enjoy the one on one learning and when they have learnt some of the letters can go back and practice by themselves.  It is beneficial to have some small objects that have the letter they are sounding out in them; this helps them to associate the sound of the letter with an actual object. This also helps them to enjoy practicing the letters by themselves, placing the objects on the appropriate letters. Sandpaper Letters is one of the best way for children to learn the alphabet, they can learn it at their own pace, and the technique of teaching them, lets you know if they understand and remember what they are learning, and if you need to repeat lessons to help them to remember.


{MATERIALS} The Noun and Verb Introduction Solids (Grammar Symbols) 0

This picture represents the grammar symbols of the noun and the Verb. You will usually find this piece of material in a 3-6 room on the Language shelves.

The black pyramid stands for the Noun.  The pyramid is one of the first human structures, it is black, and this stands for carbon, which was believed to be the first mineral discovered by humans. 

Give your child the concepts of nouns by telling them it is the names of animals, places, persons and things. They can observe items in your home and place a black pyramid to show that they are nouns.

The Verb shape is that of the sun, which gives us life, red also symbolises life as in blood. The verb gives life to the sentence. You roll the red ball to show that it means action and movement. Say a sentence out loud and ask your child to tell you the word when you should roll the ball.


You can purchase this equipment online at: