Why Knowing Sandpaper Letters Alone Doesn't Mean Your Child "Knows" Phonics

Why Knowing Sandpaper Letters Alone Doesn't Mean Your Child "Knows" Phonics

In Montessori the sandpaper letters are often taught before children move into writing with the moveable alphabet and learning to read. 

The sandpaper letters are pieces of sandpaper attached to a board. The child is taught to trace the letter and say its sound. In fact the letter is not introduced by its name but by its sound and when the sound is secure the letter is later introduced. After learning the basic blue backed and pink backed sandpaper letters Montessori has green backed sandpaper letters to teach digraphs (ch, sh, th) and graphemes.

This, along with other classic Montessori literacy activities, such as the moveable alphabet and the introduction of easy to sound out words for early readers, have gained Montessori a reputation for being a methodology that favours systematic phonics teaching (see Marshall's study here).

There are some other phonics skills our learners need to help them be ready to read and spell and break the literacy code. Lots of them are things we can work on incidentally with children while reading or talking to them in the course of everyday activities.

I am thankful for the work of Joy Alcock, a NZ literacy specialist, who speaks about these skills in her Teacher's Resource "Switch on to Spelling" for numbers 3 to 10 in the list below.

Phonological Awareness Skills  (from lowest skill to highest skill)

1) This one isn't strictly a phonological skill but it is really important. Children need to know how to match a sound to a symbol or a thing, for example, when they hear a roar they know it is the "sound" of a lion. This implicitly teaches the child that a sound matches to an object in a similar way to how the sound of a letter matches to a letter. 

2) Music skills. Skills such as matching the beat of music or tapping a rhythm are indicators of good sound processing. Children with ability in these skills are likely to have a good understanding of syllables and the order of sounds in them.  If you have the time you may be interested in Lundetrae and Thomson's research on Rhythm Production where they reference one study:

"Woodruff Carr et al. (2014) found that the children who were better able to synchronize or entrain to the external beat had significantly superior phonological processing (a task including compound word and syllable blending, sentence and syllable segmentation, rhyme awareness and production), auditory short-term memory (recalling sentences), and rapid naming ability (colours and objects) compared to their peers who were less able to synchronize to the beat." see full article here

3) Identify syllables.  I do this one a lot during incidental teaching, for example I will say a new vocabulary word and clap it out. I think I was on the trampoline with Mr 5 the other day and we were talking and I clapped out a new word!  Identifying syllables helps children sound out words and know the order in which the sounds come in a word.

4) Recognise Rhyme. Good rhyming books are helpful for this as children hear the rhyme and after a few readings can say the rhyming word. "Mr McCarthy went to the shed, but on the way he bumped his _______ " the child also learns skills of prediction too! 

5) Produce Rhyme. This is a harder skill than knowing there is a rhyming word. This activity could be one you do with a group of children. You could say a starting word and then see how many rhyming words you could come up with. If you are at home you could make it into a game with you and your child and see how many you could come up with. 

6) Identify Phonemes. Obviously we need children to know the starting sound in words but we also need them to be able to identify the end and middle sound of a word too. When I am doing moveable alphabet or similar sound activities with my son I occasionally point to the end or middle sound and say "the end or last sound of this word is /t/ "

7) Match sounds in words. This is the ability to match words that start or end with the same sound, for example, you could say "Which word has the same sound at the start as ball? Is it cat or banana?" Again this activity could be done with the moveable alphabet when doing pink level activities you could point at a word the child has written such as 'hat' and say what else starts with a /h/? The point here is that we want the child to take their specific knowledge of a sound which they may be taught with a few sounds and apply it to words in their wider vocabulary. 

8) Segment Sounds In words. I will say I have done this one so much that my son now uses it to emphasise he wants something! "Can I have a t/r/ea/t?"  Alongside this the ability to count the sounds is important, for example, 'wish' has 3 sounds while tent has 4 sounds.

9) Blending sounds in words is a harder skill which some children take a while to learn, however if they have the above skills secure they will get there! I say this as I am still working on this with my son currently and I need to be patient! Blending sounds is when a child sees the 3 letters b/a/t and put them together to say bat. 

10) Deleting and Substituting are quite hard skills because they involve manipulating sounds and being able to hold something in ones working memory. "What is banana without the /b/ ?" What word do I get if I change the /d/ in dish for a /w/ ? A similar activity can be done with syllables "What do I have left if I take away kin from pumpkin?" 


You may also be interested in my blog on  teaching phonics in a systematic way.



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