Montessori Was Ahead of Her Time - AGAIN!

Posted by Greg MacDonald on

 Literacy is like a braid of interwoven threads.  The braid begins with the intertwining threads of oral language and stories ... As children experiment with putting ideas on paper, a writing thread is intertwined as well.  As they move into reading, the threads of literacy begin to bond.  (Bear, Invernezzi, Templeton & Johnson, 2000)

Over a century ago, Maria Montessori made the unprecedented claim that (based upon her observations and research), children write before they read:

Experience has taught me to distinguish clearly between writing and reading, and has shown me that the two acts are not absolutely contemporaneous.  Contrary to the usually accepted idea, writing precedes reading.  (Montessori, 1912)

 Montessor’s conclusion would be echoed by other educators and researchers in the years to come:

 Although some authorities would debate the issue, it seems likely that the writing precedes the reading.  (Furness, 1964)
 The natural order is writing first, then reading what you have written.  To expect the child to read, as a first step, what someone else has written is backwards, an artificial imposition that denies the child an active role in the whole process.  Moreover, it takes all the fun out of it.  (Chomsky, 1971)
 The classic study of how very young children learn to read by writing was published by Delores Durkin in 1966, Children Who Read Early.  Virtually all of the 205 early readers that Durkin studied learned to print before they learned to read.  She called them “pencil and paper kids” whose parents answered lots of questions about sounds and spelling during their “interest binges” in early writing. The late Marie Clay, a giant in the twentieth century in the research and teaching of beginning reading, advised that even though the child is interested in books and having stories read to him, his earliest reading behaviors can best be observed by his teacher or parent in drawing and early writing. This sage advice predicted the power of phase observation in children’s early writing. Clay recommended that educators and parents capitalize upon the young child’s urge to write, pointing out that writing often comes first, before reading.  Decades of solid research that informs this book have confirmed that prediction.  (Gentry, 2010)

I think that when we talk of writing in this sense, we are really talking about the first manifestation of spelling.  In order to “write” a word, the child must compose letters in a particular order ... I would argue that this is spelling.  The children just happen to use a writing implement in most cases, so we call it writing

Montessori actually dispensed with this “implement” barrier to “writing” (the barrier being physical pencil control) and introduced cut-out letters (her Moveable Alphabet) with which children could compose (= spell) words.  Spelling, I think, is what she implied as she wrote about her early experiences with children who wrote before they could read, and this is important given recent discoveries in neuroscience and literacy research:

The directress pronounces very clearly a word; for example “mama,” brings out the sound of the very distinctly, repeating the sounds a number of times.  Almost always the little one with an impulsive movement seizes an m and places it upon the table.  The directress repeats “ma-ma”.  The child selects the a and places it near the m.  He then composes the other syllables very easily ... Once he has understood the mechanism of the game, the child goes forward by himself, and becomes intensely interested.  We may pronounce any word, taking care only that the child understands separately the letters of which is it composed.  He composes the new word, placing one after another, the signs corresponding to the sounds.

It is most interesting indeed to watch the child at this work.  Intensely attentive, he sits watching the box, moving his lips almost imperceptibly, and taking one by one the letters, rarely committing an error in spelling.  The movement of the lips reveals the fact that he repeats to himself an infinite number of times the words whose sounds he is translating into signs. (Montessori, 1912)

Italian is phonetically much more regular than English, so this ability to “rarely commit a spelling error” is understandable. Italian children must know approximately thirty-five letter combinations in order to correctly spell the twenty-five sounds of their language.  English children, however, must know over 1,000 letter combinations in order to correctly spell the approximately 44 sounds of their language. (Gentry, 2010) At first in English, more “errors” will likely occur as a result of this added complexity, and as the children record their thoughts via a process now called invented spelling.  Ultimately, if their efforts to acquire the power of literacy are fully supported, “errors” become uncommon, just as they are uncommon for literate Italians.

What is noticable in Montessori’s description of the process that took place in the early 1900’s is that (in the first part of the description) the teacher’s actions are reminiscent of the administration of an elementary school spelling test, where the teacher pronounces the words, and the children write the word.  It’s also interesting that Montessori speaks of the child composing the word, rather than writing it.  This may well be due to the fact that the child is using cut-out letters rather than a pencil.  However, at the conclusion of the quotation, she comments on the lack of spelling errors (not writing errors).  So it seems to me that this writing that Montessori states comes before reading is perhaps blurred with spelling in her mind.  Later in this same section of her book, she also notes:

The exercise, thus followed, associates the sound which is heard with the graphic sign which represents it, and lays a most solid foundation for accurate and perfect spelling.  (Montessori, 1912)

... Confirming, perhaps, that what Montessori is describing is more akin to spelling, rather than to writing.

What we know about our brains and language acquisition begins with the understanding that we are pre-wired to find regular patterns in our native tongue when we are infants.  A this early point in our lives, we absorb the basic sound vocabulary of our language, and we also determine the probabilities of certain sounds occurring in sequence.  Before our first birthday we know, for example, that the sounds /p/ and /b/ cannot follow one another to start a word.  (Gentry and Ouelette, 2018) 

As a species, we have been present on the planet long enough for this pre-wiring to occur. 

It appears, however, that our brains are not pre-wired for reading and writing/spelling.  There apparently has not been time for installation of the same sort of pre-wiring for finding the regular patterns in our written language:

The human brain recognizes the patterns of phonemes that make up the speech sounds of a particular language automatically.  The same is not true of spelling patterns.  We have to teach the child how to find the regular patterns within print.  (Gentry, 2006)

Indeed, neuroscientists are of the view that because that prewiring for understanding written language is not present in our brains, existing brain circuitry is re-tasked to enable each of us to acquire the ability to encode and decode written representations of our spoken language(s), that is, to spell and to read.  Gentry and Ouellette (2018) talk of parts of the brain being “recruited” for this task, culminating in what they refer to as a neurological reading circuit.

Dehaene wrote of this same idea over a decade ago:

The neuronal recycling hypothesis postulates that the visual system of a young reader specializes gradually ... If one could zoom down to the scale of single neurons or cortical columns, one would see a major upheaval in the neuronal microcode. According to the recycling view, each reading session leads to neuronal reconversion: some visual neurons, previously concerned with object or face recognition, are committed to letters ... In parallel, the neural code for spoken language is also in flux.  (Dehaene, 2010)

Humanity’s recently acquired ability to examine the living brain as it processes language has led to the inescapable conclusion that the development of literacy occurs along two parallel tracks within our brains.  Both tracks are intricately involved with the rise of our ability to spell and to read.  Furthermore, the exercise and development of both tracks from the earliest of ages is critical to literacy development.  Incredibly, what in the past appeared to be insolubly opposed and mutually-exclusive theories and practices have each been supported and vindicated.  The Phonics Method, and the Word Method have been reconciled.  Each of these approaches have their place, and for the most part, it is timing that defines their importance at different developmental stages.

We also now know that spelling is a critical piece of the literacy puzzle.  In fact, now that the light of neuroscience has illuminated the field of literacy, we find that the importance of spelling can hardly be overstated.  Spelling informs reading even more than reading informs spelling. 

We listen then talk first, then we write/spell, and then we read!

A properly developed and efficient brain circuit for literacy integrates numerous areas of the brain that are responsible for processing auditory input, and for programming uttered speech.  This network also engages brain areas that are responsible for processing various structural aspects of our written language. 

Listening, speaking, spelling, and reading share brain processes and stored representations.  Listening and spelling activities integrate the reading routes and associated brain regions and lead directly to the development of brain words.  Gentry, J. Richard & Ouellette, Gene (2018).

This is why spoken language and the development of as an extensive a spoken vocabulary as possible, as early in life as is possible, is critical to successful literacy acquisition. As our brains process the letters, syllables and morphemes that make up each word, there is a search for meaning. That meaning is found in our spoken vocabularies, as our brains match the outcome of written symbol analysis to words that we know.

... We flip the typical sequence for teaching on its head. Instead of exposing students to print and expecting them to magically become readers, we present words aurally first and then ask students to analyze the sounds they hear. We encourage students to then spell the word how they hear it or how they see it in their mind’s eye in self-directed attempts often referred to as “invented spelling”.  (Gentry& Ouellette, 2018)

It is important for children to hear the word that they are going to spell first.  Then, the children analyze the sounds in the word, and they represent them in print.  This analysis activates the reading/spelling circuits in their brains, something that rote memorization does not do. 

The children’s success in accurately representing words that they hear in printed form  is dependent upon the tools that they bring to the task.  If they have not yet learned the sound that each letter of the alphabet makes, then their invented spelling attempt will reflect this.  If they have a full repertoire of letter sounds at their disposal, but few digraphs and trigraphs, then their invented spelling will be better, but not correct. As their knowledge grows, and as new strategies are added to their toolbox (knowledge of etymologies, for example) their invented spelling inexorably moves towards correct spelling.

So Maria Montessori strikes again!

In our Montessori prepared environments, young children are first presented with a wealth of new spoken vocabulary, which they hear and pronounce.  Then, the alphabet and letter combinations (phonics) are introduced parallel to those less consistent “puzzle words” (word method), and all of this in a way that connects spoken language to its written symbols.  The Moveable Alphabet unleashes an avalanche of ‘invented spelling”, which is refined as more details are added to the child’s phonics knowledge, and as word structure (prefixes, suffixes, etymology etc.) are introduced.  This work towards total literacy then continues in the Montessori elementary, in Montessori adolescent programs, and as part of each individual’s adult life, as (for example) each person acquires new spoken vocabulary (associated with a new job, for example, or with a new interest), and learns to read and spell new words.

What humanity’s most recent discoveries about literacy acquisition tell us is required for optimum literacy acquisition has ALWAYS been there in Montessori prepared environments. Dr. Montessori’s approach to literacy acquisition is another testament to her genius, confirmed by contemporary neuroscience and literacy research.

In literacy, as in many other fields, we find that Montessori was ahead of her time!


Bear, Donald R., Invernizzi, Marcia, Templeton, Shane, & Johnston, Francine.  (2000).  Words Their Way: Word Study for Phonics, Vocabulary and Spelling Instruction.  Merril/Prentice Hall.  Columbus, Ohio

Chomsky, Carol  (1971).  Write First, Read Later.  Childhood Education, Vol 47.  Taylor and Francis Online.

Dehaene, Stanislas (2010). Reading in the Brain: The New Science of How We Read.  Viking/Penguin Books,  New York, NY

Furness, Edna (1964). Spelling for the Millions.  New American Library.  New York, N.Y.

Gentry, J. Richard, (2006)  Breaking the Code: The New Science of Beginning Writing and Reading.  Heinemann.  Portsmouth, New Hampshire

Gentry, J. Richard  (2010)Raising Confident Readers: How to Teach Your Child to Read and Write - From Baby to Age Seven  Hatchette Book Group, New York, NY

Gentry, J. Richard & Ouellette, Gene (2018).  Brainwords: How the Science of Reading Informs Teaching. Stenhouse Publishers. Portsmouth, New Hampshire

Montessori, Maria (1912) The Montessori Method.  Robert Bentley, Inc.  Cambridge, MA



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