So, you've done tons of sound games and you're starting into the sandpaper letters with one of your 3-year-olds. It's your first lesson so you choose two pink letters and one blue letter all with letters that are really visually and phonetically distinct (like s, m, and i). You get to the second period and the child is interested. You end the lesson while he feels successful and excited and free him to repeat the work. Well done!
Now, it's a day or two later. You're ready to give him another lesson. But this time, and forever after, you choose one pink letter (preferably one that you already showed him), one blue letter, and ONE GREEN sandpaper letter.
Yes, that's right, ladies and gentlemen! You can and should introduce phonograms right away when you teach any letter sound! Why? Because to the child, a phonogram is just another symbol associated with a sound. The developing brain does not see it as two things put together; a phonogram is just one new thing. It's us grown-ups that get all caught up in the "see how you take two sounds and put them together to make a new sound" thing. That is such an adult-mind thing to do! Don't fall into that let's-make-everything-wicked-complicated adult-brain trap. The child's mind is different from ours, that's why they can learn this effortlessly (assuming they can hear the sounds in our language, hence the prerequisite for sound game experience).
I know that this may not be the way you were trained and we all trust and adore our trainers, right? As we should! However, in this one particular area, I suggest you rely on the teachings of two other amazing Montessori teacher trainers: Muriel Dwyer and Lynn Lawrence.
Muriel Dwyer's book, A Path to the Exploration of Any Language, revolutionized the Montessori approach to teaching British English. She was the first native English-speaking Montessorian to not only figure out how to apply Montessori's pedagogy to our convoluted English language but also to test that approach and then publish it for the benefit of us all. So, if you do nothing else, read her very short and concise book.
If you're still wanting more, check out Lynn Lawrence's Montessori Read and Write. Among her many incredible contributions to the Montessori movement to date, Ms. Lawrence was the director of Montessori teacher training in London for many years. So she took Ms. Dwyer's strong foundation and built another level on it.
What you'll read in those books is how children move from recognizing the individual sounds in their language to associating a symbol with each of those sounds to linking those symbols together to build words to decoding linked-letters into words. Or, in plain English, how children learn to read.
So let's go back to your 3-year-old student. Many months have gone by (he may be four by now) and he has practiced with most of the pink, blue, and green sandpaper letters. He's also done an extraordinary amount of practical life work (to prepare his logical mind) and spoken language lessons (to teach him how to express thoughts). He's also played lots of sounds games and you sometimes hear him repeating sounds/words/rhymes as he goes about his business. So what comes next?
Once your child knows the sounds of most of the pink, blue, AND green sandpaper letters and can hear the beginning, middle, and ending sounds in words, it's time to introduce the movable alphabet. But, once again, you don't want to use just the pink and blue letters. You can include a phonogram alphabet right alongside the traditional movable alphabet.
Why do we need both? First of all, you can't write all the words in English unless you have most of the single letters AND all of the 15 key sounds of English. Yes, it is true that some children can build the phonograms on their own from the single alphabet letters. It is also true that many children can't. Keep in mind that whenever we introduce a new material/give a new presentation, we are trying to add just enough challenge to keep the work interesting but not so much that we make it frustrating. For many children, finding the sounds they need from among all the options in the alphabet box is a very big challenge. If we also ask them to find the two individual letters they need to "write" a phonogram, we might just frustrate the pants off 'em! It's just one too many steps. They're expression gets interrupted. They can't independently find what they need and they end up coming over to you to ask for help or just putting the alphabet away or [gasp] leaving the alphabet in disarray and just walking away.
Remember that the ultimate point of the alphabets is to enable children to express themselves in writing long before their hand can control a pencil. But if we give them the traditional alphabet before they know all of the sounds (including the key sounds) those letters make, they can't be free to write what they want. So, what ends up happening? We limit them to writing the names of carefully pre-selected, pictures or objects. Then, alphabet work turns into a chore instead of a joy.
So I'm not really talking materials here. I'm talking about vigilantly protecting the child's developing spirit. We want him to know that he CAN write what HE is inspired to write. We want him to delight in creating stories or notes or lists of HIS favorite things. How can that happen if he doesn't know the phonograms (aka, he wasn't taught the green sandpaper letters) and isn't given the phonograms as alphabet "letters" from which to choose?
So, don't believe me. Try this for yourself and see what happens. Then, add a comment below so we can all benefit from your experience. You can also read our blog post about Independence with the Movable Alphabet for more ideas on inspiring killer language work.