The Moveable Alphabet

A trainer once asked my classmates and me the following: “If you were on a deserted island and could only take two Montessori materials with you to support a child’s intellectual development, what would they be?”  We pondered, debated, and finally concluded that for math it would have to be the Golden Beads that represent the decimal system and for language it would be the Moveable Alphabet.

The Moveable Alphabet was developed by Dr. Montessori when she realized that children had the mental capacity to analyze the sounds in words way before they could synthesize them.  The former is what we do when we write, while the latter is how we read.  During a child’s first year in a Primary environment, we spend a lot of time playing Sound Games, which help children understand that words are composed of sounds.  Around their third birthday, we start introducing the Sandpaper Letters – individual letters cut out of sandpaper and glued on wooden boards – which is how children learn what sound each letter makes and how the letter is written. 

In a genuine Montessori environment, we NEVER refer to a letter by its name, because we are preparing the child to write and read.  Think about it: when you write or read the word “cat”, you are saying [c]-[a]-[t]… You are NOT reading “cee-ay-tee”!!  So why teach the names of the letters?  It’s a testament to children’s intelligence that they can learn to read in traditional environments where they have to be taught that “cee says [c]”.  Why confuse the poor children?

When a child writes a word with the Moveable Alphabet, he does so phonetically by analyzing the sounds he hears as he says a word slowly out-loud.  Because English is not a phonetic language, many words will be misspelled.  We never correct a child, nor do we ask him to read the word back to us, because they can’t read yet!  (Sometimes a child will ask you to read to him what he wrote; all Montessori teachers have hilarious stories of decoding phonetically written words… My favorite is “wnsupnetaim”, or “once upon a time”.)

Eventually, after weeks and weeks (and sometimes months) of using the Moveable Alphabet, the child will start reading the words back spontaneously (and that’s when you leave the room, shed a tear of joy, send a quick thank you up to Dr. Montessori, and do a happy dance).  And later on, perhaps when the child is five or six years old, he will become curious about correct spelling, and you can guide him in his new awareness.  But only when he’s ready.

Check out The Very Montessori blog, where you can see several examples of pre-schoolers writing with the Moveable Alphabet.



A couple of friends who have babies or toddlers have recently brought up the topic of sharing; more precisely, should we expect young children to share?  One friend feels like a bad mom when her baby snatches his toys away from another baby.  Another mom pointed out that at the playground she always hears moms telling their toddlers: “You need to share; nice children share.”

Dr. Montessori observed possessiveness in young children and realized that it stemmed from a lack of opportunities to engage in activities that were conducive to the child’s development.  In The Secret of Childhood she writes that children are driven by nature to look for opportunities to interact with their environment in productive ways: “He seeks for things that can nourish his spirit, and he finds his nourishment in activity.”  If a child fails to find “food” for development, and is surrounded only by mindless toys, he becomes “attracted simply to ‘things’ and desires to possess them.”

People often wonder how a Montessori teacher can keep the peace among 25 pre-schoolers when there’s only one material of each kind in the classroom.  Parents probably envision knock-down, drag-out fights for the Pink Tower, but in reality conflicts over materials are one of the least-common issues in the classroom.  I guess it goes back to what Dr. Montessori wrote: when children are engaged in productive activities in their environment (which is what the Montessori materials provide), they lose their possessiveness and turn their energies towards development.

Limits also help: the Montessori guide reminds the children that when somebody is using a material, it is theirs for as long as they want to engage with it productively.  If another child wants the same material, the teacher offers two choices: the child can either sit down to wait for his classmate to finish and put the material away, or he can choose another material.   A skilled guide will identify why the child is interested in said material and will find another activity that satisfies that need.  Of course, two children might agree on their own to share the material and are able to do so productively, which is great!  However, this mostly happens spontaneously and effectively among older children (5-6 years of age), which brings me to my next point…

Sharing is a characteristic that emerges with age.  Just like you can’t force a child to walk or talk, you can’t force a child to spontaneously and joyously share.  Yes, they will let other children play with their toys if you threaten or bribe or nag long enough, but the willingness to share won’t come from within.  Pushing a child to share will only create resentment and hoarding because the child will feel a lack of control over his belongings.  The same three-year old who refuses to share his toys will, upon turning six or seven, give you the shirt off his back.  Parents of elementary-aged children often complain because their child gave away his lunch, lent a friend his jacket, or swapped shoes with a classmate.  That same parent, just a few years ago, might have been concerned because their child wasn’t sharing his toys!

If you compare a Montessori Primary classroom with an Elementary classroom, this developmental aspect will become clear.  A Primary classroom is set up with individual tables and one chair per table, because Dr. Montessori observed that most children choose to work on their own.  The Elementary classroom has large tables with several chairs placed around the table, to support the children’s desire to work in a group.  There is still only one material of each kind in the Elementary classroom, but the children willingly share it and thrive from teamwork.  I always find it funny/sad how many traditional schools flip this around: they make pre-schoolers sit in group settings, which totally messes with their concentration, and they force elementary students to sit in rows, which goes against their natural desire to collaborate.

I will leave you with a sweet story that the awesome Montessori mom over at Montessori Beginnings kindly shared with me.  Her pre-school aged daughter attends a Montessori school and was tackling a challenging material called the Roman Arch.  She couldn’t quite figure it out so she got up from her chair for a few minutes.  When she returned, a child who was new to the classroom was seated at her chair working with the material.  As she later told her mom: “He stole my work!”  However, she didn’t confront him or tell the teacher.  She decided to observe the boy, who eventually managed to put together the arch.  Because the material was supporting the girl’s development, she was more interested in learning how to complete the arch than in possessing the physical object.    Also notice that the teacher did not interfere; often children will share spontaneously when not being pushed and cajoled by anxious adults.

The next time your child chooses not to share, remember that it’s not a reflection of your ability to parent, nor is it a reflection of your child’s lack of social skills.  Offer the children purposeful activities that support their growth and before you know it the toys, possessiveness, and arguments will have been forgotten.

(From what I understand, Montessori is not the only philosophy that supports a child’s need to not share.  I read somewhere that young children in Waldorf schools and homes are also respected when they want to engage with a toy by themselves.  I would love it if someone who knows more about Waldorf could corroborate this for me!)


Independent Children = Happy Children

Take a look at this beautiful and sensible kitchen arrangement from An Everyday Story, which encourages independence and satisfies the needs of two different-aged children.  My favorite part is how she uses cupboards as shelves.  Using the space you have instead of feeling like you have to set up additional shelves is INSPIRED!!