Writing comes as part of children’s natural desire to express new knowledge. It nearly always precedes reading.
Even before birth children prepare for language, responding within the womb to voices they can hear. Then as babies they explore language by listening to family members. And from 3 to 5 years — the period Dr Montessori referred to as the age of perceptions — their speech becomes fixed. Throughout all this the crucible for enjoying and developing spoken and written language is the home.
The most useful words are the names of everyday objects: articles of food, clothing, tools, toys, etc. Experience with these objects should precede learning their words and viewing pictures of them; this way children learn language’s proper relationship with the world.
Maria Montessori wrote in The Discovery of the Child:
We say that spoken language has its beginning in a child when the word he pronounces represents an idea … it is between birth to the age of three that speech naturally develops, making its first appearance when a child is about 2 years old. The development of speech takes place between the ages of 2 and 5, the age of perceptions, in which the attention of a child is focused on external objects and his memory is tenacious.
During this age of perceptions, children want to touch, feel and know the names of everything. Dr Montessori found that writing comes as part of children’s natural desire to express their new knowledge, often spontaneously “exploding” into it (and nearly always before reading). In fact she believed that given the sensorial experiences of appropriate materials, children will quite naturally teach themselves to read and write as early as three or four years of age. “Writing develops easily and spontaneously in a little child in the same way as speech, which is also a motor translation of sounds that have been heard,” she wrote in The Discovery of the Child.
Even as Maria Montessori believed that children should never be forced to read and write at a young age, she nonetheless provided them with indirect preparation. In fact, all activities undertaken to date in the Casa dei Bambini come together to enable writing: children have learned to concentrate their attention, they have developed and mastered movement, and observed in order to compare and classify. Now, as Dr Montessori wrote, “Language comes to fix by means of exact words the ideas which the mind has acquired.” (Dr. Montessori’s Own Handbook, p93)
In The Absorbent Mind Dr Montessori wrote:
Ours was a house for children, rather than a real school … We had prepared a place for children where a diffused culture could be assimilated from the environment, without any need for direct instruction … Yet these children learned to read and write before they were five, and no one had given them any lessons. At that time it seemed miraculous that children of four and a half should be able to write, and that they should have learned without the feeling of having been taught.
Unlike other early 20th century teachers, who had children draw row upon row of straight and curved lines for helping develop fine motor skills as direct preparation for writing, Montessori believed that drawing complete shapes would be more satisfying for young children. She provided sets of designed metal insets of various shapes around which to trace.
To meet children’s need to touch and feel, and to learn the names of objects in the environment, Montessori prepared sandpaper letters; children say and feel the sound. For those ready mentally but not yet physically to write with a pencil, Dr. Montessori prepared cut-out movable letters for their work.
From The Discovery of the Child (p230):
If writing serves to correct, or rather to direct and perfect the mechanism of speech in the child, reading assists in the development of ideas and language … by reading I mean the interpretation of an idea by means of graphic symbols … a child does not read until he receives ideas from the written word.
In the Casa dei Bambini, children proceed from performing language development exercises to exploring grammar via the Pink, Blue and Green series. In the Pink series, children practice building 3-letter phonic words (one letter per sound). In Blue, they proceed to 4-letter phonic words or words containing consonant blends. And in the Green Series, the words used introduce a single phonogram (two or more letters forming a new sound).
By the time children have reached the Green Series they are practicing recognition of letter patterns and developing spelling skills whenever undertaking activities featuring written words. They are becoming competent readers.