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Teaching Your Child to Read

Learning to read is a big milestone. It’s like toilet training: you know your child will get it, but when? It can also be a way parents ‘keep score’. Your child is learning the names of letters. Your neighbor casually mentions that her child the same age reads an hour a day. What happens if your child ends up in first grade with Montessori school kids who read at a 2nd-3rd grade level? Will your child fall behind? Is he dyslexic? Does he need a tutor? Medication? Of course not.

For a small minority of children, reading comes naturally. They start looking at books, get some help with what letters and words say, and gradually they start reading. Most kids need a bit more help and a planned out approach. But which approach? We love to categorize. Phonics, Whole Language, Sight Words – we make reading as complicated as everything else. All kids want to know is what all those words say so they can read their books.

You have a tremendous advantage – you are on an early learning web site. Hopefully, this means your child is young – another huge advantage. As Maria Montessori observed, children experience a natural Sensitive Period for learning to read when they are around 3-5 years old. Notice I said learning to read. Your child taught himself how to understand and speak the language some time ago. Your child is also genetically programmed to learn to read. It is so much easier to teach a child to read if you take advantage of this natural Sensitive period when the child is young. Before you buy sandpaper sounds and sight word workbooks, though, ask yourself two questions:

Does my child see me reading every day? and,

Do I read with my child every day?

You want to be able to answer both questions yes. Your home needs to be a place where reading is practiced, valued, and encouraged. If you don’t read and mostly watch TV, guess what your child is going to do? Your child needs to see you reading newspapers, books, magazines, your Kindle, etc. Read with your child every day. The factor most predictive of success with reading is having been read to as a child.

Read books your child has picked out and really loves. Read them as many times as your child wants to. Let out your inner child when you read. Use different voices for the characters, act amazed and surprised, show enthusiasm and have fun. Make reading time a warm, fun, loving experience. Point out words and encourage your child to read when he wants to. Talk about the story and the characters and get your child’s ideas. Be attentive, open, and engaged. Gradually draw your child’s attention to the print.


Your child at some point will show spontaneous interest in letters and words. Julie Josey, a home teaching parent who uses Montessori At Home! very actively with her kids, shared this about her 4 y/o daughter, K:



“I had all of her pre-school alphabet activities printed out for the year (4 binders that are 3 inches thick), from 1+1+1=1 and Confessions of a Homeschooler…apparently, I was not presenting opportunities fast enough…she had the desire to “teach herself how to write”…she took an alphabet chart to our back office and emerged in about 30 minutes with the entire alphabet copied.”Teach me to do it myself.” Somewhere along the way, that must have happened; she knows how to locate and teach herself in this circumstance!”

K is in her Sensitive period for reading! Now is prime time to give her all the reading activities she can handle & wants to do. Her natural drive to learn just didn’t follow the year-long binder plan – it happened quicker than that. That’s what Montessori is all aboutfollowing the child where their interests take them, as fast and as far as they want to go. With little ones, the Montessori way is to present a wide variety of activities that are always easily available and let the child choose what she wants to work with. Trust the Inner Teacher.

So, what activities should K be doing? Montessori At Home! offers parents a Three-Step Reading Sequence. It starts with Phonics, moves right into Sight Words, and from there right into Reading. Each step is straightforward and easy to implement at home. I show parents what to start with, what to cover, and when to move on. The steps move along at a nice pace that keeps a child progressing toward fluent reading, because that is the goal.

Phonics breaks the code and allows a child to experience quick success in decoding written language, building words, and reading her first books. These experiences give your child confidence and a positive attitude toward reading. Phonics has then done its job.














Sight Word games and activities then help children recognize common words on sight, which is how we all read. This leads seamlessly into reading, reading, and more reading.











Reading appropriate books (there is a long list in the book), with help to identify words as needed, moves a child into reading. Nothing builds reading skill like reading. If your child needs some extra work with letter blends and combinations, there are many simple activities. You can analyze blends and sounds and letter combinations all day long, however, and still not be reading. I believe reading is an organic process that is mastered primarily by doing it. The sequence in Montessori At Home! is designed to achieve the goal of helping your child learn to read.


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Many ways will work. The important thing is to always follow the child. Watch for signs of that sensitive period for reading starting and then make the most of it!




  • Discovering Montessori

    I really enjoyed reading this post! You brought up some terrific points. When my son was a preschooler, he mastered sounds and was reading by the age three, other parents who brought their chidren to my in home preschool often asked me why their child wasn’t reading yet when they witnessed him reading aloud to other children. Your absolutely right when you ask the questions about reading. My son saw me reading for pleasure, saw me sounding out words with his older siblings, and was excited about one on one storytime. With that being said, he actually taugh himself to read and I was floored! Thank you for the lovely reminder of how learning to read can be so much fun!!

    • John

      Glad you enjoyed the post! Sounds like your son had a great role model and environment for learning to read. That’s most of what it takes with preschoolers – create an environment that supports and feeds their need to develop, give our our time and love, and help them as needed. Great story!.

  • Jessie

    Great article! I agree, watching for sensitive periods for reading is key. Gathering those materials and collecting enjoyable books that are age appropriate is the big job of the adult.

    Thanks for sharing this!

    • John

      Your welcome, Jessie! Yes, it’s all about the quality and appropriateness of the reading materials, with letting the child pick being a big key. I always liked doing homemade books using the kids words, art, photos, & experiences, as in the book Teacher. those books had a powerful connection and the kids learned to read them really fast. And, they are cheap and fun to make, and make great keepsakes later.

  • Deb @ Living Montessori Now

    Great post, John! I love that you talk about using phonics and Montessori-oriented materials AND the importance of reading to your child and being a model for reading. My kids grew up with Montessori, which certainly helped them easily learn to read. But we also had a house with walls lined with bookcases filled with books. Cuddling on the sofa reading aloud was one of our favorite activities. It’s hard to say what had the biggest influence in helping my kids learn to read! I featured your post at the Living Montessori Now Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/LivingMontessoriNow.

    • John

      Thanks Deb! It’s so true, especially now that it’s all video screens, text snippets, and photo captions – we’ve got to fight to keep books relevant! I hope parents do. Children who are skilled with books will have an incredible advantage for some time to come. I especially wanted to help make parents aware that if reading is not integral to your family life, you’ll be running up a steep hill teaching reading no matter how many materials you buy.

  • Andrea

    I really Like this article and also I have too more questions that I hope you can give an orientation. I have a child who is 29 months and she loves books and always she ask me to spell for her some words sights we found on the streets. I think this is sensitive learning that you mencioned in your article. Now I want to start we her this process but I don’t know how to do it because English is my second language and I speak with her all the time in Spanish but She pick up english first and She loves english sounds. Now I want to ask u How I can teach her and also If I need to start with english first and after spanish or both at the same time. Please let me know what do you think about my case and give my advice or orientation.
    Thanks so much.

    • John

      Hello Andrea. Great questions. Your little one is definitely showing early spontaneous interest in reading; congratulations for looking for ways to follow her interest! Young children absorb multiple languages if they are exposed to them regularly. Your child is growing up hearing a lot of Spanish, but is obviously very curious about the English she hears and sees around her. That is a great thing, as she will be wonderfully prepared for school and life by learning multiple languages early on! Here are a few ideas for things you can do:

      Read to her every day from books she loves, in both English and Spanish. You could also try children’s books read in English out loud online at sites like AOL Kids, Amazon.com, storynory.com, and lightupyourbrain.
      These will model excellent English and give her sound models to imitate.
      I will email you a copy of Montessori At Home! This book has a 3-step Reading Sequence you can start following pretty soon with your child.
      Look online at sites like 1+1+1=1 for free reading materials that include sight word activities. You can do memory and matching games as your child shows interest in them.
      Post label on things in your house with both their Spanish and English names. It may look funny to have labels on everything, but it will really speed up your child’s acquisition of both languages.
      Give your child frequent opportunities to play with English speaking kids.
      Watch educational English language television shows with your child and speak words that you hear together.
      Play lots of music with lyrics in both English & Spanish – music is a powerful tool for helping young children learn.
      When your daughter is a little older you can have Google Translate ready when you two read or for other times when you want to compare English & Spanish words, phrases, & sentences.
      Those are just a few things you can do to encourage your daughter’s interest in English while maintaining her Spanish language development. When she is a bit older there are many ESL sites and resources. Hopefully by then, with your continued support, she will be bilingual already!

  • Andrea

    Thanks so much for your advice, I found really helpful your orientation and your book, I appreciate that you send me this book because I don’t know to much about montessori, but I think her education view is great. I want a send soon some pictures about my daugther job.

    • John

      I’d love to see your photos, Andrea! Thank you for your kind words. I’m so glad the book is proving useful for you and your daughter.

  • Pea

    Hi John-

    I have a few questions similar to Andrea above. My 5.5 yr old is bilingual and he goes to school/lives in a culture/language that is different to what we speak at home. I have always known that I will need to do something to support his English, espeically once he is in elementary school, but I haven’t yet figured out what. It gives me the heebeejeebees when I think about how will my child know the vocab needed to translate the complex topics in elementary school into his mother-tounge? I’ve been looking over various montessori blogs recently and am attracted to the methodology, but where do I start? We don’t watch TV, we read books (in both languages)–both my husband and I are avid readers, but still my son has yet to show much interest in reading. I also feel handicapped because I don’t know how to address his growing curiosity about the world, which often leads me to just get frustrated with the 100s of questions I can’t answer. In looking at the language arts albums online, starting with sandpaper letters or such does not seem like something that would interest him. I have been playing I Spy with him, and he got the concept right away, which has lead to endless discussions about sounds, which I realize is a good sign. I have downloaded tons of free products from various sources, but still feel confused about where to start. Activities for a 3 yr old will not hold his interest, but older activites seem to require him to read. Sorry for the long post. Short of going through the trainging myself, I would appreciate any insight you can provide from your experience. Thank you.

    • John

      Hello, and thanks for reaching out. It’s hard to be really specific when you don’t know a child personally, but I’ll do my best to help with some ideas and resources.
      Your child is bilingual. That is common, as young children will learn to speak almost as many languages as they hear spoken regularly. Translating between the languages verbally should not be a problem as your son grows, he will naturally be able to do that. It’s the reading that is the issue.
      You are reading with your son every day – that is excellent, and one of the big keys to learning to read. Keep it up! Is he pointing out or recognizing any words in the books you read? That is a great jumping off point. If he is, you can choose simple books and reading apps (do you have an iPad?) and let him practice reading those. I mention the iPad because there are a number of great language and reading apps that kids love and will use independently – another key to learning to read. Check out Montessori Crosswords, a great phonics app, Sentence Magic is about reading basic 2 & 3 word sentences, Intro to Letters will let him mimic sandpaper letters on the pad, I Like Books has 37 picture books, First Words Deluxe is another good app, & Bob Books #2 might also appeal to your son.
      Does his school have an ESL program? One way or another, IMO he needs to get started on an organized English reading program ASAP. The longer you wait, the more difficult it will be. In Montessori At Home! I describe a 3-step reading sequence, along with additional resources. You mention that you don’t think sandpaper sounds would interest him. Have you tried them? The great benefit of phonics is its ability to give children a quick ‘hook’ into written language that gives them rapid success and allows them to fairly quickly start reading phonetic books, like the Starfall Short Vowel Pals books. Starfall is a fantastic site with many free resources; I highly recommend it for you. If you don’t start at the beginning, your child may have gaps in his knowledge that will impact his reading down the line. Personally, I would try the sequence in Montessori At home! just as it’s written. We developed this approach over many years teaching hundreds of children to read and it works very well for most kids.
      If your son is already recognizing some words right away when he sees them, he is ready for sight word activities. The Dolch Words are the most common words seen in children’s books, and a great place to start. In Montessori At Home! I list many games and other activities, including web sites, for teaching sight words. The iPad app: Sight Words, 1-300 is expensive, but covers a lot of words.
      If he likes using a laptop, another approach may be a reading program online. Reading Eggs & Literactive are good. Starfall has many free online activities, including a 4-step sequence right on the home page!
      I hope some of these ideas prove useful for you, let me know how things are going, ok?

  • Vanessa

    Hi, I realize this post is 2 years old, but I am a roadblock and don’t know what to do, my daughter will be 5 this Saturday, she knows all the letter sounds and names (she learned the when she was two) but after 3 years of knowing the sounds she still can’t put the sounds together, I read A LOT to me and to her, she loves our daily reading time and she loves books, she pretends she is reading by retelling what she can remember of the story, but still after almost 3 years of this, she can’t read, I know each child develops differently which is why I have not worried about this before, but I stumbled upon your blog and read that there between ages 3 and 5 is a critical time, so now I’m getting worried, we have done a lot of phonetic awareness games and she can decode the sounds she listens to, but when it comes to the written word she simply can’t put the sounds together, in fact she is starting to try to guess at the sound blends, but is able to tell me the sounds of each phoneme, just not when it comes to blending them. Am I worrying to much or what should I do, any advice you can give would be GREATLY appreciated!

    • John

      Hi Vanessa,

      Thanks for reaching out. You are a concerned, proactive Mom who has spent time helping your daughter develop reading skills, good for you! As with all individual kids parents write me about, without being there to see and work with your daughter I can offer only general ideas and suggestions. First, don’t worry about missing the sensitive period for reading. A child who has just turned 5 has time to work everything out. You are reading frequently with your daughter, and that is the vital first step. Beyond that, let me pose some questions and offer ideas:

      You say your daughter knows the letter sounds. This means that when you show her any letter she can immediately tell you its phonetic sound. Is this the case? Phonetic sounds are the short vowel sounds and the basic single consonant sounds.

      Did you do the next step and build simple phonetic words with the sounds, as in the first step of the reading sequence in the Montessori At Home! eBook? I will send you a link to download a copy so you can see. Quite a bit of time needs to be spent in phonetic word building before a child moves on to blends, sight words, etc. These word building activities use phonetic words, which are words that include only the sounds in the phonetic alphabet – the short vowel sounds and the basic consonant sounds. It does no good to move from learning the sounds of single letters to trying to sound out non-phonetic words, because they are non-phonetic! Phonetic word building is a critical step. It’s all in the eBook, take a look. You need to do enough phonetic word building so that your daughter reaches full mastery of this step, which it doesn’t sound like she has yet.

      When your daughter can build all the phonetic words in Montessori At Home!, she is ready to move into sight words. You might try some of those activities now anyway and see how she responds. This is the second step in the eBook sequence, but it’s ok to try teaching her some simple sight words from the dolch word group 1 and see how she responds. She simply may not be a phonetic learner, but I honestly doubt that. I think chances are she has not spent enough time doing phonetic word building and is having trouble moving along because of that.

      Hope that helps at least a little, look for the link in an email from the Send Owl service. Take care!

  • Vanessa

    Thank you so much for your response, and you are right I didn’t provide enough information, yes she can tell me the phonetic sound of any letter at any given time, we have done a lot of “games” building cvc (consonant, vowel, consonant) words, simple ones, using only phonetic words, in fact when she asks me to help her sound out an irregular word (not phonetic) I tell her that is not a word we can sound out and we can just try to memorize it to remember like in “the” or “cake” but I avoid them completely unless she specifically asks for it, the problem comes when building the cvc words, she can sound out each sound individually but can’t put it together to figure out the word.

    Thank you so much for the link to the book, I will start on it right away, you are amazing at answering so fast and helping out us fellow parents trying to do the right thing, I have no words to thank you for your prompt and extensive response so I’ll just say Thank you, thank you, thank you and God bless!

    • John

      Hi Vanessa, usually blending the sounds into words is just a matter of building the word and running your finger along the letters as you say the sounds with increasing rapidity. If your daughter can’t seem to make this connection, it might just reflect her personal learning style. I would try moving into the sight word activities with her. The purpose of phonics is to get a child successfully introduced to language and how sounds make words. After that it’s all sight word work, because that’s how we all read, slowly at first and getting faster over time. You will find lots of sight word activities in step two of the reading sequence. If you find she can recognize early sight words after a few activities, I would consider dropping phonics altogether. Also, is she writing letters now? Does she write them in their proper orientation rather than backwards or in partial form? Has she tried writing words? Writing can be the catalyst that propels a child into reading, and it reinforces what words say. I would also try making your own books based on your daughter’s life, which is also described in the eBook. Good luck!

  • Erika

    Hello! I really enjoyed reading this post as it was very informative. I have a few questions to ask you in reference to teaching my 15 month old to read. Like you said, I model reading behaviors by actively reading in front of my child. I even cut the pages of a book out to put my iPhone inside. I mostly read from my phone and I was afraid he would get confused by that. Anyway, I also read to my toddler at least twice a day. It’s very difficult to get him to pay attention (obviously because he’s a baby) but all he wants to do is yank the book out of my hands to rip it (sigh!).

    How do you suggest I even begin phonics with him? He just wants to play with books and doesn’t seem to pay me much attention. Also, I only speak spanish to him because I would like for him to acquire the language. I do however, read to him in English and I put educational shows for him in English. So should I begin the reading sequence in English or Spanish? Thanks so much!!

    • John

      Hi Erika, just happened to be online when your comment and questions came in, thanks. A 15 month old and a toddler benefit from being read to every day, even if they seem uninterested at times. Everything they experience goes into their brains whether they acknowledge it or not outwardly. Just keep reading with them every day from stories they love.

      As far as learning to read, however, they are too young and need to be developing the necessary skills first. Reading and math are appropriate for most 3-5 year olds, as long as they have the requisite earlier experiences and skills. Starting about 2 1/2 you can do Practical Life & Sensorial activities, as described in the Montessori At Home! eBook. Spend most of your time on these and your kids will learn reading and math easily. Without the pre-reading and pre-math skills, however, it can be a frustrating experience for children and parents alike.

  • Chris

    Thanks for sharing John! What a great post!

    I have a question here… What if somebody whose English is their second language and they have an accent. How do you recommend them to teach their child to read because the child my learn the accent or the inaccurate way of pronouncing words?

    • John

      I would provide as many examples of typical english speaking as possible, using books read aloud by actors, and movies and short videos with lots of language. There are many free sources for this online. If you have friends who speak with less of an accent, ask them to read to your child.

  • Valerie Alova

    Thank you very much for this very informative post. My three year old son loves books and insists that I read to him upon waking up and before sleeping. He is enrolled at a Montessori school but I would like to enrol him in Kumon for the summer. Is this a good match? I’d really love to get a hold of Montessori at Home, could you let me know where I can get a copy. Thank you very much.

    • John

      Hi Valerie, so glad you liked the post. Sounds like you are doing all the right things with your little guy, he is blessed to have such proactive parents! I am not totally familiar with Kumon, but at his age he will absorb what he needs from any environment, so go for it. You will always see whether any school situation is going well by his response, now and for all his school years. Ask his Montessori teachers how you can best reinforce what he is doing at school at home. The Montessori At Home! eBook can give you hundreds of ideas, as well as help you understand the Montessori method in more depth. You can buy it and receive a download link by clicking the ‘Buy the Book’ link on the home page. Take care.

  • Raymie

    You mentioned Montessori at Home? Where do I find this system? My daughter is starving. She loves to write her letters, she wants to learn to read. She sees me read, we read together, its our fun bonding time. She is Ready! Where do I start?

  • Elizabeth

    My 4 year old in currently attending a Montessori kindergarten in Peru. She is bilingual ( I speak to her in English and her father and everyone else in Spanish). I want her to grow up learning two languages but I don’t want to confuse her. At the moment the kindergarten are giving us some great ideas to help extend and reinforce learning at home for reading and writing. One idea is using a “mobile alphabet”. They showed us how to make a simple version of this at home using a book filled with letters and pictures of simple words in Spanish. I want to try her with this using some Spanish words but my question is can I do this with some English words at the same time or would this be an information overload? Also what words and sounds are good to start with in English. I think English will be more tricky as spelling is so different from the way a word is pronounced.
    Does it matter if they are reading letters in cursive or print? Here, everyone uses cursive letters but I was brought up learning print and learnt to write using print. The reason I ask this is that eventually we hope to return to the UK and I want her transition to UK schooling to be as smooth as possible and I am pretty sure they do not teach young children to write cursive letters in primary schools these days.
    Thanks for your help and ideas!

    • John

      Hi Elizabeth, my best suggestion is to get the Montessori At Home! eBook – it has a complete home program for teaching your child to write and read English. Take care.

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