Monday, February 22, 2010

Homfray Video: Word Analysis and The Moveable Alphabet

This is what Homfray had to say about word analysis and it's role in success with the moveable alphabet.

The success of the material that I am going to show you today depends to great extent on the amount of word analysis that you did when you were teaching the sandpaper letters. At the end whenever we have taught a letter we listen for the sounds in words. "Can you hear 'sss' in 'hiss'?" "Can you hear 'sss' in 'snake'?" And we put the sound in different places in words because we didn't want the child to get the impression that only the first sound in a word was the sound that mattered... And when you do that for the children and you say "now perhaps you can think of a word. If you do come and tell me." Then they get the idea that they can do it themselves. And their minds will be working on word analysis. And you will hear them sitting and analyzing words themselves. And they often may come and tell you a word with a particular sound. "There is a /p/ in potato. What does a /p/ look like?" And when they do this they are prepared for the next step which is word analysis. Now word analysis, breaking words into their component sounds, is easier than reading which is fusing the sounds together to make a word.

If you are using the Karen Tyler language album you will need to supplement the activities there with many more aural language activities early on (starting around age 2). I would also recommend adding some ending and middle sound sorts to the sound classification boxes. I initially learned about the importance of early "I Spy" exercises in the Gettman book and in Montessori Read and Write. Homfray says that learning to read will happen very quickly when you start the moveable alphabet if you spent enough time on word analysis beforehand.

(editing to add: the Dwyer pamphlet says the same thing and covers this topic at length.)

You will not read a lot about the time spent on "sound games" on many Montessori blogs (homeschool or otherwise) because it isn't a topic that "blogs well" in my opinion. Also, in a Montessori homeschool most of the sound game activity happens outside the school room. It is so much easier to spend a couple seconds on it 20 times a day as it naturally fits in to what you are doing than to sit in the school room for ten minutes when there are so many interesting things in the room they don't always have access to the rest of the day. For example, when I put on Me Too's shoes I might say "I spy something on Me Too's foot that starts with 'shhh'," or "Me Too, can you bring me a book? Can you hear the /b/ sound in book? Can you hear the /k/ sound in book? Can you hear the /oo/ sound in book?"

I'll take a moment here and talk about which album I am using and why because I know I'll get many questions about that otherwise. The reason I have chosen to use Karen's albums is because the Gettman stops giving the nitty gritty details after the blue series and neither the Gettman, Shu Chen, nor Montessori Read and Write completely covers grammar (the exercises you need are listed in the Gettman sequence, but presentations are not provided for everything in the later periods). I also felt like there were not enough different ways to practice and repeat skills once you started the pink series (in the Gettman. MRW has plenty).

(Edited to add: I have TOTALLY changed my mind about this. See more recent posts on the Dwyer scheme)

If you like the Homfray language series it is good to know that the elements of Karen's pink, blue, and green series are the same and provide much practice and repetition. If you are using Karen's albums, I would recommend watching the Homfray videos ("Montessori Reading Curriculum 4-7). Watching them is like taking a class on what's covered in Karen's albums...whereas, oddly, taking Karen's class is not like taking a class on what's covered in her albums.

Another reason I've decided to use Karen's albums rather than Gettman, the AMI Primary Guide or Montessori Read and Write is that both of the latter choose to introduce the digraph sandpaper letters along with the single ones (you teach only three letters at any one time and mix vowels, consonants and digraphs together). I understand the theory behind this and agree that it follows the I Spy activities more logically. I also hear Kal-El doing a lot of word analysis spontaneously during the day and he has no "letter" for a lot of the sounds in words because we haven't done many digraphs. (For example, he'll be reading a book and say :"/b/ /oo/ /k/" Then he will say "Mommy? What letter makes the /oo/ sound?" (I tell him "two "O's" together make the /oo/ sound in book.) However, at some point as a teacher you have to take a stand and declare which way you are going to do it. There were just as many albums introducing only the single letters first. Perhaps more practically, none of my more "living" resources (blogs I follow closely, Homfray videos) were doing it that way and it that would leave me without a mentor. So, I decided not to introduce double sandpaper letters alongside the singles and, obviously, how you choose to do it has an effect on all of the activities down the line. This is why it is counterproductive to "album hop" when teaching language. This is also why it is important to educate yourself about different implementations of the Montessori reading "curriculum" before you choose an album.

(Edited to add: I really wish I had done this differently. I am with Me Too. I strongly feel the double sandpaper letters should be introduced right from the beginning. As stated, my reasons were not having any "living" models for this. My writings on the Dwyer scheme are intended to try to help change that for other moms.)

A final word on language albums. Meg's albums, available for free at the Yahoo group Montessori by Hand should be required reading for anyone who is teaching themselves the Montessori method. Each presentation has about a half a page of "notes" at the end that would have answered many of the "dumb" questions I've had along the way. Unfortunately, readers have been telling me they are having trouble joining the group lately. I've posted a question about that and hopefully can get that cleared up. If you wanted to use a free album to teach all of language, I think right now that would be the best choice.

Click to join montessoribyhand

Click to join montessoribyhand

I watched this video this week because I have been having serious issues with our moveable alphabet and wanted to see one in action. I had thought I was imagining things, but I'm totally right that the set-up of our box is a huge problem and is causing a major slow-down in Kal-El's learning to read. You see...our box generally looks like this.

The sections for each letter are much too big. Even when I carry it myself, the box inevitably jostles when it is carried to the rug and letters are upside down and sideways. I have a lot of trouble finding the right letter myself this way. Kal-El is getting really frustrated and it is affecting his interest in the material.

The box used at My Montessori Journey looks like this:


I asked if she knew where to get it,and she's looking into it for me (I'm guessing Kaybee).

I searched for two hours online this weekend and nearly all the boxes look like mine. I don't know what to do. The only other styles available are from Nienhuis ($24o? for letters and the box) or Kaybee ($150). It seems ridiculous that I would have to pay that kind of money to re-purchase a material that only cost $20 the first time. Plus, even if I want to suck it up and buy the one from Kaybee I can't because it was one of the items destroyed in the fire and has a six-month wait list. Some would say "well, that's why not to buy discount" however I have two things to say about that. NONE of the other full-price companies I looked at had proper boxes either. And, honestly, there is no excuse for all of the less expensive boxes being designed this way. You can't even get a proper box from I-Fit, Allisons, or Montessori Outlet. As much as I hate making my own materials I'm going to have to make my own box I think. There is no reason they can't still sell the discount moveable alphabets for $20-$30 and sell them in a box that actually fits.

In case you wondering, Homfray said that the box should not be in alphabetical order. To be clear, she also said it would be nice if it could be but as a result it would have to be much bigger. This is why most large moveable alphabets come in two boxes and exhibit the same inherent problem as my small moveable alphabet.

Homfray also used a script, not cursive, moveable alphabet. She said this is because most of what the children read is script. They learn cursive sandpaper letters and cursive writing. She suggested a preliminary activity in which they match each cursive sandpaper letter with a letter from the moveable alphabet box. It seems like this activity alone would take care of the cursive to print transition.

For those of you out there who are obsessed with color coding each "subject" in your classroom (botany-green, whatever) it is interesting to note that Homfray insists that color coding should be limited to reading/writing/grammar. She points out that the purpose of the coding is to let children know "what stage" they are in and which works they can choose. Color coding other materials just to show what subject they belong to serves no such purpose. Homfray said that she felt color coding beyond this simply confuses the children. To those who argue that it helps them know where to put things away, she asserts that they learn how to do this anyway. I however, can see how color coding might be useful to the teacher in keeping the materials not on the shelf organized. I found this interesting because I had already decided that mounting all of my botany materials on green card stock was a waste of time and money for a small homeschool.

Always fascinating are examples of precisely how to interact with the children as they work with this material. For example she states:

If you walk around and see that they are getting it right, read them back for them. "oh I see you a made /h/ /a/ /t/ hat and /b/ /u/ /s/ bus." the more you read back to them the better.
Also, for those who still have questions about "when to correct" she had plenty to say about that in this video as well. "The commonest don't want to overcorrect. But there is a difference between overcorrecting and not correcting at all...and you mustn't get the idea that it is wrong to correct a child." She give a nice speech about this in this video. It is very similar to her words in the sandpaper letters video. If you are interested, it can be found at about 32:00.

To sum up, this video was helpful to me at this time for both Kal-El and for Me Too. With Kal-El I needed to see some example of how much or little to interact with a child working with this material. Homfray's video makes that very clear. It also clarified whether or not I need to take my box problem seriously (yes).

What surprised me was this video is going to have the most effect on my work with Me Too rather than Kal-El. Me Too has been having a horrible time with the sandpaper letters, despite keen interest, and it was clear to me after viewing the video and thinking about this for a few days that I have been seriously neglecting I Spy with him. This is partly "second child syndrome" but I think more because the album and other resources I am using most lately de-emphasize the aural activities that take place before the "real materials." We are taking a short break from sandpaper letters and I have made it my top priority to sneak in little sound games throughout the day.

Montessori Read and Write has the best information on "I Spy" or "The Sound Game." This book spends seven or eight pages on it. There are always a lot of questions about "when" to begin sandpaper letters or the moveable alphabet. If you are spending a lot of time on I Spy you can use it to align the rest of the language sequence. Sandpaper letters would begin when the child can do I Spy stage three and the moveable alphabet when they can do I Spy stage five. Homfray mentions in this video that the moveable alphabet is best around age four, but she says that based on a thorough grounding in aural sound games and word analysis. We know these are sensorial materials and the children need access to them early. I think this leads many homeschoolers to put the materials in their hands before they are able to complete the pre-requisate sound games.

Once your child can play the Sound Game at level 3, she is ready to begin to identify the letters of the alphabet. It is important to wait until she has reached this stage; whenever we learn something new we build or graft it on to existing knowledge, so if your child is secure with the sounds she hears at the beginning of a word, she will find it easier to understand that the letter or symbol you wish to teacher her is simply the way the sound that she already knows is written. [70]

I have been so frustrated that Me Too cannot seem to ever remember any sandpaper letters and I think this may be because he doesn't have the appropriate existing knowledge to graft that information to.

Somewhat off topic, Montessori Read and Write unfortunately happens to be the book that recommends "If your child seems unable to remember the letters at the end of the first lesson don't...go back to the beginning of the lesson and try to repeat the whole thing again...Don't go back to the same [sandpaper] letters the next day either, simply choose three different letters." If you think this through logically, the choosing different letters every day thing simply does not work. In my opinion the author takes their concern for the child's self-esteem a little too far in that spot.

If anybody had some viable moveable alphabet/box solutions please leave a comment.


  1. Coincidentally, I was just watching that video today too. We just started working with the moveable alphabet. I made up some intermediate activities for Beeper with it to make up for what we didn't do before, and it has been working well. (More about that on my blog next week.) Anyway, we're using tackle boxes for our alphabet. The spaces are actually a little bit too small, forcing most of the letters to be stood up a little bit. However, we have not had problems with the letters getting jumbled, and Beeper doesn't seem to have many problems finding letters (beyond what you would expect for someone just starting to work with it). I actually just switched around the order a little bit from how I originally had it so that all of the vowels are next to each other now, and that seems to help too.

    I guess I need to get Montessori Read and Write so that I can do better with language activities with future kids.

  2. Have you seen the eye-spy bags from Rainbow Resource center? They are only around 10 dollars I think and fit really nicely on my sensorial shelf. Caleb is using them less, but Kylee is starting to manipulate the bag and we talk about looking for whole objects and then will move into other letter sound activities when she's bigger.

    Also, Tim got me started on a new spelling curriculum that his Mont. school is using called Words their Way. The entire first level is for emergent spellers & pre readers and has picture sorts for letters, rhyming words, types of words, etc. and then the next level (letter name alphabetic) covers vowel sounds mid word, end sounds, blends, digraphs, r driven vowels and other stuff. I'll post more about it, but we started the emergent curriculum with Caleb at 3.5 and I can tell a huge difference in his use of the moveable alphabet as compared with Aidan who had less of the sound awareness activities.

  3. Oh, and on color-coding, I'm wondering if it is even necessary to color-code the language series in a homeschool setting, at least, if you only have one child working on those things. I mean, I can just give him a box with the objects/cards/lists/whatever he's ready for, rather than having to paint them pink, blue and green.

  4. Heidi, those materials sound great. Thanks!

    Evenspor...I pretty much agree. However, I think it is entirely possible that Kal-El will be in the green series while Me Too is in the pink at some point. Perhaps not, he might be past it. Also, I think that pink, green and blue share the same activities but with different words (object boxes, words and picture boxes, word lists, etc.,) that the color change at some point might be necessary for motivation with the kids.

  5. Good point. Motivation will be important.

  6. I have small plastic letters that I got from Montessori N Such, but my box was from Alison's (I think??)It has the letter painted on the bottom, which helps a little, but the letters do get jumbled around in there, and the letters cover up most of the painted letter. So what I did was I used my label maker and put the letter on the "side". After a child works with the moveable alphabet with a few lessons of "Can you bring me a b? Yes. Can you bring me an e?", they realize it is in alphabetical order. I will often hear one child humming the alphabet song to help her find the letter she is looking for.

    If you were doing the Red/Yellow/Blue scheme word lists though, you could probably use a tackle box and put in the letters from each scheme so that there would be less searching through the whole box.

    Every week, when we are talking about the letter of the week, we also look at a word list that has an example of the letter sound in the first, middle, and end. It has been very helpful for them to see different examples of the letter sound.

  7. Andie,

    Putting the letter on the side is a good idea, that might save me.

    I am still thinking of making a box myself (balsa wood), but am wondering if my small moveable alphabet is too small for such a tight box. Will they have nowhere to get their fingers in? The tight boxes might work best with the large moveable alphabet. Sigh.

  8. Thank you SO much for this very detail and wonderful post. I really appreciate you taking the time to tell us what you've researched. It is so helpful to me.

    I also noticed with Bella that she got good with the sandpaper letters after she was able to tell me the beginning sounds. I just did not put the two together. She now walks around talking about sounds all of the time! She is not getting the ending sound concept though. I need to read more about on how to do this....

  9. Did you see that Montessori N Such is having a sale on Moveable Alphabet boxes? Here is the link

    I don't know if the shipping would make this not such a good deal, but I thought I'd share anyway in case it was helpful to anybody.

  10. Andie,

    Yes, I did see that sale. The problem with that one is all of their boxes have pink vowels and blue consonants and my sandpaper letters are the other way around.

  11. Thank you so, so much for such a fantastic post. I never feel disappointed when you go through a less-frequent-blogging period, because it always means a gigantic super-post is on the way! I've learned so much from all the resources you've linked to, and I can't say how much I appreciate the way you compare several similar resources and evaluate their pros and cons. Every time I read a post of yours, I feel like you've just saved me another three months of research! My daughter is 19 months, so we're coming along at around the same pace as Me-Too.

    If I could make one small request...? Might you consider enabling right-clicking on your blog? I totally understand that you probably want to protect the pictures of your kids, etc. But the only reason that I ask is that there are always at least five or six links per post that I want to check out. What I'd normally do is right-click on each one as I read, and open the link in a new tab or window, to read when I'm finished the post. But since that's not possible on your blog, I have to first read the post, then open up six more tabs, then pull up your post in all six of them, and then click on a different link in each one of them.

    Your blog is totally worth the effort, though, so it's only a very minor suggestion! Thanks again for the vast amount of time I'm sure you must spend making this resource available.

  12. Moveable Alphabets boxes are the bane of my existence. Even if you have a great set of letters, and purchase a new box, they don't always transfer over well. I LOVE my Kaybee moveable alphabet, but I obviously didn't pay for it. I happened to see this ad for a moveable alphabet alternative today.

    They are small "tiles" (which I normally wouldn't recommend, but if you're in a pinch, I'm sure you could make them work) that fit into egg cartons.

  13. P.S. Montessori,

    Well, I'm glad at least that I'm not the only one obsessing about this. I've never heard the problem mentioned before and it is driving me CRAZY. I would hate to go to tiles when I have an actual alphabet, but I'm going to check and see if they how they fit in an egg carton. It might tide me over until I make my own box.

    Do you think that the small moveable alphabets can be stored as tightly as the large moveable Kaybee or do you think it will be too hard to get the letters out. I assume you have some small MA's in your classroom as well as the large, are the boxes looser?

  14. Thank you so much for your post! What a wealth of information. I'm relatively new to the Montessori method (just discovering it in December), and I feel that I am perpetually trying to learn as much and as fast as I can, so I can adequately teach my little one (will be 4 in June). He's mastered sorting objects by initial sounds, and I knew that I needed to work towards the moveable alphabet, but I wasn't sure where to go next. I've tried reading the Shu Chen album, but I need more direction. Thanks so much for posting this wonderful resource. I'm heading to the library tomorrow to check out MRW!

  15. After reading your wonderful post on movable alphabet, I decided to try something new. I added batting underneath and around my letters so they stay in place. I posted a blog just for you to see! Come take a look. It might save you time from making your own box...but homfray's box does look appealing! Only if it didn't cost so much $$!

  16. I hate when the alphabets come in two boxes. My letters are probably considered "medium sized" - the box/letter format that I have has been discontinued. I do have a smaller print alphabet that I try to use for phonogram alphabets (it doesn't work that well) from montessori n' such (also appears to be discontinued? I couldn't find it on the website) which does store much more tightly. It also has no lid - it's just a tray.

  17. Thanks so much for this long post. I learned a lot. My 2.5 yr old knows all her letter sounds - her entire sandpaper alphabet, but we don't play enough I Spy games. I wish I'd known about Montessori Read and Write sooner. I'll have to look for it at the library. I still don't get all the stages of the game, but definitely need to start adding this into the day.

  18. I am coming to Montessori by way of Classical Education, not that I'm leaving there...we'll be hybriding later. My son has been learning to read through a number of phonics books that progress along the cvc - blends - digraphs and diphthongs route, and I just recently came across Romalda Spalding's Writing Road to Reading, as well as several spin-offs like Wanda Sanseri's Spell to Write and Read.

    It seems to me that there is a huge overlap between these methods and the Montessori system, only that instead of physically spelling the student uses the movable alphabet. I had "invented" the movable alphabet myself when I found myself with a three year-old reader who couldn't hold a pencil to save his life. We began using alphabet magnets, and I even found some awesome free apps on the Apple App store (Preschool University reading and spelling apps, created by a Montessori teacher). Imagine my surprise when my "invention" of using the alphabet magnets to allow my non-writing son to "spell" became the realization that this had all been invented long ago, and that there was a whole system around it!

    To get back to the point, though, Spalding and its spin-offs do a variation of what you describe. Some teach all phonograms up front, before any writing (and hence reading) takes place. Others teach the first 26 single-letter phonograms, (aka the alphabet, but modified to include multiple letter sounds like the various sounds of vowels), then introduce the other phonograms once the student is reading CVC words, but much more quickly than traditional CVC first programs.

  19. Curiously, what did you ever decide to do about the box??

    1. Quilt batting: