No-Letters Alphabet Work

I’ll just say that again to emphasize: Cara’s first alphabet work, the start of her ABC, did NOT have any letters (a, b, c, etc)–none at all.

And if you wanted to comprehend why, the answer is actually just that: Comprehension. I wanted to make sure that when I showed her the letter /a/ for example, she’d understand what it is, what it means, what it’s for. A young child may still memorize letters and their names and/or sounds (which is what we emphasize in Montessori primarily)–children are so logical that if you give them something and match it with a name/sound repetitively, they will make the connections one way or another soon enough. But that, even when accompanied with words and/or things that begin with each letter, wouldn’t mean they actually grasp what letters actually are.

I understand the excitement to teach letters right away. Ideas and resources for them proliferate on Pinterest and swarm the World Wide Web. And more compelling for us, letters are so pervasive that children are bound to ask about them as they spot them in their environments (In the books you read usually, yes? And often parents take this interest as a sign to start with the alphabet–not for us though and I’ll tell you more about when we started and what we looked out for in a bit). But despite their ubiquity, despite seeing them everywhere, letters are–actually language is–as Maria Montessori said, an “abstract instrument”, a “complex cultural achievement”. Letters are actually codes representing something else that children experienced first in their lives, something they encounter more readily and more concretely in their environments everyday: Sounds. Spoken language. 

Which newborns/infants (in utero even) experience first, through the people around them. Through people–not from gadgets or electronics–because the youngest child has a special sensitivity to human, interactive voice so much so that eventually when they are ready, they will be able to replicate only human sound and speech. So excited are we when we hear those first syllables “ba”, “pa”, “ma”; and all the more, that first word! But I encourage you to eagerly, but quietly, wait for another thing your child will eventually do when he is ready: Isolate sounds, beginning sounds to start. There–that’s when we started–when Cara began isolating and articulating beginning phonemes (the smallest unit of sound in speech–these are the ones represented in print by graphemes which are the letters of the alphabet or a set of letters like igh in “high”) which she began doing more frequently, more obviously, and more accurately when she turned 24 months. Her first one was “/b/, /b/, bus” while we were on a car ride. Spontaneously, on her own, without any prompting or previous presentation (of letters or their names and sounds) from us.

That’s part of Phonemic Awareness! The ability to notice, explore, work with the individual sounds in spoken words.

I don’t have a video of the first time she did it, but it was very much like Nicole of The Kavanaugh Report’s experience here with her daughter Nora, who is just a little older than Cara.

If you think about it, if the letters of the alphabet are written codes to spoken sounds in words, then the start of letters/alphabet work (and as a Montessorian and homeschooler, I get asked this question often–whether or not I’ve started teaching letters) actually begins from infancy: Mindfully communicating with the child, expanding his world by offering him words, nomenclature. Alphabet work already started right then because the child would need a rich vocabulary in order to be able to explore speech sounds. And when Cara’s exploration of spoken language, of words evolved; when she would–as children eventually would if given the time and trust to learn as they are naturally designed to learn–isolate phonemes, beginning sounds in particular for a start; what was our next step?

I prepared a little basket that has 3 objects that begin with the same sound–just objects, no letter. We started with sound /a/ (use short vowel sounds). First presentation: I just covered the small basket with my hand for intrigue and mystery, brought out an object and said its name purposefully, offered the object to the child to let her explore and maybe repeat the name if she liked, placed the object on the table, did the same for the other objects in the basket, then just let her explore the objects on her own. And pretty soon, she was cutting the apple with the ax to give the alligator a slice–that’s child-led pretend play! Plus, she was saying the names as she went along so that’s exposure to and repetition of the words and their common beginning sound! That’s Phoneme Identity.

Another day, we started doing Memory Games, taking turns hiding 1 of the 3 objects and guessing what’s missing (we started with 3 objects, but you can make the activity simpler by using 1 or 2 objects at the beginning). Sometimes she’ll know the answer just by looking at the objects that are left on the mat or table and remember what’s missing; sometimes I’ll describe the object I hid, giving her clues. At 24, 25 months then, Cara loved this activity, inviting me to it often.

When we feel we’re ready for a new sound (one clue is when the sound basket hasn’t been chosen and taken out from the shelf for a time), I change the objects inside the basket–another set of 3 objects with the same beginning sound. Just objects. Still, no letter. Just exposure to the beginning sound and letting her explore and eventually isolate the phonemes herself–and when she does, I just reinforce by saying, “I hear the /o/ sound, too” or “When I/you say ‘insect’, the first sound, the beginning sound I hear/say is /i/–I heard/said it, too”.

When she was ready, we started doing little fetching games. On the table or on my hand, we’ have two objects that have obviously different beginning sounds; then I’d tell Cara, “I’m thinking of something that starts with /a/ (for example)” or “Can you give me the object that has /i/ first/beginning/starting sound”. Then she’d point or fetch. Pretty soon, we were doing it with three objects that have different beginning sounds, until eventually, with a whole basket of more objects (our favorite to use is her basket of wooden cutting fruits). Still, no letters. Just focusing on the sounds, the phonemes.

Other times we also did sorting games.

And after months and months of sound games (hearing, guessing, fetching, sorting), I introduced her to a letter (/a/ to start), saying that that was a symbol, a sign, something that reminds us of the sound we hear. And I’ll talk about what we did with letters in another post, but for now I’ll end with this story: We didn’t start with learning about letters right away because there was so much more to do (Phonemic Awareness work) to lay the foundation for them to make sure that when we introduce letters, there’s comprehension–that the child grasps what letters are really–codes, symbols, signs for sounds they would have already heard. I knew we were more or less on the right track, that there was some awareness and comprehension, when one day, after introducing to her some letters/symbols already, Cara and I were pretend-playing that we were in a cafe. Cara’s Cafe. I had a wooden letter /c/ and a spare 3M hook so I told her, “Let’s put up this sign (hanging the wooden /c/ on the wall). This is the sign, the symbol of Cara’s Cafe.” Just a sign, like a logo–I wasn’t really intending to introduce the letter sound to her. But then spontaneously, all on her own, without prompting or previous presentation from me (much to my surprise actually), our then 28-month-old Cara walked up to the wall, pointed to the wooden /c/ I just hanged and said, “/c/, /c/, /c/, Cara’s Cafe”, emphasizing the beginning /c/ sounds of both words! The delight at the understanding, the revelation, in the discovery–on her face! And I tell you, on mine!

And so I encourage you–aside from enthusiastically celebrating the child’s first syllables and first word, wait first with faith for his first phonemic awareness, phoneme isolation. It will happen when he’s ready in an environment that allows for it, that does not hinder it. Aside from letting him explore his world and environment, let him explore spoken words and language. Then observe, marvel at a unique natural phenomenon–of a child, who started out smaller than the dot at the end of this sentence, revealing himself; working on his own natural development and growth.

Reminded me of this quote from Maria Montessori.

“The teacher must derive not only the capacity, but the desire, to observe natural phenomena. The teacher must understand and feel her position of observer: The activity must lie in the phenomenon.”

But also, “The teacher must not limit her action to observation, but must proceed to experiment… in this method the lesson corresponds to an experiment [and really, my beginning presentation with the sound basket here was just that–an experiment based on observation].”

“So in each ‘lesson’ that the teacher provides, he or she is actually engaging in a scientific experiment with the most fascinating subject that the world can offer; the unfolding development of the child.”

Share your notes with me!