Phonics (letter sounds) have become pretty mainstream over the last ten years, most parents and schools know that reading starts with sounds. And yet we’re all so keen to bring out the letters, the CVC words and the digraphs. Confused yet? Imagine being a child! Before reading comes the Montessori I Spy Game. Before we rush ahead with printed letters there needs to be a good solid phonic foundation AND a pleasant relationship with reading.
The Montessori I Spy Game is the perfect place to start. You can scaffold it into a few stages to help your break up the reading process.
The Montessori I Spy Game – Round 1
In the very first version of the game there are no letters just objects. Letters and sounds have an abstract relationship in the mind of a new reader so in this phase we focus on just one thing – the sound. It works best if we relate the sound to something physical that the child can hold though pictures can work in a pinch. In Montessori these items are called Language Objects. In your house they might be called ‘random pieces of tiny crap that my kids have gathered up from various toy sets’.
To play this round you need to hold an object that begins with the sound you are teaching. Hold it up and say “I spy something beginning with /c/“, looking from your child to the object as you say the sound. The only possible answer is “cat” so when your child says “cat” agree and clearly “Yes you’re right! Cat starts with /c/“.
Continue this game with just one sound but more objects, ideally objects that have different second letters eg hold up a cat then a cup followed by a clip. Slowly start introducing more letters, going slower if the child starts to become confused.
I had some trouble assembling the items I needed to make items (who has an igloo lying around?) So I made a lot of them from Polymer clay, not a process I’d recommend unless you enjoy crafting! Some of my masterpieces are pictured above.
The Montessori I Spy Game – Round Two
Once youve played round 1 for about 40 years (I’m joking! But seriously, don’t rush it!) and you’re confident your child knows a broad range of initial sounds you can introduce two items with very distinct sounds eg a cat and a pen rather than a pin and a bin. Ask your child to identify them one at a time, again by saying “I spy something beginning with /c/.” Play this round for about 20 years and then add a third, fourth or even fifth object.
You can have several items from two sounds (eg a cat, a coat and a clip with a pig, a pen and a pot) or several items from several sounds (eg a cat, a dog, an egg, a fish and a goat). It all depends on the challenge your child is ready for. If it’s too hard or they’re making lots of mistakes go back a step.
A fun way to play this game is to have a bag of familiar sound objects. Start by drawing two and asking “I spy…” when your child identifies the object put it to the side and let your child feel in the bag for the next sound object. This is highly entertaining for a child!
Most educators tend to introduce the letter symbols at this stage, when the child is comfortable with the sounds. You can introduce it by saying “The sound /c/ is written like this….” or “This is the shape of the /c/ sound.” Introduce one letter symbol at a time. I would offer no more than 2 letters & their sound objects for sorting at a time until you’re sure about your child’s knowledge.
Montessori I Spy Game – Round 3
This is just like ‘normal’ I Spy. You pick something from a section of the room or even from a page of illustration. You’ll be surprised what your child finds and this stage is really a lot of fun.
If you’ve introduced the letter shapes you can play this round by saying “I spy something beginning with …” and hold up the letter you’re thinking of. Encourage your child to say the sound before seeking the object.
There are two more rounds to the game which incorporate middle and end sounds but these are the ones that will get you started.
Tips for teaching phonics
It’s important that you don’t flip the tables on your child and ask them to do the ‘spying’ eg “What sound does this object start with?” You do the spying because it is your job to teach the sound and you do this by using their active involvement and inference skills. You are teaching them to HEAR the sound, to split one long sound into lots of little sounds. You isolate the sound because they are not ready to.
And secondly be careful with your pronunciation. The sound /c/ is NOT said “c-uh”, it sounds like the start of the word cat. another frequently pronounced sound is /m/, over and over I’d hear teachers saying “m-uh” with an open mouth instead of a closed lip “mmmm” Resist the urge to draw sounds out! If it helps imagine that you’ve just started saying the word when you remember you’re not allowed to say it and so you shut your mouth!
Check your pronunciation by running a few sounds together to spell a word. If you say the sounds /m/ /a/ /n/ in one breath it sound like man, if it sounds like muahnh then you know you’re over pronouncing the sounds.
Finally, be careful which objects you pick. Giraffe is a bad example of the /g/ sound because it sounds like /j/ (think jam, Jeep, giraffe). Likewise chicken doesn’t make a /c/ sound, nor does shoe make a /s/ sound.
Two of the best resource for a parent who wants to give their child a phonic foundation or assist their teacher in building one are; Lynn Lawrence’s book Montessori Read and Write and Muriel Dwyer’s Montessori Language Approach.