There is a whole world of research available to educators about the science of reading, and ideas on how to apply it to Montessori literacy principles. This week on the podcast, we are talking about ways to reframe our thinking when it comes to literacy, how to help our students who don’t have a strong foundation in literacy, as well as some old ideas that we may need to finally let go of.
by Letty Rising
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(This article is a condensed version of a podcast transcript. For the complete experience, you are encouraged to listen to the entire podcast episode.)
Zil Jaeger is an experienced Montessori teacher, consultant, and coach, with a passion for Montessori literacy and a steadfast commitment to anti-bias, antiracist education. They are AMI Montessori trained at the 3-6 and 6-12 ages, with multiple literacy certifications. They believe that classrooms should be spaces of joy, critical engagement, and community-minded learning. An advocate for the Science of Reading, Zil is devoted to translating the latest research into effective classroom strategies. They love supporting teachers, caregivers, and schools to empower children in their learning. You can find out more information about their work at https://www.ziljaeger.com/
Letty: Welcome to Montessori Talks, where we discuss all things related to the Montessori elementary environment and other Montessori-related topics. Today’s guest is Zil Jaeger, an experienced Montessori teacher, consultant, and coach with a passion for literacy.
Zil: Thank you for having me on, Letty.
What Montessorians Can Learn from the Science of Reading
Letty: I’m so excited to talk to you about the science of reading, especially in relation to Montessori. I noticed on your Instagram that you wrote, “Montessori teachers should be teaching letter names too.” This intrigued me, and I think our listeners will be very interested, especially elementary teachers who might have less training on teaching reading. So, my first question is, what can Montessorians learn from the growing body of science about how we learn to read?
Zil: Historically, Montessori education is in an unusual place when it comes to teaching reading. Dr. Montessori developed her ideas in Italian, a phonetic language, so there’s already a translation barrier when teaching how to read in English. However, neuroscientifically, all human brains learn to read in the same way. There have been shifts in the United States about teaching reading methods over time, ranging from a more structured phonics approach to a whole language approach. Montessori education has kind of been in this middle ground. But I think there’s much we can learn from the growing body of work known as the science of reading. For instance, teaching both letter names and sounds can be highly beneficial. If you think about it, it’s just another piece of nomenclature, and the children are absorbing all kinds of nomenclature as we name things for them in a Montessori environment.
Letty: It seems so straightforward, yet groundbreaking. I’ve often heard that you don’t need to know the name of a letter to read a word, which is true, but it doesn’t hurt to know it either. As you said, it’s just another piece of nomenclature.
Zil: Exactly, it’s a simple shift. Knowing the letter names can support younger learners in coming to elementary education with a solid foundation in letter sounds and basic reading. Optimal brain plasticity for learning to read is between ages three and seven or eight.
Letty: It’s going to be revolutionary for some to hear that knowing the actual name of a letter along with its sound is beneficial for children.
Zil: Absolutely. It aids in orthographic processing, which is essentially the ability to map letter symbols to their sounds. This begins with accurately identifying and discriminating individual letters, which can be easier if you attach a label to it.
Letty: An extra piece of context for them.
Letty: Another question that comes to mind here is, how do we empower learners to understand how human brains learn how to read?
Zil: Yes, I’m so glad you asked this. If you are familiar with our elementary approach in Montessori, we start with these five great lessons. We’re really setting the context and opening up this huge cosmic world for children. We’re inviting them to understand how they, as individual humans, are situated within the great scope and span of the universe’s existence. One thing I’ve done is write a story and encourage teachers to share it. This story explains how humans came to learn to read. When children understand how their brains are developing, it can help remove some of the stigma associated with struggling to learn how to read, especially compared to their peers.
Letty: You’ve written a story about this? Is it available on your website?
Zil: Yes, it is, and it’s free for the next two weeks. So, hopefully, it’ll be available by the time this podcast goes up.
Letty: That sounds exciting. People can find the link to your website in the article attached to this podcast, so they can learn more.
Zil: Absolutely. And there’s another piece of empowering learners when it comes to literacy: the idea of multiple literacies. Reading is not the only way to access information, and writing is not the only way to express ourselves. We need to encourage children to express themselves in ways that align with their own identities.
Letty: I’ve seen firsthand how students develop diverse skills when they struggle with reading. It really highlights the Montessori environment’s flexibility in enabling children to express themselves uniquely. For instance, I had an 8-year-old who was still honing her reading and writing skills but blossomed into an exceptional oral presenter. This gave her an alternative avenue to contribute and share her acquired knowledge while she continued to work on her literacy. Montessori’s approach really supports students in finding their own unique ways to engage with and disseminate information.
Zil: That’s right. In Montessori settings, we focus on providing meaningful experiences first, thereby enriching children’s vocabulary and comprehension. This allows for a multifaceted approach to learning that can meet children where they are.
Empowering Early Readers
Letty: That brings me to my next question: How can educators best support learners who enter a younger elementary classroom without these foundational literacy skills?
Zil: This is a big question and one that can’t be fully answered in a single podcast session. What drove me towards this work was encountering children without the necessary skills and feeling ill-equipped to teach them. One thing educators shouldn’t fear is assessment. It’s simply gathering data to understand where the child is at. It doesn’t have to be scary; it can be friendly and valuable.
Letty: That’s an interesting perspective, especially in Montessori settings where assessments are often viewed skeptically.
Zil: Exactly. But as I’ve delved deeper into this world of literacy, I’ve realized that assessment is just science. It’s all about the way you frame it and how the child receives it.
Zil: Exactly. So I think you know, you have six-year-olds coming into your classroom starting by just doing letter card drills and seeing what letter names and sounds they know. If they know all their letter names and sounds, great, move on to consonant-vowel-consonant or CVC words. See what they’ve got there. Move on then to maybe some simple decodable readers, and see how they’re doing there. And from there, you’re going to develop your list of what they know, what they don’t know, and what you need to teach. There are more standardized assessments; there’s a universal screener called DIBELS, but there are also others like I-Ready. A universal screener is a really great way to make sure that all the children in a school, between hopefully kindergarten and third grade at the very least, are being screened for reading risk. Jen Hasbrouck, who’s a literacy researcher and helps develop the oral reading fluency norms, equates DIBELS to a thermometer. She asks, “Does this child have a reading fever? Or do they not have a reading fever?” It’s quick, it’s accurate, and it’s normed to a benchmark standard. It just tells you whether or not there’s a risk; it doesn’t diagnose a disease. It just tells you, do we need to be paying attention or are things okay?
Individual teachers shouldn’t be afraid to stray outside of their norms. When I was a younger elementary teacher, I felt I needed to adhere strictly to my albums. But as I’ve grown in my career, I’ve realized that if they don’t know how to read, you’ve got to teach them. And I’ll do whatever it takes to ensure they become independent and autonomous learners. For instance, if you identify a group of children struggling with phonetics, don’t hesitate to work with them for 20 minutes daily until you see improvement.
Letty: So what if you’re a new teacher and you have a large group of children from diverse backgrounds who are not reading? Would 10 minutes a day be sufficient?
Zil: Something is better than nothing. If you’ve got 10 kids and you can only do 10 minutes, that’s what you do. Schools should also consider purchasing curricula that align with the science of reading and adapting it as needed. I’ve had success with the University of Florida Literacy Institute curriculum (UFLI). Schools have a responsibility to provide children with the tools they need to be successful learners.
Letty: Absolutely, especially after the challenges brought by the pandemic. Many teachers feel frustrated because children are not where they usually would be developmentally.
Zil: Yes, and that’s why we should be open to having more resources, like a literacy intervention program in schools. It can relieve teachers from the burden of daily 20-minute sessions and allow a specialized role to handle these assessments and interventions. This approach becomes even more crucial when we consider the setbacks that pandemic learning has brought to many students.
Letty: I agree, the kids need a lot of help, especially now. It’s been a challenging period for everyone involved in education, and we must adapt to meet these needs.
Letty: Do you have any other resources that you could recommend, besides UFLI, that you think teachers might benefit from? There’s so much information out there, and people are always looking for trusted resources.
Zil: Absolutely. On my website, there’s a link to my bookshop where you can find my recommended books. One recent standout is “Powerful Literacy in the Montessori Classroom” by Susan Zoll, Natasha Feinberg, and Laura Saylor. It aligns Scarborough’s Rope model for understanding reading with Montessori approaches. Another foundational resource is “Speech to Print” by Louisa Moats. She, along with Carol Tolman, developed the LETRS training, which is incredibly helpful. Additionally, Emily Gibbons at The Literacy Nest offers excellent Orton-Gillingham resources. There’s also a book called “Uncovering the Logic of English” by Denise Eide that’s fantastic for spelling.
Letty: That’s a lot of great resources. Now, here’s another important question. Is there anything that teachers should avoid doing?
Zil: Memorizing sight words isn’t aligned with the science of reading.
Letty: What do you suggest instead?
Zil: Instead, you could use the Heart Word method to teach ‘puzzle words.’ (Described in the podcast episode)
You can highlight the tricky parts of the word to make it ‘sticky,’ so to speak. Any part of a word can be tricky until the rule is explicitly introduced to the child.
Letty: That’s intriguing. Regarding ‘puzzle’ or sight words, this method would be a departure for many.
Zil: Definitely. Another thing to avoid is leveled readers. Instead, opt for decodable readers like Monarch Readers or Flyleaf Readers, which help children read at their current level and focus on specific patterns.
Letty: Are there enough decodable readers out there, or do we need more?
Zil: There’s never enough. I’m actually considering writing some myself.
Montessori Educators and the Importance of Data Collection
Letty: Interesting. Lastly, why should Montessori educators embrace collecting data?
Zil: Collecting data helps us understand individual learning patterns and can be instrumental in improving educational approaches. It serves as a valuable tool for teachers to tailor instruction and assessment.
Zil: In elementary school, you’ve got six and seven-year-olds. The window of opportunity for teaching reading is getting narrower and narrower, right? Any human can learn how to read; it’s just that the ease with which they can learn becomes more limited over time. By collecting data, you’re identifying who needs help. By assessing with something like the ‘Core Phonics Survey’ or the ‘Quick Phonics Screener,’ you can figure out what that child needs. And then, as you’re teaching them how to read, you’re hopefully doing some progress monitoring, maybe once a month or every two to three weeks. Is this approach effective in identifying who needs help, what kind of help they need, and whether your teaching approach is working?
Letty: Absolutely. This brings to mind another question. Some people say, “Let’s wait it out a bit; they might just need more time to develop.” What’s your response to that?
Zil: As a teacher, I’m waving a giant red flag saying, “Do not wait.” To caregivers, I’m lovingly saying, “Please don’t wait.” The solution often comes down to repetition. Waiting won’t offer that. So, what are the earliest ages at which you might see warning signs related to a child’s reading ability?
Zil: If you’re a guide for ages 3-6 and you’ve been working with a child on sandpaper letters for six months without significant progress, that’s a red flag. It might not mean the child needs a diagnosis, but it suggests that I need to pay more attention, offer more repetitions, and possibly change my instruction method.
Letty: So, how would you approach elementary students who are already in first grade?
Zil: I’d use a universal screener. If it shows low reading skills, I’d contact the caregivers right away. I’d then initiate 20-minute daily lessons or work with an interventionist. If there’s no progress by January, it might be time to consider outside tutoring or additional home exercises.
Letty: The earlier the intervention, the better, right?
Zil: Exactly. Early intervention can change the trajectory of their academic career.
Letty: Thank you for sharing your expertise, Zil. People can find you at ziljaeger.com and on Instagram. To all the listeners, I look forward to having you join us in our next podcast episode.
Zil: Thanks for having me, Letty.
Letty Rising has been involved in Montessori education for over 15 years. She holds a B.A. in Sociology, a California State Teaching Credential, and an AMI elementary diploma for ages 6-12 and an M.Ed from Loyola University in Maryland. She has held positions as a Homeschool Education Specialist, Montessori Elementary Teacher, School Director, Principal, Montessori Coordinator, and Consultant in several public and private Montessori school communities throughout the years. Letty currently supports schools around the world through professional development offerings, consulting, and mentoring.