2012, Volume 15, Research Articles

Embedding Literacy in an Early Childhood Education Programme: A Look into Montessori

Article Index

nzrece journal


Original Research Paper
© ChildForum 


Embedding Literacy in an Early Childhood Education Programme: A Look into Montessori

By Sheilpa Patel
University of Waikato


Full reference
Patel, S. (2012). Embedding literacy in an early childhood education programme: A look into Montessori. NZ Research in Early Childhood Education Journal, 15, 11-30. Retrieved from http://www.childforum.com/research/2012-nzrece-journal-articles/866-literacy-early-childhood-education-montessori.html



Children begin school with a range of pre-literacy skills that serve as the foundation for later reading achievement. These skills include phonological awareness, alphabet knowledge and vocabulary. The New Zealand early childhood curriculum Te Whāriki is non-prescriptive in terms of literacy and allows for early childhood centres to develop their own literacy programmes with varying levels of emphasis on pre-literacy skills. This article describes research into the pre-literacy skills and knowledge of 23 children between the ages of 4.6 and 4.11 months attending two Montessori centres in New Zealand where the Head Teachers are Montessori trained and the centres use traditional Montessori resources and materials to develop literacy. The researcher investigated the efficacy of a Montessori approach to the development of literacy skills in four year olds in the context of current research around pre-literacy skills development in early childhood education. 

Key words: Literacy, Montessori, reading skills   



Current research indicates that literacy-related knowledge and skills children have upon school entry predicts later success. Children enter school with a wide range of literacy-related or pre-reading skills influenced by factors such as socio-economic status (SES), home practices, and early childhood education (Burgess & Lonigan, 1998; Lonigan, Bloomfield, Anthony, Bacon, Phillips, & Samwel, 1999; McLachlan, 2008; National Early Literacy Panel, 2008; Nicholson, 2002; Nicholson & Ng, 2006; Smith & Dixon, 1995).  The key pre-literacy skills that influence reading achievement include oral language development, phonological/phonemic awareness, alphabet knowledge, and print knowledge (Anthony & Lonigan, 2004; Carroll, Snowling, Hulme, & Stevenson, 2003; Foulin, 2005; Invernizzi, Landrum, Teichman, & Townsend, 2010; McLachlan-Smith & Shuker, 2002; Nicholson & Ng, 2006). 

Alphabet knowledge includes being able to name both the uppercase and lowercase letters of the alphabet. A more complex task involving alphabet knowledge is being able to map letters with their corresponding sounds. Knowledge of the alphabet at school entry is one of the strongest predictors of reading achievement (Arrow, 2010; Foulin, 2005; Lonigan, 2006; McLachlan-Smith & Shuker, 2002; National Early Literacy Panel, 2008; Tunmer, Nicholson, Greaney, Prochnow, & Arrow, 2008). In addition to alphabet knowledge, strong predictors of reading achievement include phonological awareness and oral language. Phonological awareness involves the knowledge of onset and rime, syllable segmentation and blending, and phonemic awareness.  Phonemic awareness is the awareness that words are made up of individual sounds or phonemes. Tasks that measure phonemic awareness range from the simple (being able to identify the first or last sound in a word) to the complex (being able to drop and substitute phonemes to create new words). Oral language includes receptive vocabulary as well as the ability to use and understand a range of structures. Weaknesses in alphabet knowledge, phonological awareness and oral language can have long-term negative effects on reading achievement (Castles, Coltheart, Wilson, Valpied, & Wedgwood, 2009; Dickinson, McCabe, Anastasopoulos, Peisner-Feinberg, & Poe, 2003; Foulin, 2005; Lonigan et al., 1999; Tunmer, Chapman, Prochnow, 2006).

Phonemic awareness is critical to reading achievement (Morrow, 2009; Nicholson, 2004; Nicholson, 2005).  Research also indicates that there is a reciprocal relationship between children developing letter knowledge and phonemic awareness. In a longitudinal study involving 67 preschool children, Carroll et al. (2003) found that children who were unable to show letter knowledge were also unable to achieve any of their phonemic awareness tasks.  Dickinson et al. (2003) also discusses research that shows the interrelationships between the pre-literacy skills such as letter knowledge, phonological awareness including phonemic awareness, receptive vocabulary, and oral language. Letter knowledge bridges the gap from spoken words to written words and is the foundation for successful reading acquisition. According to McLachlan and Arrow (2010) “…the best way for children to learn to break the alphabetic code is to learn letter-sounds in conjunction with phonological awareness” (p. 86).

For many children who have rich experiences with literature and print at home, these early literacy skills can be developed through quality experiences with storybook reading, discussion about books, oral language activities requiring listening and attempts at writing at home or at early childhood education (ECE) centres. However, for children at risk of developing reading difficulties due to SES or other factors, exposure to books and print-rich environments in ECE centres are not sufficient to develop the necessary skills for future reading achievement. For these children, research demonstrates that literacy interventions in ECE settings have a significant impact on children’s pre-literacy knowledge and skills, better preparing them for transition to school and achieving reading success (McLachlan & Arrow, 2010; McLachlan-Smith& Shuker, 2002; Nicholson & Ng, 2006; Rachmani, 2011; Shanahan & Lonigan, 2010). The alphabetic principle - the relationship between letters and their sounds – should be taught early, especially for at-risk children (Ehri, 2006; Nicholson, 2005).  In a longitudinal study, Tunmer et al. (2006) discovered “school entry variables accounted for 70% of the variance in Year 7 reading achievement, with literate cultural capital alone accounting for almost 50% of the variance” (p. 183) showing that early achievement gaps have long-term effects. According to Nicholson (2002), instruction in ‘simple phonics’ (p. 48)  in ECE centres is recommended to begin the process of closing the gap in reading achievement that widens greatly in the first two years of school and persists long after. This is supported by the National Early Literacy Panel (2008) that suggests literacy skills instruction in the early childhood setting may be particularly beneficial for children at risk of developing reading difficulties.


Early Childhood Education in New Zealand

With nearly all children in New Zealand attending some form of licensed centre or home-based service before beginning school there is opportunity for these services to play a role in assiting children to develop key pre-literacy skills. Te Whāriki, New Zealand’s early childhoodnational curriculum, has four main principles, namely: empowerment, holistic development, family and community, and relationships.  These principles are further divided into strands and goals (Ministry of Education, 1996). Te Whāriki “does not prescribe what early childhood teachers must do to promote children’s early literacy…[and] …there is therefore considerable scope for teachers to make their own decisions about literacy practices” (Foote, Smith, & Ellis, 2004, p. 136). A New Zealand study involving 72 ECE centres reported that less than 50% of teachers involved in the study use Te Whāriki to support their literacy programmes (McLachlan, Carvalho, de Lautour, & Kumar, 2006). Teachers hold a wide range of beliefs as to how literacy should be incorporated into early childhood programmes ranging from skills based instruction in the alphabet to broad integration of literacy concepts into everyday activities and play, to story reading, to print rich environments (Foote et al., 2004).

Ages three and four are a critical time for development and the practices at ECE centres impact both social and academic development.  The preschool years are especially important for oral language development and for initial experiences with reading and writing that link to later school achievement (Arrow & McLachlan, 2011; Invernizzi et al., 2010; Storch and Whitehurst, 2002).  A high quality literacy program in ECE would include “intentional and developmentally appropriate” teaching plans that allow children to develop pre-literacy skills (Morrow, 2007, p. 23). This includes basic concepts about print and how books work as well as identifying letter names and sounds.  It also includes reading to children and having quality discussions around books and their language structures.  Children should be encouraged to begin writing using invented spelling in writing centres or journals (Morrow, 2007, p. 24).  While many early childhood centres in New Zealand may provide quality literacy experiences including attention to environmental print, oral language development, story time, and writing opportunities, the holistic approach in Te Whāriki “has made possible the neglect (at worst) or uneven attention (at best) to critical skills components such as phonemic awareness” (Cullen, 2007, p. 117).  On the opposite end, 20% of ECE centres use commercial phonics programmes to either supplement their literacy programme or in a few cases, to base their whole literacy programme on a commercial phonics package (Education Review Office, 2011).

The broad principles of Te Whāriki allow for a range of ECE programmes based on diverse pedagogies to be provided in New Zealand.  These include playcentres, parent-led centres, teacher-led centres, kindergartens, and programmes that follow particular approaches such as Montessori, Rudolf Steiner, and Reggio Emilia.  ECE centres have the freedom to develop literacy programmes as they deem appropriate allowing for literacy programmes that range in variety as well as quality.  The quality of literacy programmes offered may also be related to teacher knowledge.  There is a growing body of research suggesting the importance of early childhood teachers to have educational linguistic knowledge to support literacy development (Arrow & McLachlan, 2011; Cullen, 2002; McLachlan 2008; McLachlan-Smith & Shuker, 2002; Nicholson & Ng, 2006).  

The purpose of this small scale study was to examine the literacy practices of two Montessori early childhood centres in New Zealand where the administrators and head teachers of the centres are Montessori trained and committed to providing the Montessori approach to developing early literacy skills using traditional Montessori materials and resources. The researcher was interested in Montessori early childhood programmes in particular, based on anecdotal information regarding how children in these centres were learning pre-literacy skills through self-initiated activities using Montessori resources. The researcher was also interested in the Montessori method because it was originally developed by Maria Montessori to educate children with mild to severe learning difficulties and gained fame due its success (Lopata, Wallace, & Finn, 2005).  The researcher wanted to examine how the literacy resources and activities provided in the Montessori setting compared with the current research around how to develop pre-literacy skills and to what extent these literacy experiences resulted in alphabet knowledge, phonological awareness including phonemic awareness, concepts about print, and vocabulary knowledge for children aged 4 years and 6 months to four years and 11 months prior to school entry.  Currently, Montessori ECE centres make up less than 2% of the approximate 5,150 ECE centres in New Zealand (Education Review Office, 2010). 




The study consisted of gathering information about children’s literacy in two Montessori ECE centres in New Zealand in four main ways. First, a parent survey was conducted at the time of consent to gather information about home literacy practices as well as socio-economic and cultural background for all children who would participate in the study.  Second, the researcher conducted six hours of formal observation at each centre in order to identify and observe literacy practices and activities of the daily educational environment.  Third, 23 children who met the age requirement of the study participated in a variety of literacy assessment tasks over two to four sessions conducted one-on-one. Last, the Head Teachers from both centres were interviewed to share their knowledge about literacy development in the Montessori classroom.


The participants consisted of 23 pre-schoolers from two Montessori ECE centres in New Zealand between the ages of 4 years and 6 months to 4 years and 11 months with an average age of 4 years and 8 months.  There were 17 girls and 6 boys representing the overall gender composition of the centres. All 25 children who met the age requirement were invited to participate in the study with 92% agreeing to participate and parents providing informed consent.  Two families did not return the consent forms.  Informed consent was also received from the Head Teachers and Administrators of both centres as well as all teachers present in the centres where observations occurred. The sample of children was predominantly middle-class determined by family household income above $50,001 but less than $100,000.  The sample included New Zealand/European (69.7%), followed by New Zealand/Maori (8.8%), Indian (4.3%), New Zealand/Russian (4.3%), Chinese (8.6%), and others (4.3%). 


Children who provided their consent to the study were asked to participate in a variety of literacy assessment tasks. The first set of tasks was taken from the PALS-PreK assessment (Invernizzi, Sullivan, Meier, & Swank, 2004). These included name writing, letter and sound knowledge, beginning sounds knowledge, print concepts, and rhyme awareness.  The second set of tasks was only offered to children who demonstrated strong letter-sound knowledge, beginning sound knowledge, print and word awareness knowledge, and rhyme awareness based on the PALS-Pre-K assessment manual. These tasks included the Gough-Kastler-Roper Phonemic Awareness Test as adapted by Nicholson (2005) which allows the researcher to observe more complex aspects of phonemic awareness and sight word reading using Clay’s (1993) Ready to Read Word Test and the Ohio Word Test (Clay, 1993).  Children were given the option to decline all assessment tasks and to stop at any stage of the assessment.  The final assessment task provided to all children was the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (PPVT) (Dunn & Dunn, 2007).

Name writing (PALS- PreK) (Invernizzi et al., 2004)

For this task, the participants were asked to draw a self-portrait and write their name.  The name writing task is scored on a 0 to 7 point scale using the PALS-PreK teacher manual that awards points for writing skills from the child presenting a scribble to represent both name and portrait (0) to the child writing a name accurately and separately from the picture with no backward or incorrect letters (7). 

Letter and sound knowledge (PALS-PreK) (Invernizzi et al., 2004)

Although letter names and letter sounds are assessed separately in PALS-PreK beginning with letter names, participants in this study were given the choice to provide the name or sound of the letters.  This is because children in traditional Montessori settings are provided with letter sounds before letter names. All 26 letters were presented in a random order beginning with lower case letters and moving on to upper case letters.  Children were also asked to provide the sounds for the digraphs /th/, /sh/, and /ch/.

Phonological awareness tasks

Beginning sound knowledge (PALS-PreK) (Invernizzi et al., 2004):  Children were presented with four pictures (e.g., man, sock, bag, sink) as practice items that began with three different sounds /m/, /b/, /s/.  They were provided the word that represents the picture and were asked to listen and focus on the initial sound.  They were then presented with 10 more words and their pictures beginning with the same three sounds and were asked to identify the beginning sound they heard. Their responses were recorded and either validated or corrected with the researcher providing the correct beginning sound and grouping the pictures by the initial sound. 

Rhyme Awareness (PALS-PreK) (Invernizzi et al., 2004)

Children were provided with two practice items where they were shown a row of four pictures.  They listened to the word describing the first picture. They were then asked to listen to the words for the following three pictures and choose the one that rhymed with the word of the first picture.  The researcher confirmed or corrected their responses on the practice items. Participants completed 10 assessment items in the same format.

Print and word awareness tasks (PALS-PreK) (Invernizzi et al., 2004)

Children were read the familiar nursery rhyme, Hey Diddle Diddle, in a book format. The researcher asked the children to point to various text components to demonstrate their knowledge of print awareness and concepts such as title, directionality, and word to word matching.


The Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (PPVT) (Dunn & Dunn, 2007) has been designed for children from ages two years and six months and above. This assessment allows children to demonstrate their understanding of vocabulary by pointing to a colourful picture out of a set of four that best represents the word provided by the researcher. This task was chosen to assess receptive vocabulary as a measure of oral language. 

Gough-Kastler-Roper Phonemic Awareness Test (Nicholson, 2005)

Participants who demonstrated a strong knowledge of the previous tasks were offered an additional phonemic awareness assessment requiring the ability to engage in more complex tasks beginning with blending (c-a-t = cat) and moving on to deletion of first phoneme (cat without ‘k’ = at), deletion of last phoneme (cat without ‘t’= ca), phonemic segmentation (cat= c-a-t), substitution of first phoneme (cat - ‘c’ + ‘f’ = fat), and substitution of last phoneme (cat – ‘t’ + ‘p’ = cap).  Each of these assessment sets had seven items and children only moved on to the next set if they were able to answer a minimum of four correctly. 

Sight Word Reading Test

Children who were able to identify at least one of the three digraphs /th/, /sh/, /ch/ were offered sight word reading tests using list B from Clay’s (1993) Ready to Read Word Test and the Ohio Word Test (Clay, 1993). The Ready to Read test included 15 words and the Ohio Word Test included 20 words.  There were no repeated words between the two lists.


Results of Children’s Tasks

Table 1 shows the scores, means and standard deviations for the assessment tasks all 23 children completed.

Table 1. Means and SD for all children (n=23) for assessment tasks

Assessment tasks

Name Writing (7)
Lowercase letters (26)
Uppercase letters (26)
Digraphs: th, sh, ch (3)
Beginning sounds (10)
Rhyme awareness (10)
Print and Word Awareness (10)
Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (Standard Score)
Note: Only nine children were able to identify at least one digraph.


Name Writing

Of the 23 children assessed, 15 scored 7 points on a 7 point scale reflecting their ability to write their name accurately and form all letters in their name correctly.  Six of the 23 children scored six points reflecting their ability to write their names with near accuracy with one or more letters backwards or in mirror image.  One child scored four points demonstrating limited ability in name writing. According the to the PALS/Pre K assessment manual, the developmental range for children at this age is between five and seven points on this task.  The data from this study shows that of the 23 children who participated in this task, 95.7% of them scored in the expected developmental range (Invernizzi et al., 2004).

Alphabet Knowledge

While children were given the choice to identify letters by their names or by their sounds, every child in the study chose to provide letter sounds over letter names.  The only letters some children chose to refer to by name were lowercase q, and x and uppercase I, and X.  The mean number of upper case letters children were able to identify was 20.52 (SD=7.11) and the mean number of lower case letters children were able to identify was 21.52 (SD=5.71). Of the participants, 95.7% scored at or above the expected developmental range (Invernizzi et al., 2004).

Phonological Awareness

Two assessment tasks were used with all children in the study.  The first measured beginning sound awareness. On this task, the mean was 9.48 (SD= 2.09) out of a maximum of 10.  Of the participants, 95.7% scored at or above the developmental range. The second assessment used to measure phonological awareness was a rhyme awareness task. On this task, the mean was 7.7 (SD=3.02) out of a maximum of 10.  Of the participants, 82.6% scored at or above the expected developmental range (Invernizzi et al., 2004).

Print and Word Awareness

This assessment involved children interacting with a short book to demonstrate their concepts about print including left to right directionality and one to one word matching. According to the PALS/PreK developmental range, children should score between 7 and 9 points out of 10 on this task.  In this study, the mean score was 8.7 (SD=2.08) with 82.6% of the participants scoring at or above the expected range (Invernizzi et al., 2004).


The mean standard score for this sample was 115.7 (SD=8.13) which is well above the average of 100. All children in this sample scored above average (i.e., above Standard Score of 100) (Dunn & Dunn, 2007). 

Gough-Kastler-Roper Phonemic Awareness Test

Based on the scores of previous assessments, 16 children were invited to participate in the phonemic awareness text.  There are no New Zealand norms available for this assessment, however, Nicholson (2005) provides a guide for scoring. Assuming children are given the entire test of 42 questions, five-year-old children at the beginning of the year are expected to score between 5 (low pre-reading skills) and 10 (high pre-reading skills).  In this study, this assessment was not administered in its entirety as an attempt to not over-assess children with an assessment not originally designed for pre-school children. Each subset of tasks contained seven questions. Children moved to the next subset if they scored at least four correctly. Therefore, the results are not based on a maximum score of 42.  Of the 16 children who participated in this assessment 11 scored at or above the guidelines with six scoring between 8 and 10 points, three scoring between 14 and 18 points, one scoring 31 points, and one scoring 36 points.  The remaining 5 children scored between 4 and 6 points.

Sight Word Reading Test

Nine children out of 23 were able to identify at least one of the three digraphs /th/, /sh/, /ch/ and were invited to participate in the sight word reading test.  Table 2 shows the standard deviations and means for the sight word reading.  All of the 9 participants were able to read at least one word from each list.  From the Ready to Read list of 15 words, 5 children read between 3 and 7 words and 4 children read between 11 and 15 words.  From the Ohio Word Test that included 20 words, six children read between 1 and 6 words and 3 children read between 13 and 18 words.


Table 2

Means and SD for children’s (n=9) sight word reading

Sight word lists
Word list B from Ready to Read (15)
Word list B from Ohio Word Test (20)



These findings are consistent with many other studies that show the interrelated nature of pre-literacy skills with a significant correlation between vocabulary and rhyme awareness (r=0.51, p<0.05). Beginning sound knowledge also was strongly correlated with uppercase letter knowledge (r=0.64, p<0.01) and with lowercase letter knowledge (r=0.70, p<0.01).

The Gough-Kastler-Roper phonemic awareness assessment showed a large range of skills amongst the participants.  However, as the assessment was not administered to all children and it was only administered in its entirety to two children, it is not the best indicator of phonemic awareness skills for the study as a whole.  The researcher recognises this as a limitation to the study and, in a future study of this kind, would administer a phonemic awareness test to all children that goes beyond the beginning sounds assessment provided in the PALS-PreK Assessment. 

According to the developmental range outlined in the PALS-PreK assessment manual (Invernizzi, 2004), the findings from this study suggest that 95.7% of the participants were at or above the developmental range for name-writing skills, alphabet knowledge, and beginning sound awareness expected at their age at time of study while 82.6% of the participants were at or above the developmental range for rhyme awareness and print awareness tasks. This suggests that these participants are likely to make a smooth transition to primary school in terms of literacy knowledge required at school entry. Children’s assessments showed that their literacy skills are at or above expected levels by several years and samples of reliability testing for the assessment items used (Dunn & Dunn, 2007; Invernizzi, 2004). All the children demonstrated an above average receptive vocabulary that could be attributed to both their home environment and preschool centres. Although there have been limited studies conducted in New Zealand examining the pre-literacy skills of children from middle-income backgrounds, the children in this study scored above the averages reported in previous studies (Arrow, 2010; Nicholson & Ng, 2006; Wylie, 2002).

The results from this study could reflect SES, home practices, or ECE experiences but is likely to be a combination of all three.  The parent surveys showed that 64% read to children everyday while the remainder read to their children at least three times a week.  While it is hard to distinguish between what is learned at home and reinforced by ECE programmes or the other way around, the researcher found it interesting that all children in the study chose to identify letters by their sounds rather than names and that 80% of the children were able to identify more lowercase letters than uppercase letters. While these findings are consistent with the Montessori approach to language and literacy learning, they are inconsistent with research that says children tend to learn names of letters before sounds of letters (Blaiklock, 2008; Foulin, 2005; Rachmani, 2011) and that preschool children tend to be able to identify more uppercase letters than lowercase letters (Invernizzi et al., 2004). This seems to suggest that the alphabet knowledge the participants demonstrated in this study may be indicative of the influence of the Montessori approach on their learning. However, further study into this area would need to occur to determine this.


Discussion of Observations and Teacher Interviews

The researcher found that the Montessori programmes offered at these two centres aligned with the Montessori constructivist approach to learning which encourages children to choose the activities they want to engage in throughout the day in order to develop knowledge at their own pace based on their own interests (Lillard, 2005; Soundy, 2003; Woods, 2002). This approach to learning is also supported by research that shows that when the literacy environment is thoughtfully planned, children are able to demonstrate their skills in literacy through choice as part of their play (Foote et al., 2004). “Children should be allowed to initiate their own learning experiences” in order for it to be meaningful (Nel, 2000, p. 137).  The centres also have ‘mat’ times where children engage in a variety of activities that promote literacy learning in social and engaging ways.  While children are encouraged to join in ‘mat’ activities, it is not compulsory. The teacher will allow a child to finish working on an activity she is engaged in if the child chooses. However, the researcher did not observe any ‘mat’ experiences where a child chose not to participate.  The activities that were observed during this time included storytelling, storybook reading, singing songs, giving instructions and counting in Maori, playing with rhymes, syllable identification, written name identification, and vocabulary and oral language development. The researcher observed new vocabulary being introduced to children through discussions around books and current events such as the ‘tsunami’ in Japan following the earthquake. 

Both Montessori ECE centres observed in this study have a library area in their room with comfortable child-sized seating for children to engage with books. Children visited these areas frequently both independently and socially in small groups. The researcher also observed a child take great pride in fluently reading a story to the whole group just as a teacher would.  According to the Head Teacher, children are able to read to the whole group as they feel comfortable during story time. One child commented that she thought it was “cool that [name] could read like an adult to the children. I can’t wait until I can read like that.”   

There were many specific Montessori literacy resource materials available to the children to use including sandpaper letters, the moveable alphabet, and grammar boxes. The researcher observed children exploring letters using sand trays, sorting objects in small boxes by their initial sound, building rhyming words with the moveable alphabet, and building sentences (Richardson, 1997). Children were free to use these resources independently and in groups. For children who were new to particular resources, the teacher guided them through the process modelling how to use materials.  Older children also showed and worked with younger children who wanted to engage with literacy resources. The Montessori approach to literacy learning reflected Nutbrown’s (1997) assertion that just playing with literacy materials is not enough, children need to be shown how to use literacy materials.  The researcher also observed children engaging with a variety of writing resources from activities and games designed to develop the pencil grip and motor control to children actively involved with creative story writing using dictionaries and thesauruses. 

The materials in the centres reflected the training Montessori teachers receive that “emphasize the theoretical underpinnings and developmental sequences in which young children prepare the hand and eye for writing, reading, and penmanship” (Soundy, 2003, p. 127).  When interviewed, the teachers were able to articulate their understanding of the Montessori approach to language and literacy development that guides their practice.  They shared their understanding of the progression of learning that included the development of rich oral language through talk around real and meaningful situations, which serves as the foundation for reading and writing. Teachers view the oral language development as an on-going process alongside developing knowledge around phonemic awareness, teaching sounds of letters before names of letters, and lowercase alphabet knowledge before uppercase.  The teachers explained that initially teaching letter sounds before letter names is more relevant to children as they begin the reading process as they better correspond to printed text. They begin with lowercase letters before uppercase letters because children encounter more lowercase letters in the course of reading. The teachers also articulated their understanding of how reading and writing develop simultaneously and that children in their centres will often build words using the moveable alphabet before they ‘read’ words. 

The Montessori approach to reading reflects the idea of a systematic approach where knowledge and skill build upon each other through “carefully sequenced lessons” based on the phonetic aspects of language (Woods, 2002, p. 19).  The approach reflects Nicholson’s (2002) description of phonics where children learn letter sounds before letter names, practice writing in sand, and working with reading words in an hierarchal order with three letters before four, and simple sound-letter relationships before more complex digraphs and blends.  In the Montessori classroom, children use the moveable alphabet to build word families by deleting and adding sounds, progressing from three letter words to four letter words and so on.  The Montessori approach to literacy seems to align well with Nicholson’s (2002) explanation of how literacy skills can be developed in early childhood education.    

Based on SES and information provided in the parent surveys, the children who participated in this study would be considered to have high levels of literate “cultural capital” (Bourdieu, 1974, as cited in Nicholson, 2003, p. 166) increasing the likelihood of success in reading achievement upon school entry, regardless of their ECE experiences. However, the Head Teachers interviewed as part of this study said that while parents choose Montessori for their children for a variety of reasons, many parents choose Montessori in the hope that their child/children will learn to read and write to some degree before beginning primary school in order to make the transition more successful. Maria Montessori did not develop the Montessori method for children of high-SES backgrounds although many Montessori early education centres now attract parents from these backgrounds. To the contrary, “Maria Montessori developed the first Montessori school in 1907 to serve children who were economically disadvantaged and as well as children with mental retardation” (Lopata et al., 2005, p. 1). Her methods found success amongst illiterate children of diverse backgrounds who were not expected to achieve.  Although over a hundred years old, her methods are still relevant today and closely align with effective instruction as described by Nicholson (2002, 2005) and many other researchers (Cullen, 2002; Morrow, 2009; Nutbrown, 1997; Foulin, 2005; Lonigan et al., 1999; Tunmer, Chapman, Prochnow, 2006).  While this study does not provide a simple solution to close the gap between pre-literacy skills upon school entry between children of low-SES and high-SES backgrounds, it does provide an example of how literacy in early childhood education can be integrated as a part of self-initiated play through a well-planned environment with appropriate resources and the guidance of teachers with a good understanding of literacy development.



Although ECE centres in New Zealand have the ability to promote literacy in a range of ways, the lack of specific guidelines in Te Whāriki allow for inconsistency amongst centres. Coupled with this is the concern that early childhood education teachers in New Zealand may not have enough knowledge or understanding of pre-literacy skills nor the strategies to develop these skills (McLachlan & Arrow, 2010). “The ‘free play’ philosophy of the last 50 years is not conducive to literacy achievement” (McLachlan-Smith & Shuker, 2002, p. 104) as it allows teachers to step back from having to take an active role in literacy development and allows for a hit or miss early childhood education.

The Montessori early education centres observed in this study reflected the idea espoused by Young (2004) that teachers need knowledge about how to plan literacy environments with appropriate resources in order to encourage literacy learning as a part of children’s play while also allowing for opportunities for teachers to explicitly scaffold the process (Cullen, 2002; Morrow, 2007; Nutbrown, 1997).  The need for integrating pre-literacy skills such as phonemic awareness and alphabet knowledge in early childhood education programmes is widely recognised (Hamer & Adams, 2002; McLachlan, 2008; Nicholson, 2004; Nicholson, 2005) and the Montessori early childhood education centres observed in this study appear successful at doing this. The results from this small study suggest that Montessori programmes that have Montessori trained teachers who endeavour to follow the Montessori approach to literacy development using appropriate materials and resources have a successful and effective method for providing children with necessary pre-literacy skills.  


Anthony, J. L., & Lonigan, C. J. (2004). The nature of phonological sensitivity: Converging evidence from four studies of preschool and early-grade school children. Journal of Educational Psychology, 96, 43-55.

Arrow, A. (2010). Emergent literacy skills in New Zealand kindergarten children: Implications for teaching and learning in ECE settings. He Kupu The Word, 2(3), 57-69.

Arrow, A. W., & McLachlan, C. (2011).  The emergent literacy approach to effective teaching and intervention. Perspectives on Language and Literacy, 37(4), 35-38.

Blaiklock, K. (2008). The invisible alphabet: Te Whāriki, letter knowledge, and the development of reading skills. Early Education, 43(1), 12-15.

Burgess, S. R., & Lonigan, C. J. (1998). Bidirectional relations of phonological sensitivity and prereading abilities: Evidence from a preschool sample. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 70, 117-141.

Carroll, J. M., Snowling, M. J., Hulme, C., & Stevenson, J. (2003).  The development of phonological awareness in preschool children. Developmental Psychology, 39, 913–923.

Castles, A., Coltheart, M., Wilson, K., Valpied, J., & Wedgwood, J. (2009). The genesis of reading ability: What helps children learn letter-sound correspondences? Journal of Experimental Psychology, 104, 68-88.

Clay, M. M. (1993). An observation survey: Of early literacy achievement. Auckland, New Zealand: Heinemann Education.

Cullen, J. (2007). Literacy debate in the early years: The New Zealand context. In R. Openshaw & J. Soler (Eds.), Reading across international boundaries: History, policy, and politics (pp. 111-128). Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

Cullen, J. (2002). The social and cultural contexts of early literacy: Making the links between homes, centres, and schools. In P. Adams & H. Ryan (Eds.), Learning to read in Aotearoa New Zealand.  A collaboration between early childhood educators, families and schools (pp. 65-80). Palmerston North, New Zealand: Dunmore Press.

Dickinson, D. K., McCabe, A., Anastasopoulos, L., Peisner-Feinberg, E., & Poe, M. (2003). The comprehensive language approach to early literacy: The interrelationships among vocabulary, phonological sensitivity, and print knowledge among preschool-aged children. The Journal of Educational Psychology, 95, 465-481.  

Dunn, L. M., & Dunn, D. M. (2007). Peabody picture vocabulary test (4th ed.). Minneapolis, MN: NCS Pearson.

Ehri, L. C. (2006). Alphabetics instruction helps students learn to read. In R. M. Joshi & P. G. Aaron (Eds.), Handbook of orthography and literacy (pp. 649-676). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Education Review Office. (2007). Early childhood monographs: The quality of education and care in Montessori early childhood services. Education Review Office. Wellington, New Zealand.   

Education Review Office. (2011). Literacy in early childhood services: Teaching and learning. Education Review Office . Wellington, New Zealand.

Foote, L., Smith, J., & Ellis, F. (2004).  The impact of teachers’ beliefs on the literacy experiences of young children: A New Zealand perspective. Early Years, 24(2), 135-147.

Foulin, J. N. (2005). Why is letter-name knowledge such a good predictor of learning to read? Reading and Writing, 18, 129-155.

Hamer, J. & Adams, P. (2002). Literacy policy in early childhood settings: Becoming informed literacy professionals.  In P. Adams & H. Ryan (Eds.), Learning to read in Aotearoa New Zealand.  A collaboration between early childhood educators, families and schools (pp. 112-131). Palmerston North, New Zealand: Dunmore Press.

Invernizzi, M., Landrum, T. J., Teichman, A., & Townsend, M. (2010).  Increased implementation of emergent literacy screening in pre-kindergarten.  Early Childhood Education Journal, 37, 437-446.

Invernizzi, M. A., Sullivan, A., Meier, J., & Swank, L. (2004). Phonological awareness literacy screening pre-K. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia.

Lillard, A. S. (2005). Montessori: The science behind the genius. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Lonigan, C. J. (2006). Development, assessment, and promotion of preliteracy skills. Early Education & Development17(1), 91-114.

Lonigan, C. J., Bloomfield, B. G., Anthony, J. L., Bacon, K. D., Phillips, B. M., & Samwel, C. S. (1999). Relations among emergent literacy skills, behavior problems, and social competence in preschool children from low- and middle-income backgrounds. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 19(1),40–53.

Lopata, C., Wallace, N. V., Finn, K. V. (2005). Comparison of academic achievement between Montessori and traditional education programs. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 20 (1), 1-10.

McLachlan, C. (2008). Early literacy and the transition to School: Issues for early childhood and primary educators. New Zealand Research in Early Childhood Education, 11, 105-118.

McLachlan, C. & Arrow, A. (2010).Alphabet and phonological awareness: Can it be enhanced in the early childhood setting? International Research in Early Childhood Education, 1(1), 84-94.

McLachlan, C., Carvalho, L., de Lautour, N., & Kumar, K. (2006). Literacy in early childhood settings in New Zealand: An examination of teachers’ beliefs and practices.  Australian Journal of Early Childhood, 31(2), 31-41.

McLachlan-Smith, C. A., & Shuker, M. J.  (2002). The foundations of literacy: An introduction to promoting literacy development in the early years.  In P. Adams & H. Ryan (Eds.), Learning to read in Aotearoa New Zealand.  A collaboration between early childhood educators, families and schools (pp. 100-111). Palmerston North, NZ: Dunmore Press.

Ministry of Education. (1996). Te Whaariki: Early childhood curriculum. Wellington, New Zealand: Learning Media.

Morrow, L. M. (2007). Developing literacy in preschool. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Morrow, L. M. (2009). Literacy development in the early years: Helping children read and write. Englewood Cliffs, N.J: Prentice Hall.

National Early Literacy Panel. (2008). Developing early literacy. Washington, DC: National Institute for Literacy.

Nel, E. M. (2000). Academics, literacy, and young children. Childhood Education 76(3), 136-141.

Nicholson, T. (2005). At the cutting edge.  The importance of phonemic awareness in learning how to read and spell. Wellington, New Zealand: NZCER

Nicholson, T. (2004). How to avoid reading failure: The teaching of phonemic awareness.  In A. McKeough, & V. Timmons (Eds.), International perspectives on literacy. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Nicholson, T. (2003). Risk factors in learning to read. In B.R. Foorman (Ed.) Preventing and remediating reading difficulties. Bringing science to scale (pp. 165-196). Timonium, MD: York Press.

Nicholson, T. (2002).  The social and political contexts of reading: Contemporary literacy policy in Aotearoa New Zealand. In P. Adams & H. Ryan (Eds.), Learning to read in Aotearoa New Zealand (pp. 22-50). Palmerston North, New Zealand: Dunmore Press.

Nicholson, T., & Ng, G.L. (2006). The case for teaching phonemic awareness and simple phonics to preschoolers. In R.M. Joshi & P.G. Aaron (Eds.) Handbook of orthography and literacy (pp. 637-648). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Nutbrown, C. (1997).  Recognising early literacy development: Assessing children’s achievements. London: Paul Chapman Publishing.

Rachmani, R.M. (2011). The effects of a phonological awareness and alphabet knowledge intervention on four year old kindergarten children. (Unpublished master’s thesis). University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand.

Richardson, S. O. (1997). The Montessori preschool: Preparation for writing and reading. Annals of Dyslexia, 47, 241-256.

Shanahan, T. & Lonigan, C. J. (2010). TheNational Early Literacy Panel: A summary of the process and the report. Educational Researcher, 39, 279-285.

Smith, S. S. & Dixon, R. G. (1995). Literacy concepts of low- and middle-class four-year-olds entering preschool. Journal of Educational Research, 8, 243-53.

Soundy, C. S. (2003). Portraits of exemplary Montessori practice for all literacy teachers. Early Childhood Education Journal, 31(2), 127-131.

Storch, S. A., & Whitehurst, G. J. (2002). Oral language and code-related precursors to reading: Evidence from a longitudinal structural model. Developmental Psychology, 38, 934-947.

Tunmer, W. E., Chapman, J. W., Prochnow, J. E. (2006). Literate cultural capital at school entry predicts later reading achievement: A seven year longitudinal study. New Zealand Journal of Educational Studies, 41(2), 183-204.

Tunmer W. E., Nicholson, T., Greaney, K. T., Prochnow, J. E., Chapman, J. W., & Arrow, A. W. (2008). PIRLS before swine: A critique of New Zealand's national literacy strategy. New Zealand Journal of Education Studies, 43(2), 105-119.

Woods, C. S. (2002). Building a stairway to literacy with the Montessori moveable alphabet. Montessori LIFE, 14(3), 19-24.

Wylie, C. (2002). Children’s competency and reading: What children need to bring with them to school. In P. Adams & H. Ryan (Eds.), Learning to read in Aotearoa New Zealand (pp. 22-50). Palmerston North, New Zealand: Dunmore Press.

Young, J. (2004). Growing into Literacy: Emergent Literacy Understandings Prior to School. AARE National Conference. Melbourne, Australia.


About the Author

Sheilpa Patel has been a lecturer in language and literacy in the Faculty of Education at the University of Waikato since 2005.  Sheilpa completed her Masters of Education at Harvard Graduate School of Education with an emphasis in education policy for children of low socio-economic backgrounds. Sheilpa has a particular interest in literacy education for children at-risk of developing reading difficulties due to cultural or socio-economic backgrounds.  Sheilpa is currently formulating her research plan for her doctorate study.



Oops ... you are attempting to view an article or a resource in the member-only area.  

To keep reading, you need to login with your membership login Smile

If this is not one of our 'Educators' or 'Service Provider' articles, then it is most likely a NZ-Int Research in ECE Journal article that can be accessed through a library subscription or a research membership if you are not an educator or service provider.  

Not a member?  Look below ↓ for the click here button ↓   It will take you to the membership page to sign up and choose your own unique username and password.

Are you interested in joining us? 
Become a member and also gain access to our significant online knowledge base 

Membership Options


Who is this for?
Teachers - Student Teachers - Parents
$78.00 one year
$145.00 two years
Your own personal username and password.
Includes access to research library

ECE Service Provider  

Who is this for?
Service providers with one or more licensed ECE services
Starting from $198.00 for one year
Your own unique username and password.
Includes access to research library 

Researcher Membership or
a Library Subscription

Who is this for?
Libraries and organisations $250 annual 
Researchers $145.00 for two years
Access to over 20 years of NZ-International Research in ECE journal issues and articles