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Sound Awareness
Sound Awareness

by Autumn Wilson, Primary Teacher

At some point in a child's Primary experience, they may come home making funny sounds. Parents often notice their child walking around saying, "mmmm...mmmmmm...mommy" or "sssss....sssssss...snake!" Don't worry, parents. This a classic, beautiful development in a Primary child's sound awareness.

A foundational step in a child's ability to write and then read (yes, it happens in that order, generally, for Montessori children) is sound awareness. It is the ability to parse words by individual sounds. The simplest way to start is with beginning sounds. So, in the examples above, "snake" starts with "sssss" and "mommy" starts with "mmmm." That's the closed-mouth sound that you might make when you enjoy something you are eating. It is not the sound, "muh." "Muh" is actually two sounds, like the first two sounds in the word "mustard." Can you see the detail with which we approach sounds with a child when you consider this difference?

In the Montessori Primary environment, the most important exercise for sound awareness is the sound game. This game uses a collection of small objects to help children notice the individual sounds at the beginning of words. There might be a small octopus to focus on the sound "ahhhhh," which is the most common sound we hear in English with the letter "o." And there might be a tiny zipper to parse out the beginning sound "zzzzzz." Once a child masters the ability to identify beginning sounds in words, we explore ending sounds. So, the little mop in the sound game box was once used to identify "mmm" at the beginning of the word, but now we can use it to focus on the "p" at the end of the word. (That's the almost silent sound of air puffing through your lips, not "puh" like the first two sounds in puppy.) Finally, a child will hone in on the sounds in the middle of words. Once this awareness develops, we can work with a child to identify each individual sound in any word. "Cat" has three sounds: "c," "a," and "t." The word "grape" only has four sounds, even if it has five letters: "g," "r," "ay," and "p."

At some point while a child is working through this progression of sound recognition, they begin exploring the letter symbols that make each of the sounds. With an understanding of the sounds letters make, not their names, and an ability to identify each sound in a word, and because they have so many thoughts and ideas to share, the child explodes into writing with the movable alphabet. This approach allows a child to express themselves through writing and gain great confidence in self-expression even before they can hold the pencil and form each letter properly.

I encourage you to look out for evidence of your child's sound awareness. Embrace and encourage their exploration of the sounds they hear in words. Take the time to figure out how to parse sounds yourself, as it may take some close investigation. Here is a short YouTube video that gives you an idea of how to make some individual sounds:

Although we use a special box of small objects in the classroom for the sound game, we get creative and so can you! Play games with the names of people in your family, identifying beginning or ending sounds based on your child's current sound awareness. Point out objects you see on a walk around your neighborhood. Keep your child occupied in line at the grocery store, talking about the beginning sounds of all the items in your cart as you put them up on the counter. The possibilities are endless, and this fun, playful way of interacting gives your child the foundation they need for a lifetime of writing and reading. Enjoy!