writing with the moveable alphabet

If I had to pick, I think the moveable alphabet has to be my favorite work in the class. It is a work that can be modified to fit so many levels, it can be extended to meet the child where they are and you can connect it to the interest of the child.

Montessori Moveable Alphabet

blue, green, red, yellow – writing words describing her metal inset

Work with the moveable alphabet consists of what is called encoding – or spelling. Encoding almost always comes before decoding (or reading), it is very important that the child have a great deal of experiences with encoding before we present any sort of reading. And, since Dr. Montessori was so brilliant, she knew if you took away the mechanics of forming the letters (handwriting), and gave then a set of letters – the moveable alphabet – a young child could easily build meaningful words.

I was trying to figure out how to edit this post, it seemed to be getting longer and longer! So rather than make it two separate post, I will put the fun activities at the top and the discussion about the spelling research stages at the bottom. If you are interested in the stages of spelling and the connection to the moveable alphabet, be sure to go all the way down!

Montessori Moveable Alphabet

excited about her first cheerleading lesson

My Moveable Alphabet Philosophy

I try to move a child to the moveable alphabet as soon as I know they are solid with 5 consonants and 1 or 2 vowel. I am not part of the camp that believes they need to know all the sounds before starting work with the moveable alphabet. In these early stages I do focus on building words based on vowel word families or sets of rhyming words. I like the child to be able to represent a fair amount of 3 letter words and be able to hear medial vowel sounds before I move on, but once they are there, woohoo, let the fun begin!

My favorite Moveable Alphabet prompts and extensions:

  • Let’s write about what you did this weekend/last night/spring break/your birthday.
  • Let’s write the names of the people/pets in your family.
  • What are your favorite foods/colors/sports teams?
  • Look at that colorful dress you have on, let’s write about it.
  • Look at that metal inset you made, let’s write the colors.
  • Let’s write words about princesses/horses/cats/dinosaurs.
  • Have a basket of art prints. The child picks one and writes about what they see.
  • Pick any object in the classroom, write words that describe it (any material, flowers, friends names, works on the shelf in front of them).
  • Write a story (this is when I start introducing sight words like the, you, I).

Montessori Moveable Alphabet


story writing – Once there was two sisters and 

I think you can see where I am going with this. I try to find something that will draw the child into using the moveable alphabet, even the most reluctant child can get excited about writing about their favorite animal. Children will also pick words that challenge them, I would never ask a 4 year old to write cheetah, but if that’s their favorite animal, that’s what they want to write. I use these prompts and extensions with all the children working with the moveable alphabet. Where ever they are we can modify the work to make this work is engaging and meaningful.

The point of all of this to just get them writing and breaking the words down into the sounds that they hear. While I still introduce the Montessori Phonograms in separate lessons, showing the child that ch makes the /ch/ sound when they want to write the word chicken, makes more of a connection than having them make a random list of words that have the /ch/ sound. I do still have children work with the moveable alphabet to reinforce blends, digraphs and long vowel patterns, and they make list of words with sh, or cl, I just use these other extensions as a way to connect the child to writing in meaningful way and to see what language patterns they have internalized.

Having the child write words with the sounds they hear (not the ones we want them to hear) is the best phonetic practice they can get, and by seeing the moveable alphabet as a work beyond just writing list of words with /a/ or /st/ or /ai/ it opens a world where writing is fun and meaningful.

Montessori Moveable Alphabet

Passover, matzah, blessing

Stages of Spelling

There are 5 stages of spelling, the children in the 3-6 class will usually fall into one of the three below:

  • Emergent Spellers – writes words with random strings of letters, numbers, scribbles and such. No relation to sounds in the words
  • Letter Name Spellers – called this because they start write words and represent sounds as they relate to the letter name. Now in Montessori we just do letter sounds, but our children still move through this stage the same way! Early Letter-Name spellers will often represent words with the most salient sounds they hear, often leaving out the vowels until later in the stage ex. cat – CT, pin – PN. As they work through this phase the child is able to hear and represent the vowel sounds and later in this stage the child starts to work with and represent blends (st, bl) and diagraphs (sh, ch, th).
  • Within-Word Pattern Spellers – the child begins to learn the long vowel patterns and other patterns in more complex sounds. This stage is focused on learning the different patterns for long vowel sounds, r-controlled vowels and diphthongs (two vowels together making a new sound oy, au, ow.

One other important phrase is “using but confusing” – what sounds to we see the child trying to represent with their writing, but they aren’t getting it quite right. Examples would be:

  • Early Letter-Name Speller – HIN for hen. Using but confusing medial vowels
  • Later Letter-Name Speller – FICH for fish. Using but confusing diagraphs
  • Within-Word Pattern Speller – RANE for rain. Using but confusing long vowel patterns.

If you want more info on the stages of spelling I suggest this book.

Montessori Moveable Alphabet

writing his favorite food – mac and cheese

Connection to the Moveable Alphabet

By observing what the child is using but confusing we can see where we need to focus our work. This gives us an insight to where the child is in terms of the stages of spelling, and it can help us focus on what sounds to present and where to focus the next presentation.

If  they want to write chicken and they are early letter-name spellers, they cay just write CIN, and that’s all they really hear. But the later letter-name speller might say ‘how to you make a /ch/ sound?’ and that’s the time to introduce ch. Once the child can write CHIKN for chicken, and they may want to add “I like” to the sentence, but they know lik is not like, then is the time to first introduce the silent e.

Through the child’s own writings, we can introduce, reinforce and expand the child’s sound knowledge, in a way that is meaningful and challenging.

Want to be the first to know what’s happening at montessori works? Sign-up to have posts delivered by email and never miss a thing!


17 thoughts on “writing with the moveable alphabet

  1. Aimee, what a great post on one of my favorite works! Would it be OK with you if I use this post in my training sessions?

    1. Oh I would love it if you used it. I also have a lot of books (Words Their Way, etc.) if you want to look through them.

  2. I’ve pinned it, under my “Montessori Homeschool” tab, but I wonder if you have a Pinterest account to be followed, as well?

  3. Whoops…just saw the big button saying “Follow me on Pinterest”

  4. Aimee, this is so great! You have explained it all so simply. I love the prompts and the wonderful photos. This was one of the materials that drew me to Montessori, it is really brilliant. Why is this work still sitting on our shelf? Thanks for the inspiration! (in so many ways!)

    1. Thanks, it still falls out of use in our class too. I remember my trainer saying she had at least 3 moveable alphabets out all day!

  5. This approach truly follows the child. I love how you observe their confusions and use them as a prompt for the introduction to a phonetic lesson.

    1. Thanks, it is such a great way to make a meaningful connection.

  6. Awesome post! I’m with you on starting the M.A. as soon as the children know a sampling of consonants and one or 2 vowels. Thanks for a good post that needed to be written.

    1. I think it is much easier to slip in new letter sounds with the MA rather going back to sandpaper letter for every new sound (even though I still appreciate and love the SPL).

  7. What awesome prompts and extension ideas for the moveable alphabet! Thanks for sharing at the virtual fair!

  8. I love this post! The moveable alphabet is something I would definitely like to see more use out in my homeschool with my children, but I have never heard a break down like this on why and how it is used, and the different steps of spellers. I can’t tell you how much this explains some things for me, and the ideas for getting them interested in ‘writing’ with it are wonderful and will be very useful! One question – is it because there are different levels that the child comes to in spelling that you don’t correct the spelling if it is wrong? I have always wondered this, and also wondered how to go about showing them it is wrong without causing disinterest in what they are doing by causing too much of a distraction in their thought process at the moment. I would greatly appreciate any feedback you can give me here, because I know it will all be helpful! THanks!

    1. Let’s say the child was trying to write “kite” and they wrote “kit”, if I know that the child knows the sound (if they have had a lesson on silent e) then I take them back to the word and say something like “How could you make this say the /I/ sound, right now it says kit.” And see if they remember how to add the e.

      Once they start learning the long vowel patterns, especially silent e, they tend to start over using them — bote for boat, trane for train — and if all they know is the silent e, I don’t correct it. I am actually rather happy that they have made the generalization and connection with long vowel patterns.

      Often at the same time that they are doing this more creative writing with the moveable alphabet, we are working on learning other long vowel patterns, like ai, oa, ee, ie. If I know that they know both ai and a_e and they write stane for stain, I would ask them “what is another way to make the /A/ sound?”

      I usually do this at the end when they have finished their writing and they are showing it to me. Sometimes however they clean up before I get a chance, and then I make a note to review whatever sound or pattern they were missing.

  9. Great post — I found you through Living Montessori Now! This was so helpful! My son is a little too young to use a moveable alphabet, but I would love to incorporate one into his learning in the future. Pinning this!

    1. Thanks for stopping by — it looks like you are doing some great things with your son!

Leave a Reply