I have a confession to make about my homeschooling. I am never happy with the curriculum I buy to leave well-enough alone. With the exception of history (History at Our House). I find more and more that I like to go back to a lot of the Montessori materials and activities--without the total freedom usually assumed in a Montessori curriculum. There are a few reasons I do not do a full Montessori curriculum. For one thing, my kids just aren't as motivated to do the work at home as they are when surrounded by a bunch of other kids also working. Another reason is that it seems that Montessori's curriculum was not very fully developed and while it is strong in math, reading, and grammar, it is weak in science, writing, and history. Yet another reason is actually part of the curriculum itself. Sometimes I think it is OK to help kids "get" the next step by explaining it rather than waiting for them to figure it out on their own.
Here I will attempt to capture what I remember of the beginning reading program. I think there are some really great approaches here that anyone interested in phonics might like.
My two kids were in Montessori pre-school and kindergarten prior to being homeschooled. Maria Montessori believed that every activity needs to be concrete and tactile. My eldest catches on quickly and she spent a lot of time practicing her skills but was able to work with long vowel sounds (the last step in this beginning reading program) by the end of Kindergarten. My younger daughter (currently a "first grader" according to CT, but would be a kindergartener in every other state due to her late birthday) took much longer to work through the material and made it onto spelling with consonant blends and reading Bob books.
Children learned all of the letter sounds right away. In our school they sang a song. "Apple, apple, a, a, a; baby, baby, b, b, b; car, car, c, c, c." They would hold up a binder with the letter shape on one side and a picture of the noun with the beginning sound on the other. After a while you could add your own words and then help the child figure out the beginning sound.
Along with that, they introduced the sandpaper letters. The letters would be printed about 4" tall and made of sandpaper mounted to wood. Some Montessori homeschoolers actually cut letters out of sandpaper and mount them to cardstock or cardboard. I would think they could be made by painting the letters in glue and sprinkling sand over them. The children would trace the letters with their finger while repeating the letter sound over and over. My eldest started learning the letter sounds in her pre-K year in September and knew all of her letter sounds in November.
Once the kids knew most of the letter sounds, they would begin matching an object (an actual little figure--homeschoolers look for dollar store items, magnets of common things, small figures, etc) with it's beginning letter sound. How the middle (vowel sound) and end sounds were determined, I don't know.
Once the child could remember most letters and identify beginning, middle, and ending sounds, the children begin work with the movable alphabet. Montessori found that spelling was an easier exercise than reading and so her first task for the child is to spell. Again, real objects are used in the Montessori classroom (homeschoolers try to find objects, but if that fails, then pictures or clip art can be used as well). The moveable alphabet is just that--all of the lowercase letters are stored in a separated tray and the children take out the objects (perhaps things using the 'a' sound--like fan, man, can, ham, etc--nouns). The child will then take the object and then figure out the letter sounds for the beginning sound of the object and place that actual letter next to the object. Then the child tries to find the middle sound and physically places that letter to the right of the beginning sound. By the time they get to the last sound they have spelled the word. Sometimes the child then copies the words they've spelled onto paper as a kind of copywork exercise.
It is important to note that Montessori teachers do not usually correct the child. The Montessori materials have "control charts" which contain the answers so the child can correct their own work. For instance, for the spelling exercise above, a word chart with a picture of the object and the spelling of the word is stored with the material. When the child first gets the material to work on it, they would take the "control" or answer sheet, to the teacher. When they've done their best and are ready to check, they get the answer sheet and can look at each word. If a word is wrong, they then change it to match the control. When a Montessori teacher sees that a child is doing something incorrectly, they go over the proper technique again rather than correcting the child's work. An example in handwriting would be "The capital T starts all the way at the top line and goes all the way to the bottom line," rather than "Tommy, your capital Ts are too short."
I can get frustrated when my child doesn't seem to understand why she needs to do something again, but I am mindful of how sensitive my youngest can be with correction. I might point out the proper technique and then ask her to evaluate her own work. "The capital T starts all the way at the top line and goes all the way to the bottom line. How does your capital T look?"
Once the child does fairly well spelling three letter words (lots and lots of practice), Montessori moves onto spelling phonetic words that are longer and contain consonant blends and double letters (bell, stem, basket, pumpkin). It is at this time that the child also begins reading. Instead of using the moveable alphabet, the child has objects or pictures and words cards and plays matching with them. The child finds a word, sounds it out (here we're starting with the three letter phonetic words again) and then finds the matching pictures and puts them together, one above the other. Another option is the read the card and find that thing in their environment (like 'cup' or 'desk'). As with the spelling, the matching moves from very simple to more complex.
Another great reading activity are the Montessori command cards. Where the children are spelling and matching nouns--the beginning reading command cards have kids performing verbs--nothing motivates my reluctant reader faster! Her first command cards are the simple three-letter phonetic words like "hop," "hum," "jog." You can then move onto "stand," "jump," "bark," "skip." When she reads the card, she has to perform that action--which she finds very rewarding.
Once the child is fairly practiced at sounding out three letter words and words with blends, they are moved onto books that contain short phrases (though not necessarily whole sentences or a story) and there are still picture clues. One page might have "a muffin tin" and the next could be "egg basket."
As you can see, everything in beginning reading is very tactile and hands-on.