Montessori Students who Struggle with Reading

For most students in a Montessori environment, the development of reading acquisition flows seamlessly. From Matching Cards to short vowel learning, to digraphs and blends, students in a Montessori environment are taught explicitly how the alphabet works, and how to use the alphabet sounds to decode and encode. These essential skills of literacy are truly the foundational building blocks of our English alphabetic language.

These essential literacy skills are skills that many public school students are barely even being taught, in light of today's Balanced Reading curriculums in use across the nation. Balanced Literacy relies on a heavy focus of sight word memorization, and scores of comprehension skills. But in a Montessori environment, where reading is being taught properly through the alphabetic code, all students should be able to learn to read, right? Wrong.

Not every child in a Montessori environment enters smoothly into the reading acquisition phase. The students who have difficulty learning the alphabet sounds, or have difficulty with rhyming skills, or phonemic awareness and/or phonological awareness skills, or blending skills, end up struggling with the Moveable Alphabet exercises, and with the Matching Word Cards, and even with writing skills.

Despite a well-thought-out Montessori language program, and despite the fantastic hands-on didactic language materials created by Dr. Montessori, a percentage of Montessori students do, and will continue to, struggle with reading acquisition. But there is a solution to this dilemma!

There are many reasons why some students struggle with learning to read and spell, even when taught through an alphabetically-based curriculum. They including: dyslexia (1 in every 5 students has dyslexia), a history of ear infections, a poor oral language foundation, delayed or disordered speech, or a learning disability of another nature.

Dr. Maria Montessori was a gifted educator and curriculum designer. Her gifts spanned across the entire continuum of child development, and across all educational disciplines. For language development, she gave us nomenclature in every discipline, Matching Cards, the Sandpaper Letters, Alphabet Objects, Three Part Picture and Word Cards, Exercises with Decodable Text at the individual word, sentence, and passage levels, the Grammar Materials, and numerous other avenues for direct and indirect preparation for teaching the mapping of oral language to written language. Dr. Montessori presented us with an explicit set of presentations for each material, and she organized the material in a hierarchy of difficulty, and required mastery at each level, before moving ahead.

Montessori lived from 1870-1952. During this time span, Dr. Samuel Orton (1879-1948) was developing his theory of what would come to be known as dyslexia. Also during this time, educator and psychologist Anna Gillingham (1878-1963), partnered with Dr. Orton, and created a programmed curriculum of therapy to help people with reading difficulties, and specifically people with dyslexia, overcome their obstacles with literacy. I can't help but to wonder if any of these three pioneers ever met, and if so, if they exchanged their views on education, brain development, and therapeutic teaching and learning procedures. Montessori's, Orton's, and Gillingham's theories and practices contain many striking parallels!

Here are Several Views and Principles that Montessori and Orton-Gillingham Shared:

*Explicit teaching

*Specific nomenclature for labeling

*Cumulative curriculum, on a continuum hierarchy, from simplest to most complex (sequential)

*Multisensory, hands-on learning with didactic materials

*Specific procedures for each lesson, which makes their programs prescriptive in nature (systematic)

*A respect for the child's needs; individualization within each lesson and skill level

*A requirement for the student to master current material before moving ahead

*A respect for the child's needs in regard to pacing of lessons

*The employment of diagnostic teaching, whereby the teacher observes the student's progress during each lesson and creates an individualized lesson plan for the next lesson

Throughout my teaching career and professional preparation, I have observed the many parallels between Montessori and The Orton Gillingham Approach. What drew me to The Orton Gillingham Approach was the similarity that I saw to the Montessori Method. I am a certified Montessori educator, a Certified Reading Specialist, and a Certified Dyslexia Practitioner with Orton Gillingham Certification. And I have raised a dyslexic child.

In the early 1980s, my child was a Montessori child, from the age of two and one half through five years old. I was a fresh new Montessori teacher, just out of Montessori teacher training, and doing my Montessori internship in a Montessori school in New Jersey. I worked with my students during the school day, and then I went home and worked with my child after school. I could sense that my child was not on target, from the age of about three years old. He wasn't learning nomenclature for colors. At four years old, he struggled with the naming of simple shapes, and didn't know the difference between the living room and the dining room. Numbers eluded my child, too, as did the names of classmates and the teachers in the classroom. My child had a recall problem! This was the first hint of dyslexia that was demonstrated to me, but I was too green to figure it out.

The Directress at my child's Montessori school tried to tell me, at one of our parent-teacher conferences, that my child was struggling, and I agreed with her. She said that my child spent most of the day, as a four and then a five year old, in the Practical Life, Sensorial, and Science centers. At five years old, my child did not know the alphabet letters, and stills struggled with naming numbers 1-10. But the Directress had no answers, so I did nothing. I had no answers, either.

From Montessori, my child went to Catholic school in our town, and fell behind in alphabet learning in kindergarten, and then fell behind in beginning decoding and encoding instruction in first grade, even though we worked nightly together ion these skills. Throughout second and third grades, my child's spelling was atrocious! Handwriting, writing skills, and self-esteem suffered, too. By third grade, I transferred my child to public school, and had an educational evaluation done through the school district. My child was diagnosed as "perceptually impaired". That label eluded me at the time. By mid-third grade, my child had a full-blown reading disability! But no one called it dyslexia. Needless to say, none of the "special education" that my child received in our public school district was that special.

When my child was in ninth grade, I learned about The Orton Gillingham Approach to reading instruction. I promptly hired an attorney and I won a partial placement at a school specifically for dyslexics. I sold my house to pay for the rest of the tuition. My child finally learned decoding and encoding skills in 10th grade! The, I promptly went to earn my Orton Gillingham certification!

My child is now a successful adult with a good and challenging job. But it was a struggle to get there - a struggle that no parent or child should have to endure.

Born out of this life-altering challenge has come the Lil' Reading Scientists Literacy Solutions TM Orton Gillingham Curriculum, which is fully compatible with the Montessori Language materials, and utilizes the color coding of Montessori's Moveable Alphabet (red consonants and blue vowels).

The Lil' Reading Scientists Literacy Solutions TM Orton Gillingham Curriculum is the perfect solutions for struggling readers in the Montessori environment! Montessori students are already familiar with many of the materials utilized in the curriculum, but the procedures and techniques are more intense than Montessori's presentations, and are based on The Orton Gillingham Approach. The curriculum contains two parts: the multisensory had goods materials, and the digital downloads, organized by level and skill, in a hierarchy of curriculum continuum, beginning with phonemic and phonological awareness activities, and progressing to the Pink material level, then the blue, then the green. Teacher training is available online, via video.









As a Montessorian and a Certified Dyslexia Practitioner who is using The Orton Gillingham Approach in my private practice, I see all types of students who are struggling to learn to read. The students that I see from the local Montessori schools generally know the alphabet letter sounds, but are stuck at the "sounding out level", and lack fluency with single word reading. Many of them need more practice at the sentence and short passage levels, as well, with controlled, decodable text. Montessori classrooms struggle to find quality decodable text for their students, so I have focused on creating many opportunities for reading controlled, decodable, connected text. Here are some examples of Lil' Reading Scientists TM decodable text:














I sincerely hope that you will consider joining my Montessori Students Who Struggle with Reading Facebook Page, and that you will contribute your experiences regarding the students who struggle with reading in your Montessori environment. The Facebook Page acts as a support system for Montessori educators who are looking for answers, in an effort to assist those students who are struggling with literacy acquisition and development. The Orton Gillingham principles, techniques, and materials are presented on this forum, as well as information about reading disabilities and dyslexia.


Jenelle Erickson Boyd, M.Ed., CDP, Author of this Blog, is a Certified Reading Specialist, a Certified Dysleixa Practitioner, a Certified Pre-3rd Grade Teacher, and a Montessori Certified Educator. She is also an avid advocate for students with reading disabilities, and educational conference presenter, and a school literacy consultant. To reach her, please email at

To browse or purchase the Lil' Reading Scientists Literacy Solutions Curriculum, please go to



It's Orton Gillingham!