One question I’m frequently asked is, “What kind of reading program should Montessori classrooms be using?” The Montessori curriculum covers every imaginable topic, but there is no specific set of books that is firmly linked to the Montessori method. I’m going to look at a few different possibilities for reading programs in the Montessori classroom, and discuss the pros and cons of each.
Option 1: Basal Readers
These are the thick, hardback books that so many of us remember from grade school. They are basically textbooks, with stories that teach reading and reading skills in a sequential way. Companies that publish Basal Readers include Scott Foresman and Harcourt Publishers (also known as Houghton Mifflin Harcourt or Harcourt Brace Jovanovich). Used Basal Readers can be found on eBay; just be sure to check shipping costs and seller feedback (stick with 98% positive & up) before buying.
1. They usually contain many kinds of literature, like fiction, non-fiction, poetry, fairy tales, and folk tales.
2. They often contain discussion questions and background information for the teacher or parent
3. You only have to purchase and store one book per child
4. Children can read in a group (round-robin) since each child has a copy of the same book
1. They can be really, really expensive
2. Many times they can only be purchased in bulk, making it difficult to buy for a home, or school with only a few children per grade
3. They can be too traditional and formulaic, and they don’t allow for a child to choose reading materials based on his/her interests
4. Because they are organized by grade, they don’t provide flexibility for children who are reading slower or faster than other kids
5. They often contain stories written specifically for Basal Readers; many times the quality of literature is low
Are Basal Readers anti-Montessori? They are so inextricably linked to traditional education that it might feel strange to use them in Montessori. However, several of the (very excellent) Montessori schools I’ve taught at used these kinds of readers in elementary. One of the main reasons was because the parents found them reassuring.
Since many Montessori teachers don’t like to give homework but parents often want their children to get homework, it was easy to assign a few pages per night to each grade level. Also, since the readers teach skills systematically, there is little chance of having “gaps” where the students haven’t covered important information.
Verdict: This type of reader won’t be an option for everyone. They are expensive and difficult to replace if lost. The kinds of stories featured may not match with an individual child’s reading level or interest. The quality of writing is often low, and the stories included may not fit with the values of the Montessori curriculum.
Option 2: Leveled Readers (individual books)
Leveled readers are smaller, shorter books that are specific to a certain grade or reading level. Books that fit this category include BOB Books, Dorling Kindersley Readers, ‘I Can Read’ Books, Welcome Books, and Scholastic Time-to-Discover Books. They dovetail nicely with a phonics reading approach, since the writing increases in phonetic difficulty as the reading level goes up.
These types of readers can be found through Scholastic Book Clubs, or at major vendors like www.amazon.com or www.barnesandnoble.com. You can also find new & used readers at eBay, and of course, these books can be checked out at your local library.
1. Children can choose books that fit their own interests
2. It’s easier to adjust for variances in reading levels among children in the same grade; each child can be reading a different book at the same time
3. Books usually contain high-quality photos or drawings and text that is carefully chosen for reading-level appropriateness
1. You may end up purchasing and storing dozens of books to cover many interests and reading levels
2. Children can’t read stories in a group, since you’ll generally only have one of each book
3. The quality of the writing may be less than excellent, since writing specifically for one reading level limits the choice of vocabulary words that can be used
Verdict: This is a nice option if you can find books for a wide range of interests and reading levels.
Option 3: Junior Great Books
The Junior Great Books program is a research-based K-12 reading program that stresses reading comprehension and critical thinking through guided discussion. Many Montessori schools use JGB as their main reading curriculum, or as a supplement to another reading program.
1. The literature choices are excellent – only high-quality writing is chosen
2. All stories come with in-depth questions to be discussed
3. Each grade level also comes with optional workbooks, to be used as homework or classwork
4. Promotes reading comprehension and analytical skills
1. JGB can be expensive, especially if the workbooks are purchased as well
2. The literature selections can be difficult, since they are not written for a specific grade level but are “real-world” stories and excerpts. A child struggling with reading may find JGB too challenging.
I remember being in Junior Great Books when I was in grade school. It was often led by a parent volunteer, not a teacher, and we met once a week. There was a relaxed, “there is no wrong answer” feel to our discussions, and since we weren’t graded on any aspect of JGB, it was freeing and inspired some excellent discussions.
Verdict: JGB fits very nicely with Montessori; the quality of stories is high, and the open-ended questions inspire lots of critical thinking and “give-and-take” discussions. Children should still receive some phonics instruction; learning words simply by sight recognition has it weaknesses.
Option 4: Classic Literature
In this approach, children use selections from classic literature as the basis of the reading curriculum. There are many curriculums that use classic literature as a basis, including the popular Charlotte Mason program. Using classic literature is part of the whole language approach, which focuses on content over reading skills or phonics.
1. The quality of the selections is unparalleled
2. Children often read the entire work rather than just an excerpt, giving them context and a broader understanding of the work
3. Children are exposed to the authors and works that form the basis for culture; they will be able to recognize famous quotes and spot literary allusions with ease
1. Parents and teachers may not always be sure about the appropriateness of certain selections, both for reading level and content. There are some nice tools available, including this book finder at SimplyCharlotteMason.com where you can search by topic, keyword, or grade level.
2. It may be hard to find true classical literature for the beginning reader
Verdict: This approach has numerous advantages, and is definitely in line with the Montessori curriculum. In some ways, it overlaps with Junior Great Books, which also uses classical literature for many of its selections. However, JGB may use excerpts rather than entire works.
Sister Mary, my Montessori trainer, always said that the Montessori language curriculum should be a balance of phonics and whole language. In other words, children should be taught the specific sounds that letters and groups of letters make, and should also be exposed to quality literature. Since many programs embrace one approach or the other, I really like that Montessori attempts to use both.
The debate about the best reading methodology has raged for decades and there is still no universal agreement. I encourage everyone to do a little reading about the different approaches before choosing one, or do as Sister Mary recommended and combine them together.
There is no one perfect reading solution for every home or school; budgets differ, as do the expectations of teachers and parents. I’ve tried to present each option without bias, so that you can make the decision that’s right for you and the children in your care. Regardless of the reading approach you choose, it is important to put thoughtful care into the kinds of books young children read.