Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Dwyer Approach for English Language Exploration

I've been meaning to write a post on this topic of Reading and Writing for a while now. I wanted to outline and document the sequence of steps needed for this for two reasons: one that it is going to help organize my thoughts in a single place, so it will be helpful for my kids during their learning process and also for other home schoolers to see and get ideas from what we are doing. As I've mentioned in a few previous posts, we started of with the PBG scheme but then later switched to the Dwyer plan. The Dwyer approach is working out well for us. For homeschooling with just one or two kids the Dwyer approach seems less cumbersome. Also, personally for me this plan gives a complete picture of the whole sequence in comparatively less number of steps and is very thorough.


Here are the four resources that served as a bible for us:

  1. I owe all the credit to "My Boys Teacher" from for introducing me to this approach.  Please checkout her posts, thoughts and comparison of the Dwyer scheme and the PBG schemes.
  2. BASIC Montessori by David Gettman
  3. Language sequence from infomontessori
  4. A Key to Writing and Reading in English from NAMTA
Basic Montessori: Learning Activities For Under-Fives

Before I start on the steps to this approach some of the key points that all the resources that I have read so far stressed and one should remember are:

  1. Kids are not empty vessels that we dump information into (basic Montessori principle).  As far a language goes, the children start talking by themselves before school age.  All we are doing by following a Montessori approach is to provide some organization, guidance and key symbols using which the child can freely immerse themselves into reading and writing.
  2. The basic idea that we one let the child deal with one difficulty at a time.  Small steps as preparation leading into a larger goal.
  3. Setting up the child for success at every stage and provide just enough challenge so that the child can discover the joys of reading and writing by their own exploration.

Here is my summary of the various steps involved in the process.  For a deeper understanding and the "why's" please refer to the resources mentioned above.

Step 1: Preliminary Preparation

This step is extremely important and the duration for this step varies with every child.  It is highly important that the preliminary preparation be as thorough as possible as any gaps in this step could lead to the entire scheme being compromised.

  • As the child is developing his speech skills and starts showing interest in the surrounding we can help the child expand vocabulary by pointing out the correct names of things around him.
  • The one thing that most parents do, read plenty of books, make it a daily special bonding time.
  • Sing simple nursery rhymes, songs, simple poetry, finger plays, etc.
  • Tell a lot of stories sometimes with props, sometimes without, letting the child use his imagination.
  • Once the child is able to talk well, encourage the child's story telling skills.
  • Classified Picture Exercises (please refer to Gettman for the exact details): On a very high level this is a Montessori Activity where you introduce pictures of things the child encounters and help him classify those under right groupings, a very fundamental language capability that is needed for the future.  For example, pictures of basic kitchen appliances grouped under a Kitchen category, pictures of various items in a park, etc.
  • Sound Games or I Spy Games using all the 40 key sounds (25 single letter sounds as well as the double letter sounds).  The basic aim of this step is to help the child segment the words into sounds and identify the beginning, ending and all the middle sounds.  There are different levels in the sound games and very good explanation is part of the Language Section in Gettman. 
**It is very important to note that in this sequence we still haven't introduced the symbolic representation of the 40 key sounds.  Dwyer stresses on the importance of starting the introduction only when the child is well versed with all stages of the sound game.**

(Unfortunately, since we were doing the PBG scheme with D early on, she already knew the symbols associated with the 26 single phonograms as we were working through the "Sound Game" levels. ) 

While we were doing the sound games with D, she had difficulty isolating the sounds when there were initial blends like "fl", "br", etc.  So she would segment "flip" into "fl", "i" and "p".  What helped us was to use tokens for segmenting.  So for "flip", I would give her 4 tokens and make her move one token to each individual sound that she segments.  Another way we tried was to simply draw 4 boxes on paper and give her an object like a frog and make it jump one box for every sound she says.  For children that learn best using physical activities the same could be done on the floor and have the child jump into a box for every sound.  These and many more ideas are available online through a search on Google!

Step 2: Sandpaper Letters

The classic Montessori Language tool, the sandpaper letters, both single and double letter ones are introduced few at a time, with the high contrast ones first.  It is important to note
that at this stage the child already knows all the 40 key sounds via the sound games and we are just introducing the symbolic representation for these.  In our case with D, since she already knew her 26 single phonogram sounds, we worked on the two letter phonograms to fill the gap.

Step 3: Moveable Alphabet

Once the child can identify the symbols for most of the key sounds we introduce the moveable alphabet.  This is a very important tool to the child as he can now express himself freely using the symbols.  We can start with a few simple words, then sentences and eventually encourage the child to use it to create stories.  Three things of importance that Dwyer mentions are:

  1. Not to provide the child with pictures or objects to spell as this would limit his imagination and free expression.
  2. While working with the moveable alphabet at this stage, the objective is for the child to understand how he can segment words into sounds and express himself.  Since the child only knows the 40 key phonetic sounds and NOT all the other alternatives, the spelling of words might always not be right, for example, "plai" instead of "play" or "foan" instead of "phone".  It is very important to NOT correct spellings at this stage.
  3. The Moveable Alphabet can be used as tool in later writing works too by having the child first use it to express what he wants to write, have the directress proof-read and check for spelling and then do the actual writing.  This way they would not form the habit of incorrect spelling.

It is at this stage that writing exercises either using sand tray, chalk board, etc can begin and continue parallel to the reading activities provided enough preparation has been done using the metal insets as well as the sand paper letters.  You might also want to introduce "Capital Letters" at some point around this stage and try to work through it before Step 6, so the child will not have difficulty recognizing and sound those out while reading the readers.

With all of the above preparation there will come a time when the child is ready for reading.  Using the Moveable Alphabet to create writing uses a completely different skill than what is will be used for Reading.  Writing requires Segmenting a word into individual sounds which we would have practiced enough during our Sound Game exercises.  Reading requires blending sounds together to create a word which is a difficult concept for some children.

Different children develop this skill at different stages and we can only observe, wait and then encourage this.  With D, we had an issue with her chopping the sounds, so however fast she says the sounds, she could never form the word.  I researched online and found a way that worked for us.  Basically instead of saying the individual sounds, we sang the individual sounds and blended them together to create the words.  Once we find the child understands the blending concept and is ready to sound out words we move on to the next step.

Step 4: Object Boxes and Activity Words

Now is the time to use all the miniature objects that we've been collecting and sort out objects that can be spelled using a single letter phonetic sounds.  We place 10 to 12 objects in a box and play a game with the child to match hand-written labels to the objects.  Dwyer stresses that it is important for the child to see the adult writing the labels so he can make a connection to written symbols and language.  As you can see below in our Object Box 1, we have not limited to just 3 sound, CVC objects.

milk, nest, crab and can

Once the child is comfortable with reading Object Box 1 labels, we put out Object Box 2 that has objects that can be spelled with two letter phonograms.  Again the adult writes the labels and the child matches it to the objects.  We only use objects that can be spelled correctly using the 40 key sounds - example for "ai" we use "train" and never "tray".  If the child has any difficulty the adult can underline the two letter sound like this - "boat".

boy, goat, jar, shell

In parallel to Object Box1 or before or after, we also start introducing Activity Words.  This is again introduced in two sets, the first set being action that can be easily acted out by the child, like "run", "sit", "stand", "grab", etc.  The second set is slightly more difficult to enact like "chop", "crush", "shout", etc., but either way the object is for the child to see that the adult is using written language for communication and interpreting what is written as an action having fun in the process.

As you can see, so far the only work for the adult is to collect or put together a bunch of miniature objects representing the various sounds.  We've used both miniature objects as well as pictures sometimes as I could not readily find objects representing certain sounds.  D has had no problems with either and has worked through these with ease.

Step 5: Puzzle Words - Set 1

Puzzle words are sight words in the English language that do not obey any phonetic rules.  They are introduced in two sets, the more common words like "I", "me", "you", etc are introduced now.  We introduce these by just simple 3 period lessons.  What I have found useful is to collect any sight words that D would encounter in the little readers or booklets (part of the next step) and make simple paper strips to introduce.  This has been working well for us.

Step 6: Little Booklets

The little booklets are readers that have simple illustrations and use the 40 key sounds and the puzzle words introduced in the previous steps.  I had a tough time finding something with these rules but interesting enough for D to read neither did I have the patience to create booklets on my own.  I came across this post from My Boys Teacher.
The Ordinary Parent's Guide to Teaching Reading

She uses the book "The Ordinary Parents Guide to Teaching Reading" to create little booklets for her boys and does her own illustration.  This meant I had to manually create these little booklets and illustrate those. Lot of work for a mom with a busy toddler!

Product Details

So we used "The Reading Lesson" book and went through the pages that had illustrations and simple stories.  We could not use all of the pages as that book does not follow the Montessori Sequence and introduces exceptions, silent letters, etc, early on.

While I was wondering what to do next, I came across a comment from "Barbara Furst" on My Boys Teacher's blog and she graciously offered me some of the readers she had created in addition to providing me a lot of valuable advice and some wonderful materials that would have taken me ages to create.  For those of you who don't know who Barbara is, she is an AMS certified Montessori Teacher for 3-6 year olds who is a Consultant and Mentor for Montessori Teachers in the Omaha, Norfolk and Lincoln, NE area.  Here is an article at Jola Montessori based on her experience with the Dwyer Scheme.  She has also offered to make these readers available to readers of my blog, so you can download them here!  Her readers are very nice and with each she also lists all the sight words that the child needs to know and this can be made part of the Puzzle words list in the previous step.

Step 7: Introduce the Names of the Alphabets

Now is the time to introduce the names of the alphabets.  In our case, D already knew the names long back before I even knew what Montessori was, so we moved on to the next step after a brief review!

Step 8: Reading Folders

Reading Folders are the tool used to introduce the variations in spelling for the different phonograms.  For e.g, for the phonogram "ai" the alternate spellings that Dwyer lists are "ay", "a-e", "ei".  This is the only step so far in this method that requires some prep.  So, there are 14 phonograms with alternate spellings, so we make 14 folders.  Each folder has the phonogram being represented on the outside, plus all its variations as cards on the inside.  Each card has marked on the reverse side the sound of the folder to which it belongs as a control of error.  Also, little booklets using all these variations in spelling are created and stored in this folder.

I made these folder's out of construction paper.  You can use small envelopes, boxes or clear plastic bags to hold these.  You can download a printable version of the phonograms, their alternate spellings and the various little booklets here.  (*When using this please modify the phonograms according to regional pronunciation.  What is uploaded is what worked for us.*)  I made these using the NAMTA journal listed above, downloading this would save you the headache of typing all these!

We basically present one reading folder and its little booklets so the child gets the concept.  After this the child can work through at their pace the rest of the 13 folders.

There are different exercises/games to be played with the reading folders.  The first is the sorting game. We can start with two folders and mix up the cards and have the child sound out each card and match it up with the right folder.  The works through these and eventually will be able to sort all 14 folders.  This enables he child to memorize the different variations in spelling for he different phonograms.

Once we observe and find out that the child has had enough practice with the folders, we can play a game to test the child's proficiency in the alternate spellings.  The child uses the moveable alphabet or pen and paper to write down all the alternate spellings for the 14 phonograms.

Step 9: Puzzle Words - Set 2

We present the second set of puzzle words now.  It is almost the same as the first set presentation except that we point out something special in the words we introduce like silent letters, etc.  Remember that we are not trying to introduce all the sight words that ever exist, but a basic foundation to build upon.  As the child encounters more puzzle words through their own exploration in reading we help the child anytime they have difficulty.  There are plenty of examples in the Dwyer article.

Step 10: Phonogram Dictionary

To help with the child's frustration when they are into reading books but have not quite mastered Step 8 yet, we make a Phonogram Dictionary so that the child can use that to sound out words.  Luckily for me Barbara Furst sent me an extra copy that she had.  Here is a picture of the booklet as well as the inside of it.

Step 11: Dictation and further language exploration

Dwyer mentions in her booklet that giving Dictation using the words in the little booklets that were created with the reading folders, was a very popular activity among the 6 year olds.  This strengthens their spelling skills.

If you've reached this far, according to Dwyer the child should be reading fairly fluently.  Other than reading whatever books the children can get their hands the following are some language activities to continue:

  • The Definitions connected with the various subjects in the cultural area.
  • The Function Games
  • Word Study
  • Reading Analysis
  • Written Question Game
  • Free Composition
I am not going into details for the above as we are not at that stage yet for D.  We are at Step 8 exploring our reading folders.

There were two reasons why we switched from the PBG scheme to the Dwyer scheme.  One is that I never had this kind of clear path to take with the PBG scheme and the other fact that there are tons of materials to print, cut and laminate even though I actually bought our materials.  With the Dwyer scheme I've found that we are arming the children with the right tools necessary as far as the necessary symbols and rules and once they take off to reading on their own they can apply all these skills.  Hope these posts are useful to you in getting an overall idea of the path to take while guiding children in their language exploration.

Here are the links to the free readers and reading folder printables, again.  I would love it if you can leave a comment line if you found this post and/or printables useful.

As it is with all over the blog world, these pictures/readers/printables are for your personal use only and not for distribution or sale.  If you chose to blog about something you've seen in this blog, please link back to here.  Thank you for your understanding!

Montessori Monday


  1. This is a very thorough post. Not new info for me, but I am linking it up to one of my other webistes Work PLay Read ( through a Pinterest board. This is a really great overview for people as they are getting started.


  2. Oh my gosh!!!!! This is so perfect! Have really botched reading with Bunny and this will help me get back on track! Thanks so very much! I cant tell you how much I needed this!!!!!

  3. Thanks Heidi!

    Thanks stephanie, glad to be of help!

  4. I love your thorough explanation of the Dwyer Approach! It's wonderful that you're helping parents choose what's best for their child and homeschool. And thanks so much for sharing the free readers and reading folder printables! I appreciate your linking with Montessori Monday. I featured your post at the Living Montessori Now Facebook page:

  5. I am trying to find where I the files were that I printed to make a Phonogram Dictionary, Reading Folders, and corresponding booklets many years ago. I believe it was one of the Montessori groups on Yahoo. If I find it, I will let you know!


  6. I am a bit confused please help me out . my 5 years old picked up on reading , and is doing really well , using all sort of things a bit of montessori , 100 easy lessons and simply from reading a lot together , but feeling we didn't go in detail and learned all phonograms and variations , homonyms,... and not to leave gap i purchased all about spelling feeling this will be enough to fill up the gap and introduce her to all grammar rules she needs to know . i am sorry but like you i have a toddler also and aa specialneed physically hurt child so most of the time i am too tired when reading and researching . will you be doing all about spelling a the same time ?? how old is your little one ??how will you fit them together ??

  7. Thanks Deb, once again for featuring this on facebook!

  8. Hi Angie, please let me know if you find the resource, I could add it to the list of resources.

  9. Hi Viv, rather that respond here to your question, I wrote a post -> Hope this helps!

  10. I am such a believer in the Dwyer method and it's nice to see how you so succintly sum it up. I will be directing readers this way. Thank you for such a resource!

    I am wondering if there is a download available for the phonogram dictionary? It seems sitting down to create one is proving to be difficult between the 2 kids and a baby ;)

  11. Hi smith, thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment! I wish I could help you with a download for the phonogram dictionary but I haven't come across any. If Barbara had not sent me one, my plan was to get one of those tiny address books and paste over the alphabets with tiny stickers of the phonograms. Hope it gives you some idea!

  12. M2P...

    You might want to add a note in reference to the phonogram folders that those who download and try to use them need to double check regional pronunciation as they make them. For example, I should not have an "ar" folder as "a" never makes the "ar" sound here. Some people will need "or" added to their "au" folder. Others will want to assess if there are other places they need to include "ough."

  13. Thanks for the note! I've updated the post with this info.

  14. What a great post! We switched to Dwyer too with Bear after the blue series. Fortunately, she picked up reading seemingly without me or Dwyer or PBG series! I don't think my son will make my job as easy:) Glad to know this post is here for a year from now.

  15. Glad this post is useful, Julie. I know there aren't too many online explanations for this approach hence this post.

  16. My goodness!! Where had you been all this time??? I'm glad to have discovered this blog, I really like it.
    I find this post very useful. Fortunately enough, I've been following most of the preliminary steps you describe naturally (reading, pointing out the name of words, making up stories), but I needed a post as concise and clear as this in order not to get lost in the theory jungle.
    Thanks so much!

  17. hi, iam mother of 7yr old in india,tamilnadu.she is now in regular schooling second grade, but her language skills are not up to the mark. she cant read alone. she doesnt know phonics. she is getting trained in abacus and is pretty fast in arithmatic skills, but she doesnt know the values and concepts in maths. the method of education she is been upto is a no hands on materials but a rote learning system. because of this she has lost the interest in learning. i came across montessori methods recently. the thing is, i dont know where to start. will it be ok if i start with pbg series/dwyer with her, for language and introduce the bead materials for maths now. i am lately reading lots of blogs on montessori and thats where i got u.i would also like to know how u work with your kid on tamil. i really love the way u r working with ur kids. have great going.

  18. Love seeing the steps like this, thank you!


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