Written by Dr. Ann Epstein.
The development of language in early-childhood classrooms is an umbrella for the entire Montessori curriculum. Often teachers and parents consider activities on the shelves of the Language area as the heart of actual language learning. Certainly these activities provide powerful opportunities, but language learning occurs most profoundly in the moment-to-moment life of interactions within the classroom. Twenty years ago, working as a speech pathologist, I discovered the wonder of language development in young children. Although I detoured away from speech and language pathology into Montessori early-childhood education, I maintained my awe of how children learn to listen and speak and, later, to write and read. I have had the opportunity to share my language interests as a teacher educator with several Montessori teacher-education programs.
During the last four years, I have continued my learning in a slightly different context. As a supervisor for the University of Maryland’s undergraduate early-childhood special-education program, I have worked with teachers, students, and children in both inclusive and segregated special education settings, often working with children with language delays. In this article, I will suggest a foundation for the development of language skills, review key Montessori language materials and activities, and present suggestions for expanding language practices in Montessori early-childhood classrooms. Language Everywhere, All the Time, with Everyone: A Foundation for the Development of Language.
We know that the development of a young child’s language skills begins at conception. An infant is born into a family with a unique communication style. Family members may be quite open, freely expressing their wants, needs, and feelings. Alternatively, communication may be reserved or even restrained. Babies listen to and absorb not only what family members say but how they say it. A balanced environment, one that is open yet not chaotic or inappropriate, is the most conducive to language learning. We need to talk often and meaningfully with babies. Babies learn to trust their surroundings as older siblings and adults hold and cuddle them, engage them with smiles and coos, and most importantly, acknowledge their communications. Essential communication occurs when a busy father or mother looks directly at a little crying one, rocks her, and says in a comforting way, “Yes, I know, you are upset. You are having a hard time getting to sleep.” As distant as it seems, Dad and Mom are laying the foundation for listening to their child’s requests and statements. Reciprocally, their child is learning to trust that Dad and Mom can be counted on to listen and provide comfort. Years later, this child may enter a Montessori classroom. She enters with a consistently effective communication experience. Her past experiences have proven to her that she can initiate communication and be heard. She is learning to reverse these roles in order to be an effective listener and responder. These communication experiences are the foundation for language learning in the classroom.
Teachers, parents, and administrators need to recognize communication as the foundation for the meaningful development of language concepts and skills. Effective communication depends on authentic relationships between communicative partners. Teachers have the responsibility (actually, the opportunity) to develop and expand learning relationships with young children. This is truly the ultimate opportunity to make a difference. Seen in this light, conversations with young children on the playground, during field trips, on the way to the bathroom, in the midst of conflict resolution, during lessons, and countless other times create the context for the development of language skills. Relationships of trust are built between children and teachers and among peers. Classroom work further contributes to language concept and skill development within this context of meaningful communication. Montessori Language Work for the Young Child: Early Literacy Activities Activities related to the development of early literacy skills often greet young children when they visit the language area of a Montessori classroom. Loosely known as “reading readiness” during the 70s and 80s, these activities include opportunities for young children to expand vocabulary, listen carefully to common sounds, and look carefully to find likenesses and differences among objects and pictures.
Young children (particularly three and four year-olds) delight in matching sets of objects from cars and trucks to zoo animals. They enjoy learning the names of household tools, unusual fruits and vegetables, and geometric shapes, to name a few. The tape recorder corner is a popular spot as children listen to city, household, and garden sounds as well as favorite stories and songs. Teachers need to observe the “DQ” (dust quotient) carefully for when to change these early literacy activities. By rotating an engaging, dynamic array of vocabulary-building, auditory-. and visual-discrimination activities, teachers are providing children with continual opportunities to expand and refine their literacy skills throughout the three years they spend in primary classrooms. Dr. Maria Montessori personally developed only three language materials for the early-childhood classroom; however, the metal insets, the sand paper letters, and the movable alphabet have proven to be astoundingly effective. In fact, educators outside the Montessori world have recognized the effectiveness of these materials and created similar activities now being used in a variety of early-childhood settings.
Metal Insets Dr. Montessori designed the metal insets to provide appealing opportunities for young children to practice the component strokes of letters. Appalled by the tediousness of the early 20th century practice of requiring children to make rows and rows of straight and curved lines, she designed an alternative approach. Dr. Montessori reasoned that tracing complete shapes would be more satisfying for young children and still provide opportunities to refine pencil control. Children of the 1990s often make booklet after booklet of ovals, pentagons, quatrefoils, and trapezoids. As they first trace the frame of the shape and later the more challenging free-standing metal shape, they are gaining fine motor control. Why provide children as young as three and four with opportunities to strengthen hand control in order to write? Isn’t this too young? And don’t children learn to read before they write anyway? Montessori answered “no” to both the second and the third questions. She observed children in the slums of early twentieth Rome writing on whatever surfaces (floors, chairs, table tops) they could. Rather than seeing this as misbehavior, Montessori interpreted children’s writing behavior quite literally. She recognized their strong interest in writing. Montessori countered the prevailing practice of teaching reading before writing by providing purposeful opportunities for children to write.
Sandpaper Letters and the Movable Alphabet long before early childhood educators began talking about multi-sensory education, Montessori recognized that young children learn by touching, listening and looking. She reasoned that stroking a sandpaper letter while hearing the sound of the letter and simultaneously seeing its form provided children with multiple opportunities to learn the sound and the visual shape of each letter. Once children learned to associate sounds and forms of letters, Montessori searched for a way for them to compose words. She had designed the metal insets to assist the development of children’s fine muscle control and the sandpaper letters to associate the sounds and forms of letters. How could children put these skills and concepts together to form words? Foreseeing struggles with pencil and paper, Montessori provided children with multiple sets of cut-out letters housed in a compartmentalized box. Children could then select individual letters to compose whatever words they desired.
Composing words is not the same as spelling words. Children at this stage of literacy are expressing themselves through print. Later in the elementary program they will learn to apply spelling rules. Thus, invented spelling is very much a part Montessori early childhood classrooms. Kathy Gray, Montessori directress at Doswell E. Brooks School in Prince George’s County, Maryland and language instructor with Œkos, a Foundation for Education, shares this example: Yue miet not bee aible tue reed this but mie teecher can!! Are children reading as they compose words with the movable alphabet? Usually they are encoding (writing) print without decoding (reading). Montessori recognized writing as the process of sharing one’s own thoughts and reading as the more difficult process of interpreting the thoughts of others.
Recent research concerning early literacy confirms the importance of providing children with meaningful opportunities to see and use print. These experiences will then lead to meaningful reading. Reading in Contemporary Montessori early-childhood classrooms house carefully designed, sequential opportunities to assist young children as they build beginning reading concepts. Teachers have found that dictating sets of three letter rhyming words (sit, bit, fit, pit) for children to build with the movable alphabet provides them with a structured, success-oriented early experience. Again, children begin by “writing” (composing) the words and later discover they can read them. Often children enjoy the follow-up activity of writing these words and making lists or, even better, small booklets. Parents need assurance from teachers that the focus of this activity is not reading the words but building them.
Dr. Montessori wrote of the power of a very simple activity to help bridge children into the world of reading. She encouraged her directresses to assemble a collection of interesting small objects, slips of paper, and a pencil. After asking children to name each object, she wrote the name as the children watched. She then simply placed the labels next to corresponding objects and repeated the words. In today’s classrooms, children watch as the teacher writes and listen as he/she states the word. Children see the concrete connection between the word and the object. The teacher then invites the child to mix up the labels, look at them individually, recall the word and find the appropriate object. Often children recognize the beginning sound of the words. They use this and the overall configuration of the word as they decode.
Decades later, teachers recognize the above lesson as an example of a “whole -language” approach to reading. In Montessori classrooms, teachers incorporate both phonetic and whole-word strategies. The leading reading researchers acknowledge that we still do not know exactly how children learn to read. To meet the needs of all children, teachers need to use a variety of strategies. Our culture holds reading as an essential skill. Teachers and parents feel accountable for teaching children to read. Somehow, we have come to believe that the earlier a child reads, the smarter he or she is; however, solid research tells us otherwise. Teachers and parents need to remember that six and seven year-olds are often just learning to decode. Children this age are usually not demonstrating delays.
Parents of children in Montessori classrooms who begin reading around age seven report feeling anxious and even pressured. I recently asked Heidi Arseneault, a “Montessori Mom” and office manager for Œkos, a Foundation for Education, to share her thoughts. Both Aidan (age 11) and Gabe (age 8) seem to have learned to read differently than many of their Montessori peers. Both boys are in a Montessori program that they began when they were three. Aidan learned very gradually. He did not remember sounds. He struggled through Max the Cat (the first in a commonly used reading series published by Modern Curriculum Press) at the end of his Kindergarten year and was very proud of his accomplishment! But he definitely knew that his friends were reading more than he was. Now he is a passionate reader. This summer he read the Redwall series and loved reading many Star Wars novels. He reads in the car, after school, and on week-ends — whenever he can! Gabe is just beginning to enjoy reading. We encourage him to read words he knows from bedtime books. We take turns reading sentences and pages. When Aidan was younger we read as many as six or seven stories a night and we still try to read as many as we can with Gabe. I guess both boys began with more of a whole word strategy. They often had difficulty and did not sound out words, particularly Gabe. Instead, I think they memorized words. They both would look ahead to figure out what the sentence was about and then come back to the word they were having trouble with. I remember being very relieved when one of their Montessori teachers told me that brain synapses are still forming when children are five and six years old. I felt anxious, and I worried that maybe I had not given them good enough genes! I was also concerned that the boys would feel pressured. We tried to keep them feeling good about themselves as readers, but it was especially hard with Gabe, maybe because of his personality. He often would tell us (and his teachers) that he was too tired, that he already did that work yesterday, that he couldn’t read, and that he just didn’t want to. We learned to compromise and work out deals. It really helped to be able to take home books that he was working on at school and relax with them in the evenings.
My advice to teachers and parents of children who are not learning to read at an early age is to be both patient and persistent. I believe it is important to realize that whether a child reads at five or eight really does not make a difference in the big scheme of life. Children can still grow up to be rocket scientists or whatever they want to be. It is crucial for teachers and parents to understand Heidi’s experience. In particular, teachers need to keep children feeling positive about themselves as they employ a variety of reading strategies. Some children actually have dyslexia (difficulty with an aspect of print resulting in a variety of reading and writing problems). Professor Jeanne Chall of Harvard University reports researchers agree that 10 to 15% of the population is dyslexic. Teachers and parents may not agree. While this figure suggests that teachers are right to be concerned about children like Aidan and Gabe, my experience leads me to believe that usually only one child (or two at the most) out of a class of twenty-five are truly struggling with dyslexia.
It is crucial to remember two points. First, children are indeed still developing at this young age. Second, dyslexia can be confused with a wide range of reading and writing problems (including auditory and visual discrimination, information processing, and coordinating one’s hand with one’s thoughts) that can be overcome with maturity and a variety of successful early experiences. On the other hand, parents and teachers need to be ready to seek out professional help for children who cannot overcome early problems on their own. Dr. Montessori advised us to design environments where children can learn on their own. A carefully designed language environment is characterized by an open, respectful, nurturing, communicative tone. Under this umbrella children select activities, from matching to the movable alphabet to Max the Cat, which lead them, like Aidan Arsenault, to become passionate about print.