One of my fondest childhood memories is my mother reading to me. I remember the book of the month club she signed my sister and me up for, so we would always have new books to explore. Getting those books in the mail was a highlight in my young days. I still remember the anticipation as we waited the books arrival. The stories she read were so important to me. Being read to was more than a form of communication, it was a connection: a connection to my mother, the characters in the books, and to the larger world. In fact, I believe it is the reason I wanted to become a teacher.
Children become like the things they love. ~Maria Montessori
Throughout history in all cultures, man has used language to name things in his environment and to express his feelings. Over the years, as the development of the human family evolved, spoken language began to develop into written communication. Written communication provides a link to the past and a bridge to the future.
Maria Montessori discovered that during the first six years of life, children are particularly sensitive to learning language. As infants, humans acquire language independently by absorbing spoken language in their environment. They take this absorbed information and learn to speak by themselves. This self taught form of self expression and communication teaches us, as educators, that children independently acquire language, given the proper environment. Maria Montessori wrote, “And so we discovered that education is not something which the teacher does, but that it is a natural process which develops spontaneously in the human being.”
Based on this, Dr. Montessori designed a language curriculum to meet the specific needs of children during this sensitive period. Being introduced to this curriculum during the sensitive period for language increases a child’s natural ease in learning to write and read. The main aim in the Montessori language curriculum is to enable the child to express himself as fully as possible for his own satisfaction and communication. This is accomplished by developing auditory perception of sounds in words, associating sounds with symbols, expressing thoughts in symbolic form, awareness that the written word has within it the ability to carry a message or communicate a thought and to enrich a child’s vocabulary. All this leads to the ability to express ones thoughts in spoken and written form.
The language curriculum is directly connected to all other curriculum areas in the classroom. Indirect preparation for learning language takes place in sensorial through the refinement of auditory discrimination. The analysis of sound is intimately connected with the learning of the alphabet and differentiating between letter sounds. Visual discrimination helps the child distinguish between the different letter formations. The refinement of the tactile sense, prepares the child for the sandpaper letters. Top to bottom, left to right sequencing and most presentations prepares the child for directionality in reading and writing. Even gripping the knobbed cylinders with the tripod grip prepares the child for gripping a pencil.
So much of the work in practical life prepares the child for literacy. Through these practical activities, such as tweezing, children gain the coordination needed for holding a pencil, which leads to writing. Concentration, order and independence, which are refined in practical life, prepare a child for both writing and reading. The cultural area allows the child to discover life outside the classroom walls by listening to stories from other cultures, investigating animals from around the world and practicing peace education, which all foster a global vision of the world in which they live. This all sparks interest in the child and he then seeks answers to his questions through research and discovery.
Listening and acquiring language are a fundamental part of the Montessori language curriculum. If we share good literature, in the form of rhymes, songs, poetry and stories we will greatly increase the child’s love of language. By listening to literature, children also pick up the differences in sounds, the sequencing in stories, and the overall flow of communicating through the spoken and written word.
This is not only the sensitive period in a child’s life for knowing the names of everything in their environment in their environment, but all names in general. This is the optimal time to introduce the sounds of letters. Because this is also the sensitive period for touching and feeling, sandpaper letters are used in a Montessori classroom. Sandpaper letters make kinesthetic connections between the letter symbol and the sound. Letters are the symbols of the sounds we make. Matching the symbol to the sound is the first step to writing.
In a Montessori classroom, the three period lesson is used to introduce language lessons. In the first period of a sandpaper letter lesson, the teacher tells the child what the object is. “This is /m/, this is /a/, and this is/t/.” In the second period of the lesson, the child is asked by the teacher to “Show me the /t/, /a/ and /m/. Lastly, the teacher asks the child, “Tell me what this is?”, for all three letters.
Children build their own understanding of how sounds are represented by symbols, and often spontaneously “explode” into writing, which naturally appears several months before reading. Montessori believed. “The ability to write will be acquired as a result of the analysis of the words each one possesses and of the activity of one’s mind which is interested in such a magical conquest.” She further stressed the importance of encoding before decoding, in other words, writing before reading. Montessori reading is based on this strong foundation of phonics. This is unique to most language curriculums, which teach children to read then write.
In order to prepare the hand for writing, Montessori developed materials and exercises to refine motor skill and strength. Metal insets are used to train the hand to move in lines and curves. To further build strength and fine motor skills, children practice tracing letter shapes in sand, then on a chalk board. All these activities prepare the hand for future writing.
In the meantime, for those who are not ready physically to write with a pencil, but who are mentally ready, Dr. Montessori prepared cutout movable letters for their work. When children have learned the phonetic sounds, they are ready to begin word building with the moveable alphabet. They begin by building two or three letter phonetic words. In the beginning, children are dictated a word, like bat, to encode. “What sound did you her first?” “What sound did you hear next?” “What sound was last?” In order to allow the children to work independently, they are given small phonetic objects which represent the words they are to build. Later, pictures of phonetic words can be introduced for variety and additional practice in word building.
After the child has mastered two and three letter word building, he or she can begin matching reading cards with the objects and later pictures, and also begin working on building four or more letter phonetic words. After these are mastered, the child can match four or more letter words with corresponding objects and pictures, in a variety of formats. This explosion into reading can take place at any time, usually simultaneously with the writing.
Learning the function of words and correct expression goes hand in hand with all other language activities in the classroom because it expands a child’s understanding of words and increases their vocabulary. The function of words and correct expression are developed through the use of manipulative activities. Working with these activities gives children further practice in reading and comprehension through visualization.
“The development of language continues, in fact, up to the age of five years, and the mind during this period is in a phase of activity regarding everything that has to do with words.”