Express Yourself: Montessori Language Methods

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“Writing is learned in a very short time since it is taught only to children who show a desire for it. They indicate this by the voluntary attention they pay to the lessons which the teacher is giving to the older children and to the exercises in which these are engaged. Some learn to write without ever receiving lessons but simply by having observed those given to others.” —Dr. Maria Montessori

Maria Montessori believed that from the ages of two to six, children unconsciously and generatively absorb the language of their environment. No one has to motivate the child, because the brain is pre-wired for language. Children eagerly and easily learn their native language during this sensitive period; they watch the mouths of others and have a willingness to produce sounds.  The child is also ripe during this period for learning music and foreign languages! Since this period is over by the age of six, it is integral to expose them to as many language exercises as possible during this time.

Montessori’s language curriculum is broken down into three areas: speaking, writing, and reading. If the Montessori Method is successful, the directress will witness an “explosion” into spelling (CVC) consonant-vowel-consonant words before reading. The directress’ method is process-orientated, so that the child can experience the lessons rather than just being told. Lessons progress from the concrete (real) to abstract and are given on a rug which indirectly mimics concepts of print or tracking from left to right and top to bottom.

Once a child reaches the age of two, a sensitive period into speaking occurs. Here, the child is picking speech up at a more rapid rate than he or she ever will as an adult.  Montessori believed that phonemic awareness, or the ability to manipulate sounds, occurred during shared reading time at circle time. Here, the directress can use a big book to “extend the lap” experience so the children can participate. The directress can also read poems and rhymes, which directly promotes oral language. When learning letters and sounds, the directress would take out a rug and have the child sit to her side. She would begin with the sandpaper letters, saying for example, “This letter is ‘B’ and the sound it makes is a ‘B’ sound.” The letters are cut from sandpaper in order for the child to gain muscular memory of the letters before they begin to write; have the child trace the letter with his or her finger as you tell them the letter and the sound!

The three-part vocabulary cards are also instrumental and very effective tools at this age, because the child has to read their work in the end. First, the child is given cards with a picture and a word on them; for example, an image of a flower and the word “flower.” Then, the child is given an image card and a word card separately, and must match up the correct word to the correct image. This stimulates reading and abstract thinking, and is a great exercise!

Maria Montessori believed that writing could be taught in a very short time to those children who showed an interest in transmitting thought through writing.  Montessori examined the writer and what was needed to accomplish motor memory and visual memory of the letters. Writing began with hand movements (motor memory) such as holding a small wooden rod and going over a letter (like a pen) and managing the writing instrument and reproducing the shape of the letters. Drawing and tracing on the metal insets and preliminary board exercises also gave the hand the ability to handle the writing instrument. Visual memory of the letters was absorbed into the child’s mind by touching the moveable alphabet to compose words. The moveable alphabet was also a benefit to younger students who found it physically difficult to draw the letters. Practical life was still very important because it helped to strengthen the “dynamic tripod” or the three finger grasp of the thumb, middle and index fingers. The dynamic tripod was what gave the hand the ability to hold and manage the writing instrument.

Montessori called the moment when a child realizes he or she can write the “explosive phenomenon.” The practical life and sensorial skills learned by the child prepare him or her to be able to make meaningful symbols; through those exercises he has developed the coordination and intellectual capacity to write.  Several exercises help a child prepare for writing, including sound games, sandpaper letters, and the moveable alphabet. There is a direct progression from recognizing that words are made up of sounds, that each sound has a symbol, and that the symbols make the words. Finally, using the metal insets are the final step to writing, helping the child learn to hold a pencil and copy the strokes of letters. The child is naturally interested in the movement of making the letter, and his stability will improve the more he uses the metal insets. The child’s sensitive period also makes his or her mind especially absorbent for letter images and for the importance of writing as a means of individualized self-expression.

Montessori discovered that once the children were writing they could easily transition to reading in a little over two weeks’ time. Historically, it was the parents of her students who had asked her to teach reading. Since the child needs ideas from the words on the paper in order to read, Montessori believed that composition should come first before reading sentences. Reading was using the mental intellect to take graphic symbols and make sounds of words that are recognized. In the classroom, the directress pronounces the sounds (emphasizing them), and when the child repeats the sound it is linked to a word, which is then pronounced as a syllable or a vowel. Interpretive reading games are instrumental in developing oral reading. Individually, reading or decoding is found on the rug in the form of picture and word cards and lessons using the moveable alphabets.

One easy way to get vocabulary enrichment for your students is to bring a dollhouse from home and type up vocabulary cards that go with the items. Children are fascinated by dollhouses and will be drawn to playing with it and the little people within it. Ask the children to place the correct item word with its match in the dollhouse. These cards can even be separated into “article,” “noun,” and “adjective” and placed into small baskets. Then, the child can make up sentences about what is happening in the dollhouse as he or she plays. For example, “The woman is pretty” is a sentence using two articles, an adjective, and a noun.

In the Montessori classroom for ages three to six, the absorbent mind is fast at work learning speaking, writing, and reading. Montessori said, “All areas of the Montessori language curriculum seek to take advantage of the child’s interest in language communication, and his incredible capacity for learning from his surroundings.” This is definitely true as the language lessons offer points of interest (incidental reading, pictures, and objects) while having an indirect aim of left to right progression of reading or tracking. The lessons also offer isolation of difficulty where the materials are designed to address one specific skill or task. The Montessori student cannot help but enjoy learning in the Method’s beautifully prepared environment of language.