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The Importance of Literacy in Montessori

By Jeff Waxman

As Montessori educators, we understand the huge importance of literacy for children. As we track their development, beginning in the infant-toddler community, the huge role that language plays is already evident, even to an untrained observer.

Montessori teachers speak in full sentences, using proper words with babies (not nicknaming or making nonsensical sounds) as the youngest children in our community are in what Montessori referred to as their Sensitive Period for language. (lasting from birth – six).

In the Infant-Toddler classroom, the teachers begin to “name” everything, so that the children are constantly building their vocabulary and learning more and more words to keep in the dictionary which is their mind; words which can be called upon again and again as they make meaning of themselves and of their classroom community. A teacher may invite a child to “look in the mirror… I notice that you have some mucous under your nose…” and then suggest “let’s get a tissue so you can wipe that and your face will be clean!”

At these early ages, we are also introducing board books; good sturdy hard-cover books which the children can pick up and learn to hold, enjoying colorful pictures, and also learning how to hold books while turning pages, one by one. Of course, like everything, books go into mouths at this age, as the children are learning to experience everything fully and with their senses.

Montessori works are arranged on the shelf from left to right, from the most basic to the more complex work, and they are laid out in the way that we read, which subconsciously trains the eye for scanning the written page, left to right.

Once the children reach the Preschool, often at the very beginning of the school year, the Lead Teacher may offer a lesson called “labeling the environment”. She may gather a group of children and begin to write individual words on small pieces of paper. Each time she writes a word, she reads the word, then with a small piece of tape, makes the paper ready to become a label. “Chair” says the first paper. And she asks for a child to volunteer to put the label that says “chair” on a chair. Next she may write “table”, then “window” then “door” until almost every surface of the classroom is labeled with its name. This lesson shows the children that things have names, and that names are words that can be written. Of course, this sparks an interest in reading and writing.

Later, students will be introduced to the sandpaper letters, and here they will trace cursive letters while making the sounds that each letter makes. The students will begin to memorize the shapes of letters and their corresponding sounds, which then become the building blocks for building and decoding three-letter words (c-a-t).

Another material in the Preschool that aids in the development of literacy is the moveable alphabet, a box of small wooden letters from a – z which are used to build words (boy) to phrases (a boy) to short sentences (a boy wlkd) << this is called inventive spelling, referenced below.

The children use the letters to encode (create words) with “inventive spelling”, at first, which shows the Lead Teacher that the child is familiar with the mechanics and rules of spelling, and so a story may begin “wunc upn a tim”. And while we can see immediately that spelling errors abound, in this case we are excited for children who are emergent writers to be able to communicate with letters and get ideas across, so the actual spelling of the words is less important than the child’s ability to tell a short story. In Montessori we refer to this as “isolating the difficulty”. In other words, teaching one thing at a time, and only focusing on that. If we want a child to write a creative story, knowing that the sounding out of each letter is laborious and will take a lot of time, we don’t want to squelch the creativity, so we allow for spelling mistakes, and if we can read what has been written (“wunc upn a tim…”), we know that they are tracking and we can see creative writing emerge, which was the goal. Children are so proud when they can write their own story and someone can read it back to them!  Spelling can be addressed later and in isolation when we work with the students and focus on spelling.

Once the students reach Primary grades, reading is essential. Every work that they undertake in the 6-9 classroom involved reading (decoding) and writing (encoding) and this is true across the curriculum when attacking any subject matter from botany, to zoology to geography, and even in math, where the students will be confronted with story problems and the like.

Montessori students are immersed in language-rich classrooms and are exposed to vocabulary like square-based prism, ellipse, ovoid, pinnate and palmate leaves…Paleozoic and Cenozoic Eras,  it goes on and on. It’s scientific vocabulary, definitions, characteristics, sorting, classifying… they are learning to make sense of the world around them, using words.

We are excited to offer your children such strong exposure to literature, literacy and hopefully, a love of the process of acquiring information using reading and writing skills.

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