Language was not my favorite subject while in school. It actually wasn’t until I was a freshman in college, studying to get my education degree, that I took a creative writing class and hit my “sensitive period” for language. I felt such joy and passion for this one course that I completely uprooted by life and decided to become an English major. I was going to move to New York and work for a publishing house. The summer after my graduation I took a job as an assistant in a toddler classroom and instantly fell in love with the philosophy. Again, I completely uprooted my life and decided I was going to become a Montessorian.
I was highly impressed with Mara Montessori’s math lessons and the way she took something so abstract and made it concrete. Still, it was the language materials that called to me. They were simple, beautiful, and taught on so many different levels that it can honestly be intimidating as a teacher to remember all the steps and presentations that go with them.
During my training, my language instructor began our course by saying “there are just five lessons that Maria Montessori left us in order to teach language.” I was blown away by this. I’ve seen the language shelves in Primary classrooms and I know there are way more than just five lessons on them. What I learned in that course is through these five lessons we can teach writing and reading to Primary aged children, and the “extra” works I’ve been seeing on the shelves are simply extensions or variations to these five original lessons. Fascinating, I know!
The first lesson Maria Montessori gave us is the Sandpaper letters. The sandpaper letters are small squares made out of wood that have sandpaper letters pasted on them. Why sandpaper? So the child can actually feel the shape of the letter. Genius! We keep individual records of the letters (or sounds because we teach them phonetically) that a child is introduced to, working on, or mastered. We use the sandpaper letters in order to further heighten the child’s awareness of the sounds in words as well as to unite these sounds by means of muscular and visual memory to the appropriate symbol. The sandpaper letters are also the first step towards writing and reading!
The second lesson Maria Montessori gave us is the Moveable alphabet. Easily, this is my favorite work in the classroom because of its endless possibilities. The moveable alphabet was developed my Maria Montessori when she realized that children had the mental capacity to analyze the sounds in words way before they could synthesize them. This lead to the discovery that children actually learn how to write before they learn how to read. I’ll explain, because, if you’re like me, this blew my mind the first time I heard it! After introducing the sandpaper letters the child has a healthy understanding of sounds that are found in words. They can sort picture or objects that begin with a sound and place them with the sandpaper letter that represents it. When they begin the first presentations of the moveable alphabet they are able to “write” words by focusing on the sounds they hear and laying out the pieces of the moveable alphabet that they know represent those sounds. For example, if they had a small car on their mat. The child could say the word, “car” and quickly identify that the first sound they hear is “cuh” (think phonetically). They would find the “c” and place it next to the object. They would continue saying the word until they have figured out all the sounds that make up that word.
We introduce CVC words (consonant vowel consonant) to a child first to help them gain confidence and understanding of patterns and word families. Because the English language is not a phonetic language (think knife J), many words will be misspelled. We do not necessarily correct the child, nor do we ask him to read the word back to us, because they can’t read yet. Eventually, after weeks and weeks of using the Moveable Alphabet, the child will start reading the words back spontaneously, and that’s when you leave the room, shed a tear of joy, and watch as the child’s world becomes a little bit bigger. Later on, when the child is five or six years old, he will become curious about correct spelling, and you can guide him in his new awareness.
The third lesson that Maria Montessori left us is the Metal Insets. They consist of ten flat metal squares, each one of the squares is a metal shape cut-out. The shape cut-outs are the same shapes found in other materials such as the geometric solids. The insets are accompanied by color pencils, white square paper, and a tray. The child is free to select the shape(s) they wish to use and the colors. Maria Montessori said, “When the child has begun these exercises, he is seized with a desire to continue them, and he never tires of drawing the outlines of the figures and then filing them in. Each child suddenly becomes the possessor of a considerable number of drawings, and he treasures them up in his own litter drawer. In this way, he organizes the movement of writing, which brings him to the management of the pen.” (Dr. Montessori’s Own Handbook, A Short Guide of Her Ideas and Materials.) The metal insets help to prepare the hand for reading, which means it helps the child to:
- Grip and hold the pencil
- Refine hand control to steady the pencil
- Develop movements of straight and curved lines
- Develop hand-eye coordination
- Experience the result of pressure on the pencil
- Develop the fine muscles in the hand but also the larger muscles required for sitting and maintaining a posture for writing
- Focus the mind
- Develop and strengthen the child’s concentration
I’m exhausted just thinking about it!
The fourth lesson that Maria Montessori left us to teach language is the three-period lesson. Obviously, the three period lesson breaks down into three sections: listening, recognizing, and articulating. In the first step of the lesson, the teacher simply associates the name with the object.
Teacher: This is the sound “mmm,” this is the sound “sssss,” this is the sound “rrr” (r).
In the second step of the lesson, the teacher is testing if the child made the association successfully.
Teacher: “Can you point to the rrr?”
Child: Child points to the R
Teacher: “Can you point to the sss?”
Child: Child points to the S
Teacher: “Can you point to the mmm?”
Child: Child points to the M
Did you notice that the teacher introduced the letters in one order, then checked the association in reverse order? That is because the teacher is starting with the sound that is most fresh in the child’s mind. Often, you’ll see older children receiving a three-period lesson in another area of the classroom and they recognize the patter and will jump ahead in guessing what the teacher is going to ask for next. At this point I would mix up the order that I check the association with in order to get an accurate idea of what the child knows or doesn’t know.
In the third step of the lesson, the teacher is testing if the child can repeat back or articulate the vocabulary that they have learned.
Teacher: (pointing to m) “What is this sound?”
Teacher: (pointing to the s) “What is this sound?”
Teacher: (pointing to the r) “What is this sound?”
Again, notice that the teacher reverses the letters she is testing the child on and starts with the “most fresh” letter in the child’s mind.
Finally, the fifth lesson that Maria Montessori left for us to teach language is the three-part cards. The cards consist of a control card with a picture and a word printed on it, a second card with just the picture, and a third card with just the word. Their intended purpose is to manipulate order and internalize the information on the cards. They can be used in all areas of the classroom but are wonderful guides when working with CVC words in the language curriculum.
The next time you walk into a Primary Montessori Classroom, take a look at the Language shelf and see if you can identify what is one of Maria Montessori’s five language lessons, or the extensions that we have created from these lessons!