The Achievement of Literacy
In the Montessori field, we’re fascinated by literacy. It never ceases to amaze us how effortless it can be to introduce literacy to children at a young age, and how tireless they are in their pursuit of it.
The letter reads:
Dear Miss Emily,
You’re the best teacher anyone has ever had. I am going to miss you. Thank you for teaching me all the best stuff in the Douglas Fir class. We don’t have time to do the subtraction blank chart. I feel scared to move up but I know other kids will help me. I mayd new frends with Belles.
To non-Montessorians, this is an astounding feat. A child, composing and writing letters – in cursive – and not yet even six years old? She must be a prodigy! She must be gifted! She must have really smart parents!
When you break the Montessori language curriculum down into its component parts, you start to understand how this stunning achievement becomes possible. Let's take a closer look at how Montessori approaches literacy and see how the building of skills over three years makes such a letter not only possible, but predictable.
Phonemic awareness starts early, around three years old. Fun and engaging teacher-led activities like the Sound Game heighten the child’s ability to hear, identify, and manipulate all the sounds that make up the words we use. This is a critical first step in literacy. When writing, you need to know which symbols make up a word. When reading, you need to be able to break the word apart, identify the sounds, and then put it back together again. Both these abilities start with phonemic awareness. We link this to literacy through the Sandpaper Letters, that iconic Montessori material that connects individual phonemes to the letters (or letter blends) that we use to write them.
In the Montessori curriculum, writing comes before reading. Why? Because writing is a process of encoding, which is easier than decoding (reading). A child wants to build the word “cat” with the Moveable Alphabet, so how does she do this? First, she sounds out the word and identifies the component parts, which she learned with the Sandpaper Letters: c—a—t. What’s that first sound again? That’s right, it’s c (and we pronounce the sound, “k”, instead of the letter C). She looks in the Moveable Alphabet box, finds the c, and puts it down on her floor mat. Then she repeats for a, and then t. And suddenly, unbelievably, you may have a not-yet-four year old child who is using the Moveable Alphabet to write words.
Simultaneously, the teacher has been giving the child presentations to build her comfort with a writing instrument, using such presentations as the Metal Insets and the Botany Cabinet. As the child’s comfort with forming the letters by hand grows, she starts to write by herself, on paper, not using the Moveable Alphabet. It’s not pretty cursive at first, as you might expect, and it’s hard to read her first attempts to write. But confidence is what’s important here, and skill will grow in time; she loves to practice, loves that Mom and Dad can read more and more of what she’s bringing home, and her ongoing practice is joyful and entirely voluntary.
It’s now starting to become apparent how that beautifully-written cursive letter could have been written by a child under six, especially given that we typically start this process with three year old children.
Connecting the sounds of our language to the symbols we use to represent them is achieved through the Sandpaper Letters. This allows the child to use the Moveable Alphabet to build words so that she’s essentially writing by herself.
Reading, however, is a different process, a taking-apart instead of a putting-together. The very first introduction to reading – the Phonetic Object Box – comes about six months after the Moveable Alphabet is introduced, and especially if the teacher starts to see spontaneous reading while the child is working with the Moveable Alphabet. The Phonetic Object Box is a game, as so many Montessori activities are. The child matches a written slip to one of ten objects. All are phonetic (which means they are spelled like they sound), such as box, cat, trumpet, dog. The teacher writes a word, such as “dog”, and the child looks at the words, sounds it out (“d---- o----g …. dog!”) and places the slip next to the tiny plastic dog on the table. A fun game, sure, but so very powerful as the child’s first formal introduction to really, truly knowing “I’m a reader!”.
This is the springboard for a host of presentations that increase in complexity as the child’s confidence and skill builds, leading slowly but surely to a confident reader who can not only read words, but can interpret both the style and the emotional content of the text she's reading.
And finally, to write something, the child must have something to write about. He must have a large selection of words, stories, and ideas to draw on. He must have seen and heard examples of stories being told, the construction of a narrative, the use of adjectives, adverbs, nouns, and other grammatical structures, the power to communicate the contents of one’s mind to another person through the written and spoken word.
Fortunately, the Montessori curriculum has this covered. Teachers tell true stories; sing songs; read books; play games in which the children’s own stories, sometimes disjointed, are told back to them with a clear narrative structure; play games that introduce new vocabulary, new ideas, and new ways to describe familiar things. Children play with language in ways that fascinate and delight them. Imagine being five years old and reading a slip on which is written a command. The command is “hop sadly”. The child acts out this command which is usually met with great amusement by friends who may be participating (imagine a great deal of somber hopping with an overdramatic hangdog expression and perhaps some fake sniffling). The next command is “march joyfully”, followed by “slither silently”. Children will play these games endlessly, and will experience the different functions of language directly and immediately, through the movement of their own bodies.
The Montessori Primary environment is saturated in language, and when younger children see constant examples of their older peers reading, writing, and generally having a blast with literacy, a natural self-motivation and passion to become literate arises within them (and we are indebted, yet again, to the power of the mixed-age classroom). The strongly-felt need for literacy is driven by cultural adaptation, which is the desire to become a person of one’s time and place, or more simply, to be like the people around you. If literacy is valued in the child’s environment, then they too will value literacy.
The plastic, receptive nature of the child’s mind under six years old is our most important ally when introducing literacy to children. There is an optimum time when this work is easy; that window closes slowly as the child gets older, and eventually shuts altogether, at which point learning to read and write becomes much more difficult.
When implemented correctly by a well-qualified Montessori teacher, literacy by age six is not only achievable; it is voluntary, effortless, and joyful for the child. We could not achieve the results we do, embodied in that beautiful cursive letter, if it were otherwise.