Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Beginning Language Progression

The Montessori 3-6 Beginning Language Progression:

Over Winter Break, something very exciting happened! Some members of our community began reading their very first words (and their very first books even!). Few things in life, I imagine, compare to the excitement of a child realizing that they can read and that they have been fully initiated into the symbolic order which governs linguistic communication and an ever increasing amount of intersubjective relationships. Needless to say, this is cause for a great deal of elation in the children's house- just watching children sound out those first words makes me giddy with excitement for them (I really think there should be a cultural celebration for such an occasion- it is so much more exciting than a birthday).

While celebrating this phenomenon, it occurred to me that I had been intending to post an overview as to how the language "curriculum," or more aptly, the language progression, occurs in the Montessori classroom and some of the ways in which contemporary cognitive science has validated the efficacy and wisdom of her approach (although, the sounds of our two year olds happily reading to each other speaks for itself).
One of the most important things to keep in mind about the Montessori approach is that it is fun for the child and that the lessons are freely selected by them. Children advance rapidly because the instruction is so differentiated (completely tailored by the guide to the individual student) and because each lesson isolates one new difficulty or skill. Central to all Montessori learning is freedom- children choose the lessons based upon their intrinsic desire to do them, not based upon extrinsic rewards or punnishments; students are never drilled, pushed, rewarded, or forced to do or to repeat specific lessons.

Children begin by learning the phonetic sounds of the alphabet (not the names of the letters), using the Sandpaper Letters. In these lessons, the child carefully traces the Sandpaper Letter while hearing the sound associated with that graphic symbol. The letters are presented in order of their frequency of use in the English language.

There are numerous strengths to this approach over more conventional methods:

First of all, this approach simultaneously combines kinesthetic, tactile, visual, and auditory feedback and appeals to all learning styles. Additionally, the child simultaneously learns to recognize the graphic symbol, associate it with the correct sound, and practice the fine motor movements required to produce the graphic symbol (as preparation for handwriting). Every time that this activity is repeated, it is strengthening the connections between those neural pathways in the brain (assisting the child with efficient recall and integrating the functions of the two cerebral hemispheres).

Secondly, contemporary research in cognitive science has confirmed the importance of Montessori's approach and that it aids children in learning their sounds more effectively than flash cards or worksheets. Research shows that the kinesthetic sense is most important because it is our strongest memory; additionally, research also shows that young children differentiate figures most effectively after following the contours of the figure manually (they remember them more clearly after tracing them with their hand). Additionally, research has shown that the Montessori approach of learning the sounds in individual (or small group) presentations is particularly effective with young children because it facilitates and engages their instinct for joint visual attention.

After children have had experience tracing the letters, they begin to sort collections of small objects based upon their beginning sounds. This approach develops what is called "phonemic awareness," or the awareness that words are composed of sound units and assist the child in converting visual symbols into a temporal auditory sequence (connecting what is seen with what is heard).

Once the child has successfully learned to associate 9-12 sounds with their corresponding symbols, they can begin to work with the Moveable Alphabet. Each child is different and has different interests and abilities; however, the Sandpaper Letters seem most appealing to children aged 2-3 (as a result, they are often more driven to repeat these lessons and learn them faster than older children attempting the same feat). We find that children aged 2-3 who attend part-time generally learn 9-12 sounds in their first year; children who attend full time generally learn the entire alphabet in the same amount of time or less.

The Moveable alphabet consists of a box divided into individual compartments which contain wooden letters of the alphabet. Montessori discovered that children are able to write (or encode) phonemes before they can read (or decode them). Initially, the child will use the Moveable Alphabet to "write" three letter phonetic words; over time, they will advance into four and five letter phonetic words and to compose short phonetic stories (using invented or phonemic spelling). "Writing" with the Moveable Alphabet is a very important stage. The genius of Montessori's approach is that it isolates phonemic awareness from motor control (children are able to write as soon as they have learned to associate sounds with their symbols and to understand that words are composed of sound units, even before they have the motor control to physically write words). Additionally, contemporary science shows that this approach improves the child's ability to segment syllables and words into sound units, correlates to a reduction in dyslexia and reading disabilities (research suggests this is because dyslexics try to decode words using the frontal lobe, rather than the occipito lobe of their brain and the phonemic awareness activities involved help to develop the neural pathways), and improves reading performance. Generally, there is a lag of 3-6 months between the child's ability to compose words with the Moveable Alphabet and their ability to read them back.

Additionally, once the child can associate all of the sounds of the alphabet with their symbols, they may also begin to use some of the supplemental materials in the classroom. One popular material are these "Step Boards," in which the child inserts a strip containing pictures and matches the picture to its correct beginning, ending, or middle sound. These boards provide additional opportunities for practice and repetition while appearing to be a new activity to the child. They also provide an additional opportunity for handwriting practice as the child can place tracing paper over the letters.

While children are learning to associate sounds and symbols, they are also indirectly preparing for handwriting with the fine motor activities that are present in the classroom, and using the Metal Insets. The child uses traces the geometric forms and fills them in using careful, uniform strokes in order to gain the muscular control of the hand required for handwriting.

Additionally, the child may practice forming letters by tracing the Sandpaper Letter and then attempting to write the letter on a chalk board, in a tray of sand, or in finger paint.

Finally, after sufficient preparation, there comes the long awaited day in which the child "spontaneously" demonstrates an awareness that the words they have been writing with the Moveable Alphabet can be read as a synthesized sound. At this point, the child is presented with a beautiful box containing miniature objects whose name consists of a three letter phonemic word (log, mop, bag, etc). The guide writes the name of the object on small slips of paper and the child matches them to the correct object. For Montessori children, this is their first experience reading and sounding out words.

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