Early Literacy and Emergent Reading in the Montessori Classroom
When early childhood educators talk about sensitive periods, they are referencing a young child’s inner development, something that is not always readily apparent to the adult. You might observe for a time in your 3 to 6-year old child’s behavior a special sensibility—a sudden responsiveness to mastering particular skillsets, including the building blocks for reading: concentration, vocabulary development, visual and sound discrimination, and more. Your child is focusing attention on certain elements in his or her surrounds to the exclusion of others.
What might feel like tunnel vision is in actuality a specific stage of development.
Critical Role of Concentration
As a result of their extensive training, teachers at The Montessori Schools are acutely aware of each child’s stage of development as it relates to the timing of these special, yet transitory, periods of sensibility. The ability to concentrate for long periods of time is an early indicator of reading readiness, as is repetition with a chosen classroom material.
Our teachers zero in on the quality of concentration and take advantage of a sensitive period in your child’s development.
Your child is learning how to concentrate through interacting with teaching materials. Our teachers look for the general meaningfulness of the material to the child, which tells them whether it is the time to introduce something new or to modify an existing strategy.
During the first 3 to 6 years, your child is capitalizing on a period of sustained proficiency in the spoken language. A child entering into the sensitive period for language needs vocabulary infused into his or her world whenever and wherever possible. In truth, he or she will be very vocal and very insistent about this need. “Mommy, what is this? And, what is this called? And, this and this and this…” and so forth.
Your child is adding new words to his or her vocabulary at a rate not to be experienced again.
Children desire exact and sophisticated nomenclature. During this sensitive period, language is ideally acquired in a contextually meaningful way. When your child uses vocabulary in context, inside and outside the classroom, reading is likely just around the corner.
During the sensitive period for auditory discrimination, your child will spend significant time vocalizing (sounding out) the names of objects. He or she has likely grasped the concepts behind word construction when the sounding out is no longer vocalized. During this sensitive period, your child enjoys works, games, and songs that develop the ability to hear the initial, medial, and ending sounds of words. This may help explain why “I spy” and rhyming songs are so popular at this time.
The Montessori Bells contribute to improved auditory perception—an acuity needed for “sounding out” words.
Before mastering initial/ending sound discrimination and (later) word composition, the young Montessori child has experienced significant success with auditory teaching materials elsewhere in the classroom. The Montessori Bells and the Sensorial sound boxes have already, at this time, contributed to his or her ability to “decode” and, therefore, to write words.
In the classroom, our teachers take great care to arrange materials in an orderly manner, which encourages classification of items, a critical component of language development. The various matching works (picture-picture, object-picture, etc.), sequencing works, and categorization works (go-togethers, opposites, etc.) help your child to mentally organize the onslaught of auditory and visual information received during the course of the day.
We pay close attention to the degree of organization in a child’s work, because it reflects the mind’s order and relative capacity to perceive the underlying structure of language.
Writing and Tactile Discrimination
The Montessori child learns the shapes of letters that correspond with speech sounds. Initially, your child may be preoccupied with the sensorial aspects of writing, including the shape of the sandpaper letters and each letter’s corresponding sound. Touch is still the dominant sense in this sensitive period and, as a result, the child will not necessarily at first be able to recall the phonetic sound of a letter by looking at it; he will remember, though, once he has traced the tips of his fingers over the letter.
A child initially uses sensorial input for written communication. The sandpaper letters allow him or her to feel the contours of a letter using two writing fingers.
When a child has had sufficient time to explore the sensorial aspects of language, it is common to see a sudden and dramatic move into writing.
During this sensitive period for touch, the phonetic learner can also use writing for expression. Young children have an intense need to label and otherwise assign descriptors to objects. Both the sandpaper letters and the moveable alphabet enable him or her to do this without having, yet, perfected muscular hand control.
Signs You have a Reader in Your Near Future
Multiple areas within the Montessori classroom prepare your child for reading. Works in the Practical Life and Sensorial areas help your child to refine skillsets considered the foundation for lifelong readers and writers: concentration, left-right sequencing, pencil control, visual and auditory discrimination, and more.
Your child may be on the verge of reading when he or she exhibits a general mastery of “pre-reading” skills, in addition to other behaviors, such as comprehending the words he or she has “built” (composed).
The first words a child reads may be the exact same words he or she originally composed using the moveable alphabet.
Much of this new interest in reading comprehension is satisfied through classroom works in the content areas, such as those on the geography, science, and cultural shelves. In addition, a child learns that there is a correlation between words on a page and the spoken language. This is typically first manifested in “pretend reading,” where a child acts out reading behavior—for example, “reading” a favorite, very familiar story to a younger child or to a toy animal/doll.
A child’s comprehension of a good number of sight words is also a strong indication that he or she is about to truly read. In effect, the child’s extensive oral vocabulary is eventually translated into reading vocabulary. This is an exciting time for your child and for your family.
The sensitive periods leading to reading proficiency are a joyful time filled with much discovery, awe, and respect for your child’s enthusiasm for learning. There is nothing humdrum and routine about learning how to express oneself. Rather, your child is entering into a keen period of cognitive growth in his or her young life. Enjoy the ride.