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It was very hard for me to learn how to read. It did not seem logical for the letter "m" to be called "em," and yet with some vowel following it you did not say "ema" but "ma." It was impossible for me to read that way. At last, when I went to the Montessori school, the teacher did not teach me the names of the consonants but their sounds. In this way I could read the first book I found in a dusty chest in the storeroom of the house. It was tattered and incomplete, but it involved me in so intense a way that Sara's fiancé had a terrifying premonition as he walked by: "Damn! This kid's going to be a writer."
—Gabriel Gárcia Márquez, Nobel Prize for literature

 The main influence on the development of a child's spoken and written language is the family. If the adult speaks clearly and precisely to the child, and in a normal tone of voice that one would use with a peer, the child will do the same. If the child is exposed to more than one language in the home or school it is very important that he be able to associate one language with one person, and the second language with a different person. So, for example, the first adult should speak only English to the child, and the second adult should speak only Spanish to him. This will help the child sort out the difference and become fluent in both.

Reading aloud to a child gives the message that reading is fun, introduces vocabulary that would not usually come up in spoken language, and demonstrates beauty and variety of expression. Reading and writing are not “taught,” in the traditional way one thinks of in learning literacy, to a child before age six or seven. Rather, the environment is prepared with sensorial experiences that will enable the child to teach himself. This was one of the most amazing discoveries of Dr. Montessori in that very first school. Here is a quote from Dr. Montessori about her experience in the first casa dei bambini, “house of children,” in Rome in the beginning of the 20th century:

Ours was a house for children, rather than a real school. We had prepared a place for children where a diffused culture could be assimilated from the environment, without any need for direct instruction…. Yet these children learned to read and write before they were five, and no one had given them any lessons. At that time it seemed miraculous that children of four and a half should be able to write, and that they should have learned without the feeling of having been taught.

We puzzled over it for a long time. Only after repeated experiments did we conclude with certainty that all children are endowed with this capacity to absorb culture. If this be true—we then argued—if culture can be acquired without effort, let us provide the children with other elements of culture. And then we saw them ‘absorb’ far more than reading and writing: botany, zoology, mathematics, geography, and all with the same ease, spontaneously and without getting tired.

And so we discovered that education is not something that the teacher does, but that it is a natural process which develops spontaneously in the human being. It is not acquired by listening to words, but in virtue of experiences in which the child acts on his environment. The teacher’s task is not to talk, but to prepare and arrange a series of motives for cultural activity in a special environment made for the child.

For success in language a child needs to feel that what he has to say is important; he needs to have a desire to relate to others; he needs to have had real experience on which language is based; and he of course needs the physical abilities necessary for reading and writing. There are several things that we can do to help. We can stop what we are doing whenever possible, listen attentively and with eye contact, and speak to the child in a respectful tone. We can provide a stimulating environment, rich in sensorial experiences and in language—language is meaningless if it is not based on experience. We can set an example and model precise language in our everyday activities with the child. If we share good literature, in the form of rhymes, songs, poetry, and stories we will greatly increase the child's love of language.

The most important first vocabulary at this age is of items in the home environment—clothing, kitchen objects, tools, toys, and so forth. Your child will be thrilled to know the names of the things he sees and uses every day, and to be able to use them correctly. All we need to do is to use the correct names, and the precise language for objects and activities, in the presence of the child. Eventually, as he joins us more in conversation, the words of the child's environment will be there.

In any good language environment, in as many situations as possible, the teacher makes sure that experience precedes vocabulary and pictures of objects. She will introduce real vegetables before vegetable cards, real actions before verb cards, real music before composer picture and labels, real shells before shell cards, and so on. At home parents can do the same thing—show the kitchen objects, the office or bathroom objects, and then give the opportunity to handle these objects and to learn the names. In this way the child learns that language is connected to the real world.

A rich and enjoyable vocabulary, and an interesting introduction to the structure of English, is available through poems, finger plays, songs, fables, stories, and even great literature. There is only so much time in a day for reading to children so we should make the best of these times by selecting books with care, books that will provide the best in literature and nonfiction available.

There are three main areas where we can help children prepare for reading and writing. When the ground is well prepared over the years before writing and reading are attempted, acquiring these skills is very enjoyable.

1) Physical Skills—balance, using the hands, coordination of eye-hand work, learning to concentrate and focus on practical life activities, recognizing sizes and shapes, working with knobbed puzzles, crayons and pencils, and practice in speaking.

2) Mental Skills—absorbing and using language, learning the sounds that each letter makes (not the names of the letter) and playing games to break up words into sounds—the "I spy" game.

3) Social Skills—living in homes where people talk at the table, sit down and have conversations, and read, instead of watching television or "learning language" on a computer.

Children should never be forced to read aloud, or to write, at a young age. But the tools to learn these skills provided, offered, demonstrated. This is the sensitive period in a child's life for knowing the names of everything, including the sounds of letters, and for touching and feeling. To meet the child's need to touch and feel, and to learn the names of the sounds in his particular culture, we use sandpaper letters. The child feels and says the sound, repeating many times. The traditional sandpaper letters used in the 3-6 class are very sturdy and expensive, but it is possible to make some at home, or for the child to trace letters in corn meal or sand. Sometimes one can find a book that gives this tactile experience.

Lower Case Letters
Since 99 per cent of what the child will be reading is written in lower case letters, you will be doing the child a great favor to begin with these ("a" and "b," not "A" and "B"), and by giving only the sounds instead of the names of the letters. Introducing capital letters too early can make the learning both reading and writing take much longer than necessary. For those who were not physically ready to hold a pencil and write, but who were mentally ready, Dr. Montessori prepared cutout movable letters for their work. Movable alphabets, usually in cursive because they flow more easily and are easier to trace, are still used in schools today. Refrigerator magnets of lower case letters can offer this experience in the home.

When prepared by means of the I spy game (described in the book) and sandpaper lower case letters, children sometimes spontaneously "explode" into writing, and almost always “write” for a long time before they spontaneously read. This is not writing as we usually think of it, with correct spelling, space between words, correct grammar, but it is a first experience of expressing oneself with letters with great joy and enthusiasm. It is very important the child's first "writing" is from her own head, and not from objects and pictures. In fact one of the first “writings” done by a child in one of my classes was, “dontuchthiswrk iewilbeeritebak” (Don’t touch work, I will be right back). I got the message.

To prepare for this experience verbally, ask questions like "What did you have for breakfast?" or "What did you see on the way to school?" Then when the child is ready to “write” with movable alphabet you can ask the same questions. Do not begin with easy three-letter words, or give pictures of objects with simple words, such as hat and cat, for the child to make. Written language, just as spoken language, should come from the child’s own experience and desire to express himself.

When a child first begins to recognize the sounds of letters in groups—words—he is doing this silently in his head. Saying these words aloud complicates the process, especially if someone is listening. So a child is never asked to read aloud at this early state of reading in the 3-6 Montessori class. To provide practice with this new, exciting single-word skill, give the child pictures with separate labels for objects for which he already knows the names. He reads each label and matches it to the picture. Then, if the names of the objects have been written on the back of the picture cards, the child can turn the pictures over to see if he has placed the labels correctly. Children love reading and checking their own work and will repeat over and over again till they get it exactly right. Hundreds of meaningful words can be added to the child's reading vocabulary in this way. Just as with giving spoken vocabulary, the most important words to give the child when beginning to read are the labels of the common objects in the home or classroom.

Above all, this early introduction of the world or language must be offered in a spirit of enjoyment and not imposed. We have to put behind us memories of the painful way most of us learned to read and write and enjoy the joy of discovery children experience when language is given to them in this way.
(Page 63-74)

Excerpts from the book Child of the World: Montessori, Global Education for Age 3-12+, with permission of the author

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