Thirty thousand. 30,000! That’s the number of words scientists say you should be speaking to your child daily to increase his chances of academic success. Most parents reach and exceed this magic number, but how do you know if your child is really benefiting from your efforts? Do you feel you might be choosing the wrong words or confusing your child by rambling?
I’m about to share with you a simple but powerful Montessori technique that will put your worries to rest. To find out what it is, and to watch a short instructional video about it, click here!
One of the activities I felt was lacking in my child’s previous Montessori experience was the use of extensions. No, I’m not talking about artificial hair pieces! Extensions are activities that are introduced after the initial presentation with a material, in order to encourage the child to re-visit the material and solidify the skills and/or concepts it’s designed to provide.
Yesterday, my son came out of his new school with a huge smile, holding this painting:
This is a perfect example of an extension. In his classroom, there’s a tree puzzle (aff link), used to give three-year olds the names of the parts of a tree. Once the child has mastered the puzzle (which Zach probably did at his old school), there’s not much he’ll spontaneously do with it. And most children won’t voluntarily re-visit a material once they’ve figured it out.
Zachary’s new teacher invited Zachary to build the puzzle on top of a white sheet of paper, and trace the outline. Then, she showed him how to use finger paints to create all the different parts of the tree. This forced Zachary to slow down and really analyze the shapes of the tree parts and the relationship between them.
When I asked him to tell me about his painting, he pointed out the roots, trunk, branches and leaves. Through this enjoyable activity (which probably kept him focused for a while), he learned new words and became aware of the relationship between the parts, while enjoying some fun finger painting!
Now that Zachary is three years old, I’m constantly surprised by how differently Montessori happens at home and in school.
In a classroom, you plan your lessons in part around the child’s interests and abilities, but also based on the sequence in your album. The children are (for the most part) happy and willing to receive the presentations. Not so at home when it’s your own child. I’ve learned that nine times out of ten, we’ll only do anything productive if Zachary initiates it. If I invite him to do an activity, I often get a “No, thanks”. And honestly, I’m perfectly fine with that (not to say that it didn’t rattle me at first because I’m a planner by nature). It’s made me think that maybe, just maybe, as guides we could try following the child a bit more…
Case in point: A couple of months ago I tried introducing a couple of sandpaper letters to Zach, since I noticed he was tracing letters on signs. Not the least bit interested. So I put my letters away and didn’t push the subject.
Then, about two weeks ago, while he was decorating a thank-you note from his birthday party, he asked me how to write his name. In lieu of a moveable alphabet, I took out the sandpaper letters and introduced each one, tracing and saying the sound. Then, I lined them up to make his name (this is not AMI practice but I was improvising) and let him look at them for a good long while without saying anything (note: I never read the name to him).
He looked and looked, and suddenly, his whole face lit up. “That says ‘Zachary’?” he asked. I said yes and he broke into a huge grin. The next day, he asked me to write ‘Zachary’ on his chalkboard, which I did slowly, sound by sound, helping him figure out which sound came next. I told his teacher about his interest and left it there.
Then, this morning I was reading him a book. He pointed to the letter ‘g’ and asked what sound it made. I told him, and he started finding more ‘g’s throughout the page. He asked: “What words start with ‘g’?” I said “g-g-guitar” and then he said “g-gorilla”. We thought of a couple more words and then I pulled out the sandpaper letter ‘g’. I traced it, said the sound, and asked if he wanted to trace it. He said no, so I clipped the ‘g’ on the chalkboard and drew a cursive ‘g’. I asked if he wanted me to write some words starting with ‘g’. He said yes, so I wrote four words. Then, he started erasing them with his hand. Thinking we were done (and honestly a little disappointed that he didn’t want to take it further), I passed him a wet rag to erase his board. But to my surprise, once he was done erasing, he set to work trying to write a ‘g’!!! Happy day!
They are our great little teachers, in so many ways. To truly follow the child, I have only to keep my eyes open for the sensitive periods and prepare the environment accordingly. His powerful developmental drives will take care of the rest.
A trainer once asked my classmates and me the following: “If you were on a deserted island and could only take two Montessori materials with you to support a child’s intellectual development, what would they be?” We pondered, debated, and finally concluded that for math it would have to be the Golden Beads that represent the decimal system and for language it would be the Moveable Alphabet.
The Moveable Alphabet was developed by Dr. Montessori when she realized that children had the mental capacity to analyze the sounds in words way before they could synthesize them. The former is what we do when we write, while the latter is how we read. During a child’s first year in a Primary environment, we spend a lot of time playing Sound Games, which help children understand that words are composed of sounds. Around their third birthday, we start introducing the Sandpaper Letters – individual letters cut out of sandpaper and glued on wooden boards – which is how children learn what sound each letter makes and how the letter is written.
In a genuine Montessori environment, we NEVER refer to a letter by its name, because we are preparing the child to write and read. Think about it: when you write or read the word “cat”, you are saying [c]-[a]-[t]… You are NOT reading “cee-ay-tee”!! So why teach the names of the letters? It’s a testament to children’s intelligence that they can learn to read in traditional environments where they have to be taught that “cee says [c]”. Why confuse the poor children?
When a child writes a word with the Moveable Alphabet, he does so phonetically by analyzing the sounds he hears as he says a word slowly out-loud. Because English is not a phonetic language, many words will be misspelled. We never correct a child, nor do we ask him to read the word back to us, because they can’t read yet! (Sometimes a child will ask you to read to him what he wrote; all Montessori teachers have hilarious stories of decoding phonetically written words… My favorite is “wnsupnetaim”, or “once upon a time”.)
Eventually, after weeks and weeks (and sometimes months) 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, send a quick thank you up to Dr. Montessori, and do a happy dance). And later on, perhaps 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. But only when he’s ready.
Check out The Very Montessori blog, where you can see several examples of pre-schoolers writing with the Moveable Alphabet.
Imagine you arrive at work at 8am, energized and ready to work on a fun but challenging project that will require several hours of your time. You know that to really get the project on solid footing and make sense of its complexity, you need several hours of uninterrupted focus. You sit down at your desk, fire up your computer, and start organizing your thoughts. Suddenly, a reminder pops up on your computer screen:
Mandatory staff meeting @ 8:45am.
Now, answer this question truthfully: Knowing that you have to leave your project aside in 45 minutes, would you use your time to focus on challenging tasks that require your undivided attention, or would you take it easy for 45 minutes, checking your e-mail, refilling your coffee cup, and sneaking a peek at Facebook?
Yeah, I’d choose the latter, too.
What does this have to do with Montessori? All Montessori educators are familiar with what we call the “three-hour work period”. As the name suggests, this is a three-hour chunk of time in the morning in which the children receive presentations, choose materials, have snack, and work at their own pace on activities that interest them. (Note: All AMI-recognized schools also have a two-hour uninterrupted work period in the afternoon for children ages 4 and older). A quality Montessori school will not have a single interruption during the work period: no Spanish teacher coming into the classroom; no music instructor pulling kids out; no physical education taking place on the basketball courts.
Dr. Montessori discovered that a child as young as three, who has spent a few months in the Montessori classroom, is able to choose productive and challenging work, focus on the task at hand, finish a cycle of work, rest without interrupting those who are working, and repeat this sequence. She noted that for this to happen, a minimum of three hours of uninterrupted classroom time are essential. Of her experiences observing children during an uninterrupted work period, she noted: “Each time a polarization of attention took place, the child began to be completely transformed, to become calmer, more intelligent, and more expansive.”
True cognitive and personal development – the type that takes place in a Montessori classroom – cannot happen in 45-minute spurts.
In Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius, Angeline Stoll Lillard points out that, “Montessori teachers who adhere to three-hour work periods without interruption claim one can see the difference in the quality of the children’s concentration on days when children know they will be leaving the classroom in an hour for a field trip or doctor’s appointment or special music class.” Children who know they will soon be interrupted choose unchallenging “busywork” at best, and at worst become nuisances to their peers. Even more tragic are children who don’t know an interruption is coming; they choose demanding work, become engrossed, and are understandably upset when the disruption takes place.
While interruptions are part and parcel of traditional education methods, they just aren’t necessary in Montessori. The beauty of the Montessori “curriculum” (for lack of a better word) is that it encompasses EVERYTHING that children should be exposed to in school. The usual “pull-out” subjects like art, music, physical education, drama, and yoga are all found within a well-prepared Montessori classroom. It might not look like what you experienced in school, but then again, doesn’t everything in Montessori look different than traditional education? It’s a good kind of different; it’s a different that makes sense – a different that works!
You might be thinking, “How can one teacher know and teach everything?”. She doesn’t. But she also doesn’t have to. The materials are carefully designed to capture the child’s interest and guide him in the learning process. The child’s drive for knowledge and the material’s self-correcting qualities are the true teachers – the adult just brings the child and the material together as a kind of middleman of the learning process.
Some parents might worry: “Won’t my child get tired of working? Doesn’t he need a break every 45 minutes or so?” Dr. Montessori addresses this concern in The Advanced Montessori Method, Vol. I: “A great variety of interesting research has been made into the question of change of work with identical results – namely, that frequent change of work causes greater fatigue than continuous work of one kind, and that a sudden interruption is more fatiguing than persistence.” Stoll Lillard adds, “If we choose when to take breaks, then breaks work for us, but if the timing is externally imposed, breaks can be disruptive to concentration.”
Dr. Montessori concludes: “The one means by which exhaustion can be eliminated is to make work pleasant and interesting, to give joy in work rather than pain.”
If you are looking for a Montessori school for your child, make sure to ask if they respect the three-hour morning work period WITHOUT INTERRUPTIONS (and don’t forget the afternoon work period for your older child!!). And if you’re a teacher, make sure you protect the three-hour work period with your life!
Here’s a great article that describes what goes on in a Montessori Children’s House classroom, and offers a quick overview of the history of the method. Great reading to introduce anyone to the Montessori approach!
The wonderful guys and gals at Montessori Madmen have shared this insightful guide to observation (originally provided by Little Things Montessori). A Montessori classroom can seem as odd and confusing as an exotic foreign country, so consider this article your travel guide!
When I was a teacher, I was often frustrated by how parents behaved when they came to observe the classroom. They would talk to each other, walk around the room, talk on their cell phones (yes, I’m not kidding), engage the children, and even try to help them accomplish activities they were perfectly capable of doing on their own!! I had to remind myself that they weren’t being rude on purpose – they just hadn’t been educated on the importance of being “invisible” during observation.
I hope every parent of a Montessori child takes a few moments to read this guide. I love that it’s written using positive and encouraging language that doesn’t overwhelm or belittle parents who are new to Montessori. Well done, Little Things Montessori!