In the first of three parts, Montessori guide Shallal Qureshi discusses how adults can aid communication development in children, while making preparation for writing and reading.
The Early Years Explosion of Language
Whilst the academic debate continues on how we acquire language, we educators must focus on how best to support children in learning to communicate. As we see in our classrooms, children have an inherent and effortless ability to develop language. They display a profound interest in doing so from birth. This develops into a deep yearning for language that we witness in our classrooms, the day-to-day reality of what Maria Montessori termed the child’s explosion into language.
Children are particularly sensitive to the acquisition of language in their first 6 years of life. We see this in the baby who watches our mouths move, the toddler who walks around naming everything and the 4-year-old who repeats songs over and over with glee. Language, in all its forms, is universal and so very human. Simply put, it is a series of sounds (or movements) that come together to form words which in turn carry pre-agreed meaning. Human language was formed for the purpose of human communication, as a means of understanding each other and progressing. In this way it bonds us all and becomes part of our collective identity. It is our responsibility as educators to ensure that this fundamental human desire to communicate is met effectively.
So, what practical steps can we take in the classroom to ensure that we are enabling children to develop their language successfully?
Instilling a love of language: Through songs, stories, poems, and a range of oral language games, we can show children the beauty and excitement of language. We want children to develop a love of reading, not just to see it as something that must be done in school. The first 6 years of a child’s life is the optimum time to help children develop a love of language and by doing so they can become life-long readers. We must recognise the role of the environment and ourselves in nurturing this. Does your learning environment hold a rich range of pre-reading and reading activities? Do your children have independent access to books and songs? Do they see you read for pleasure? Do they see you get excited about books and other language activities?
Providing a rich range of vocabulary: Children begin naming parts of their environment from a young age and they have an enormous capacity to retain vocabulary in this stage of development. This means we can always give children more, even if appears complex. For example, a child knows the word flower and they can point to it and say ‘flower’ – can you give them the name of this specific type of flower? Or perhaps they know the word ‘jug’ – can you give them the vocabulary for base, handle, spout, and rim? Providing these details enables the child’s vocabulary to grow when they are most able to absorb it, and further promotes their capacity for intelligent thought. Rich vocabulary can also be given through conversations and storytelling.
Preparation of the mind and body: It is important we ask ourselves at each stage of language development whether the child’s mind and body are prepared for their next challenge. A certain amount of sensorial awareness is needed to hear the multiple sounds that make up a word. Likewise, a certain amount of hand strength and coordination is needed to hold a writing utensil effectively. We must place importance on those activities which strengthen the child’s motor skills and their sensorial awareness as part of the journey towards language development.
Breaking down the sounds in words: I-spy games have long been played on car journeys and walks. This simple game provides children with a brilliant awareness of the sounds that make up different words. When we use phonetic sounds, rather than letter names, to play I-spy games with children under 6, we effectively enable them to hear which sounds make up words. This benefits the child’s auditory awareness of sounds and therefore aids their development of writing and reading. The phonetic approach is now backed up by a great deal of research and is implemented in many early years environments – luckily for us, Maria Montessori championed this approach decades ago!
Associating symbols to sounds: This is a key component for a child to start writing and reading. In a Montessori environment children first gain a sensorial impression of letters and associates them to sounds. They will have heard these sounds before through oral language and I-spy games so learning the symbols for those sounds adds something tangible. The child can associate the sounds to words used in their day to day lives. Following this up by offering a range of different ways to practise the formation of letters in association with their sound (sand, chalk, paint, crayons etc.) enables children to internalise this information and gradually perfect their writing.
Recent research has shown that where these steps are built into the curriculum, ‘children in Montessori classrooms show strengths in phonological decoding, letter-word identification, reading assessments, sentence structure, and writing creativity’ (see references below). In the child’s journey to develop language, it is possible to guide them with ease and enjoyment to reveal one of the greatest discoveries in life: language and communication.
1. East Dallas Community Schools Summer Newsletter 2010, available from National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector.
2. Mallett, J. D., & Schroeder, J. L. (2015). Academic achievement outcomes: A comparison of Montessori and non-Montessori public elementary school students. Journal of Elementary Education, 25(1), 39-53.
3. Moody, M. J., & Riga, G. (2011). Montessori: Education for life. In L. Howell, C. W. Lewis, & N. Carter (Eds.), Yes we can!: Improving urban schools through innovative education reform (pp. 127-143). Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.
4. Rodriguez, L., Irby, B. J., Brown, G., Lara-Alecio, R., & Galloway, M. (2005). An analysis of reading achievement related to prekindergarten Montessori and transitional bilingual education. In V. Gonzalez & J. Tinajero (Eds.), Review of research and practice (Vol 3., pp. 45-65). Mahwah, NJ: Laurence Earlbaum Associates
5. Lillard, A.S. & Else-Quest, N., “Evaluating Montessori Education,” Science 131: 1893-94 (Sept. 29, 2006)
6. Lillard, A.S. & Heise, M.J., "An Intervention Study: Removing Supplemented Materials from Montessori Classrooms Associated with Better Child Outcomes," Journal of Montessori Research 2(1) (2016)
7. “Does it work? What the Research Says”, The National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector (2020)
Part 2: What is writing?
Part 3: What is reading?
Shallal Qureshi is an AMI 3-6 Diploma holder who currently works as a Montessori Guide in a Children's House setting. She holds a BA in Ancient History from King's College London as well as the AMI Observation Course Certificate and the AMI 6-12 Assistant Certificate. Shallal writes on education and has a particular interest in the development of self-discipline at a young age. In addition to her role as a board member of the Montessori Society AMI (UK), she volunteers for various social purpose organisations, ensuring that a philosophy of inclusion is always present in her work both inside and outside of the classroom.