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Montessori Language Arts at Home, Part 1

By Kathy von Duyke
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #51, 2003.

Language arts the Montessori way.
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Kathy von Duyke

Language Arts in the Montessori classroom encompasses all the aspects of language as in traditional classrooms; reading, handwriting, spelling, grammar, creative and research writing, and oral presentation. Unlike the traditional approach, Maria Montessori developed her curriculum by noticing when children are hungry developmentally for each aspect of language arts. So Montessori children are taught when they have the greatest urge for various aspects of language acquisition. Just as Montessori math is approached through a gradual building up of math components into discovery and self-directed challenges, Montessori language arts curriculum isolates and teaches the components of our language in a gradual building up of skills that leads to self-directed discovery and challenge.

Just as in math, language arts is approached in several ways allowing for different learning styles and different approaches. Therefore, not every activity needs to be done completely by every child, although enough activities are done to ensure mastery. Further, all the activities are available at once in the classroom so that the student can pick that which most draws his attention.

The human brain thinks best in stories, not just fact processing. So language arts materials are presented initially within the context of a "Great Story" - a Montessori vehicle for appealing to the imagination of an elementary child. The story creates a context in which to hang his accumulating knowledge, using analogies to complement the logical thinking needed in processing facts. Thus you reach both the heart and mind of a child. Jesus used this method to reach both the hearts and minds of his disciples when he taught in parables.

The young child in the 3-6 year old Montessori curriculum is completely prepared with the basic tools for language development. He has developed a print, possibly cursive handwriting, and has begun to read at least 3-4 letter words. He has typically engaged in the "explosion of writing" by which he attempts to write in a discovery fashion in order to express himself.

So your task as your child moves up to the elementary level (1st-6th grade) is first to assess how far he or she has already discovered the patterns of our language and then to build upon his self-creating work.

The child in the elementary classroom is first given an imaginative and historical overview of our language through the stories called "Communication in Signs" and "The Story of Language." These are followed with a brief historical overview detailing the history of our alphabet and our written language. Your classroom then needs materials to enhance handwriting, reading comprehension, refinement of the reading code, spelling, grammar study, word study, sentence analysis, literature appreciation, oral expression, and writing work, both creative and research-based.

Teaching Handwriting the Montessori Way

Handwriting requires much preparation. First the pincer and squeezing exercises in the practical life areas, followed by the perfection of line developed using the metal insets, to the letter formations learned through his muscles by tracing sandpaper letters. The child's hand is further strengthened and his attention to beauty is incorporated in design work using the geometric plane figures and compasses along with various shading and texture techniques. This attention to detail, beauty, and muscle control can later be transferred to cursive writing and beautiful calligraphy. Children in grades 3-6 love to repeat work, so practicing handwriting and letter sounds is a joy at this age, whereas later it becomes drudgery.

In our classrooms we use the Rainbow Writing method developed by the Weseca company (706-546-8833), which allows young children to have access to cursive writing through carefully prepared cursive letters on whiteboard which the children fill in with three colors of markers. In the elementary class, handwriting is incorporated in the Morning Message. A passage from Proverbs is typed on the computer from a D'Nealian font program. Students trace then copy the message and the date for each day.

Teaching Reading the Montessori Way

Montessori children consistently read early, and well and consistently retain their advantages.

Reading instruction begins in the Children's House with the tactile presentation of the sandpaper letters along with their phonetic sounds. This soon develops into an "explosion of writing" as the child suddenly notices print all about him, and given the sounds and formation begins to write words before he can read. In this invented spelling he begins to discover word patterns and becomes sensitized to the world of print. Dr. Montessori discovered the age of 4-1/2 years old to be around the ideal time to present the sounds. The child's sensitivity and interest is heightened. While the argument has often been made that we teach reading too early, in reality we teach the first part of it too late, hurrying the child through the process of memorizing the sounds at a time when it doesn't delight him but bores him, and then forcing him to put them together into words when he hasn't a complete grasp of the sounds, with little or no appreciation for his own impetus and wonder as he makes discoveries and inquiries into language.

Once his joy of knowing sounds and then forming words has been aroused, the young child begins to be ready to construct mental patterns for words. The phonetic object boxes are designed to increase his phonemic awareness, a skill crucial to reading. In this activity, a tool box with clear drawers, the type used for nuts and bolts, is filled with tiny objects sorted by sounds. The child is presented with two boxes, for instance B and D, and given cards marked "b" and "d" and will be asked to spread all the objects out and then divide them between the two cards. The children love this activity because they enjoy the miniature objects and the challenge of practicing the new sounds they are learning. Later they will divide them into ending sound groupings.

The objects are always introduced first. Montessori materials always proceed from the concrete, so concepts can be manipulated outside of the child's head to the abstract where the child is now required to manipulate ideas within his own head. This is not the same as the Dewey-esque ("progressive") doctrine that children must first encounter the real objects, i.e., one doesn't need to bring in an elephant to teach the short sound of "e." Therefore the objects are followed by picture cards which are also manipulated and sorted, and then pictures are associated with more traditional worksheets.

The Pink, Blue, and Green Series

This sequence of concrete to abstract steps is then re-offered in sets of pink, blue, and green series reading tasks building the child's skills. The pink series are three-letter words with short vowel sounds, and encompasses the first hurdle of reading, that of managing the blending block. Having the children sing the sounds through a word is a quick way to overcome this hurdle, as the sustaining of sound while singing can't help but move them past the tendency to halt between sounds. Words are first presented with the sandpaper letters, then the moveable alphabet, then written by the teacher, and then written on little slips of paper and picked from a jar by the students. In each case, the student copies words onto his own paper, but he may begin using the moveable alphabet so mistakes don't become so frustrating and he has a chance to attempt several spellings without penalty. Again there is a progression of concrete to abstract, but the teacher must be sensitive to each student so she can pick the most appropriate presentation.

The blue series encompasses the second hurdle, that of blending adjacent consonants, and consists of four-letter short-vowel phonetic words. After comfort with this step is established, the child will be introduced to the silent-e effect on words. In every step the child is reminded that once he has been given a lesson, he is able to teach another child, thus further reinforcing his learning.

The green series is a step-by-step introduction into the rest of the "graphemes," the unique letter combinations that make up the complexity of the English language. (I believe the best breakdown of our language comes from the work of Romalda Spalding.) At first, the child is introduced to each pattern with a green series phonetic object box. This is then followed by picture and word matching activities. Finally, in our class we use the Language Works Spelling Program (800-496-1120), which introduces the green series phonograms in a way that develops reading and spelling skills as children are reading and copying the words in patterns. Each sound pattern has a card with windows cut out. On the card is a series of words that contain the pattern. The child writes the sound in the window onto a paper underneath. He then fills in the rest of the word on his paper with a second color pencil. Next he checks his work with a wordless booklet which has a picture for each word in order on the card. The children may then read their words to each other, or do other activities suggested in the program. This series the graphemes (the way a word pattern is written) might be presented on two or more cards to incorporate two or more possible sounds. For instance the "oo" grapheme has three possible sounds (phonemes) as are heard in boot, foot, floor. Later the children will connect these separate sounds under the same pattern. An additional step would be to create a series of cards that are color coded by sound (phoneme) so that all the a sounds (ai, ay, eigh, a_e) would be one color and the students could organize words they are spelling under each sound by pattern. This would be considered a reading activity more than a spelling activity at this stage, but it is very useful. We picked gray for a sounds (since the word "gray" has the ay a sound), green for e sounds, lime for i, gold for o, brown for ow, and purple for er. These are followed or taught in conjunction with the "puzzle words," which are the non-phonetic exceptions. Additionally, reading is reinforced through labeling the miniature environment (the farm, but also teacher- created ideas), labeling the child's school environment, and writing words into his notebook, highlighting the green series by using second colors. As the child becomes more fluent with analyzing and reading individual words, he then begins on the true task of reading, which is to be able to comprehend ideas expressed in groups of words.

All of this careful preparation allowed Dr. Montessori to not need a child to continually read out loud for her to prove he understands a passage. Instead, once the basics of phonetic instruction and writing were in place, children could exhibit their reading understanding through the interpretation of "command cards," cards which tell children to perform an action.

The energy of the children is easily harnessed into teaching and practice exercises with each other, so that learning is not dependent on the constant input of energy from the teacher. The children enjoy the command cards, and quickly want to produce their own originals, furthering the experimentation and discovery of language. This led her to the discovery that children were discovering grammatical patterns for themselves, and she dared to wonder if teaching grammar could actually be an aid to teaching reading.

Word Study & Grammar

The command cards are followed by easy readers and eventually real books. Parallel to these activities are the lessons on word study and grammar. Word study enriches the child's language. He sorts cards that list the names of animals (something he enjoys learning about at this age), their homes, their voices, or their group names. By manipulating the cards in each group, he can experiment with his choices without the penalty of having to erase and rewrite. He experiences the mental challenge in a hands-on way, and follows up with listing words in his notebook, giving him a second kinesthetic way to develop his own mental bank of words.

The Word Study Tower developed out of Dr. Montessori's noting that children 5-1/2-8 years old enjoy playing with words and in this way discovering their function. The tower consists of cards that are filed in tool drawers like the phonetic objects. These cards are available from Montessori Research and Development. Each set of cards has a specific concept to teach. Word study proceeds with a study of word origins, alphabetizing, and finally dictionary and research skills, so the child has the tools to study words for life. At first the exercises increase the child's vocabulary and spelling awareness. But as children continue, they find that certain words always imply action, while other words can be changed by certain variations to the beginning or end. Silly sentences are made by changing the word order. These experiences with words sets the stage for later learning and articulating why words function as they do in a sentence through grammar and sentence analysis.

Grammar study is a parallel activity to reading and word study that begins in the Children's House. The Function of Words lessons are intended to help children appreciate the language they are beginning to master through reading and writing. They learn using key experiences and discover through the miniature environment and color-coded cards that certain words function in certain ways. For instance, to learn the concept of conjunction, we tied several objects together with a pink ribbon. Then we cut a piece of ribbon to remind us how it brought the objects together, and noticed that it was the same shape and color as the conjunction symbol in the grammar symbol box. Recently a student and I discovered that even though all the verb cards that go with the farm are red, she couldn't use all the verb cards to indicate the action of one noun upon another. Later she will learn about transitive and intransitive verbs, but in this exercise she could see that the verb cards weren't all alike. The student's sensorial (or somatic body feel) understanding of grammar is undeveloped in traditional school as grammar is introduced much later in school at a time when concepts must be moved through rapidly. Further, the best programs I have seen rely on repetition of analysis, but students don't get to play around with words and discover what happens when they change the order or build up sentences.

Dr. Montessori points out that grammar is always taught from analysis traditionally rather than synthesis. The breaking apart of something is not nearly as satisfying as the act of creating something. I often give children a sentence pattern and let them create their own scene and sentence with the farm, an activity which they really enjoy. Since the farm and the grammar box exercises contain cards color coded by part of speech, students can try substituting a number of verbs, for instance, in a sentence, and enjoy the effect on meaning.

Consistent to the Montessori method is the progression of the sensorial (manipulative) to interpretation (mental manipulation), again the concrete to the abstract. Subsequent grammar lessons are no exception and each part of speech is given its proper name and reintroduced to the child at the elementary level. Since the sensorial is in place, the connection to a name is easily made. The child is given a series of command cards that invite play and drama to knowing the parts of speech. This interpretive action gives the child a chance to play with these abstract concepts. Like the reading command cards, and in conjunction with them, the child can experience and demonstrate understanding of what a noun or a verb, etc are. Sentences that are acted out are next incorporated into the series of grammar box exercises that challenge the student to write out and analyze the parts of speech he has learned. However, unlike traditional grammar, rather than a sentence being given and taken a part, a sentence is given and then built up with individual cards that are color-coded. The sentence is transposed, really "played" with so the child can intuit what will alter develop into sentence analysis. The sentences are symbolized and written into their notebooks. Grammar is taught alongside of Writer's Workshop so that as students are developing their own sentences for their stories they develop a sense of the usefulness of words. Essentially they are coming into their birthright of the English language and using it with skill and energy, crafting themselves into writers and thinkers.

As students are mastering the parts of speech, they also begin the process of sentence analysis. Up until now he has read sentences, and discovered the parts of speech that go into sentences but now, as Montessori says in The Advanced Montessori Method, "The child begins to see what a sentence is: that is, he begins to concentrate on this particular question. How many times he has read sentences, pronounced sentences, and composed sentences! But now he is examining them in detail, studying them. The simple sentence is a short proposition, with completed meaning, which expresses an action or a situation, organizing its different parts around a verb."

The student discovers that a noun could function as a subject, an object, or the object of a preposition. They begin this process of sentence analysis in the Children's house not in an analytical way but sensorially. As he begins to master reading he absorbs that words in a sentence function in different ways, so he plays games such as "hunt the action" and are asked, "Who is receiving the action?" The lessons are best begun after the child has been given a lesson on the function of words focused on verbs. Students are then given sentence patterns (cards made from just grammar symbols) and invited to invent their own sentences using the moveable alphabet. More formal lessons are given the elementary child who is taught the names of the function a part of speech performs and that it depends on its position in the sentence. A noun preceding a verb has a different function than one that comes after it. Am hit Mary and Mary hit Sam are important variations depending on whether one is Mary or Sam! So the child follows the pattern to construct his own sentence based on a pattern, and then analyzes it he sees how the different parts of the sentence can be rearranged in relationship to each other.

Now it's time for logical analysis. Here the student learns how the parts of speech affect each other depending on their relationship to each other in a sentence. More complex sentences are manipulated, and the goal is not syntax studies as much as a tool to facilitate clear thinking. Ideally, mastery at this level results in an intuitive feel for how our language is constructed. Then the more formal and logical work of True Sentence Analysis (typical sentence diagramming) is performed as a near mathematical formula without the mental blocks created by a lack of sensorial and experiential underpinnings. The student simply manipulates concepts he already fully understands rather than facing the head-banging frustration of trying to work with concepts not fully acquired. True Analysis is considered upper elementary work.

The Shurley Grammar Method creates a good bridge somewhere in the 4/5 level to begin to solidify and articulate the concepts in Logical Analysis in preparation for the finer and more difficult grammatical concepts presented in True Analysis. I have found the Shurley method to be less effective with younger children because it relies so heavily on oral and written work. The grammar and sentence analysis taught at the 4th-5th grade levels in Montessori schools (because this is considered an academic plane) would rival any high school program.

At the middle school level, most of the emphasis in language is on absorbing more deeply what has been taught and then using it towards greater self-expression and discovery. At the 10th-12th grade level, the student is well equipped for any of the homeschooling options conceived of so far, such as community college, computer classes, or traditional high school curriculum.

Next Issue: Spelling, Writing, and Literature the Montessori Way.

Lakeview Montessori School carries all the reading series materials and the phonetic objects if you want to make your own printed materials.

Mandala Classroom Resources contains lots of useful additions to Montessori materials. I especially like the language excerpts, which 6-9 year old children symbolize and color.

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