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Montessori Language Arts at Home, Part 2

By Kathy von Duyke
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #52, 2003.

Learning to spell English words, unlike many other languages, is less about strict rules and more about understanding there are rules, and they are flexible.
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Kathy von Duyke

Spelling the Montessori way? I teach it alongside of reading using the Galsworthy baskets or booklets. Here, each grapheme (letter or group of letters used to spell a phonetic sound) is isolated on cards with the grapheme alone on the first page. For example, a as in cake, as seen in the photo on this page. As children read through these they enjoy discovering the phonemic exceptions (words in which those letter combinations aren't pronounced the same as in most words), and were found to spontaneously write the words under their grapheme in columns in their notebook.

In English, spelling is more about visual attention to patterns than any logical construction of our words as in other languages. Mr. Hallenberg developed a system that helps students see spelling problems via a two-prong approach. First students develop a graphemic dictionary, followed by a phonemic dictionary that analyzes the graphemes into their phonemic categories. Essentially the student is rewriting his graphemic dictionary in this second way.

My personal preference is that the spelling booklets be based on the Spalding phonograms, as shown in Romalda Spalding's famous book, The Writing Road to Reading. I prefer this because it limits the number of actual sounds a child has to memorize in order to read. So for instance once a child knows b and l he doesn't need to memorize the bl blend. If he knows the ay sound, he needn't memorize a whole list of ay words, he simply has to see that the ay pattern is followed by many words and be alert to which "a" pattern a word would belong under. To me this is developed through exposure and familiarity of words, not by memorization. How much easier to memorize 70 phonetic building blocks and organize them into patterns, rather than have to memorize the 1200 frequently-used words!

The Language Works Spelling Program introduces the green series phonograms in a way that develops reading and spelling skills as children are reading and copying the words in patterns. In this series the graphemes might be presented twice or more to incorporate 2 or more possible sounds.

I think it is important for the child to go back and construct a graphemic dictionary so he can note how one spelling has several sounds. For example, ea in peach and bear. The phonograms are written under graphemic headings into a child's notebook labeled "graphemic dictionary," that separates the various phonemic possibilities out on each page. So oo would have a separate heading under which would be placed boot, foot, floor, and words that follow each of these sounds. They are then copied into the child's notebook, creating a spelling book by grapheme.

It is best to allow the children to discover the phonemic variations of each grapheme on their own, rather than tell them outright. I also disagree with the idea that the graphemic dictionary should be a source of spelling test words. I agree with the authors of Words Their Way, (Invernizzi, Templeton, Johnston, Bear, Prentice-Hall ©2000.) They believe that spelling is best accomplished through a progression of alphabet, pattern, and meaning. According to this progression, students need to memorize the basic alphabet of our code, which I believe encompasses the 70 Spalding patterns. Words need to be organized according to these patterns so that students develop a mental picture of where words fall. There is no inherent reason why straight is spelled with the aigh pattern, it is just as logical to spell it strate, or strait, or streight, or strayt. The only way students can differentiate which pattern a word will fall under is by noticing which pattern words fall under, and experience with words through reading. I believe this takes a few years to build up in a child's mental reservoir.

The third portion of spelling is discovery of meaning. The early grades are the ideal time to lead students through a discovery approach to spelling rules. At this level, they learn to articulate and use the rules that are most useful. Before this level, they should have engaged in hands-on word games which introduce the rule, without asking them to state it and use it explicitly. Words Their Way provides preK-12th-grade strategies to develop students' ability with spellings and has activities consistent with the Montessori approach.

For older children, a Phonemic Dictionary is constructed in a notebook. All the spelling variations on each sound are included and students are encouraged to add words of all types as they come across them.

I developed a dictionary that is tabbed along the top with all the phonics vowel and vowel-combination sounds, and along the sides with all the possible ways these sounds can be spelled. Since the long sound of "a" can be spelled various ways - a-e, ai, ay, etc. - individual pages with words using each of these spellings are tabbed on the right. With this approach, older students (ages 11-12) can take the words they miss from their own writings and analyze them both by sight and sound. I feel this is a more useful list for spelling tests then anything teacher-generated.

Once word parts are memorized, and the patterns are noted, the younger child is ready to begin this individualized spelling approach. In this method the commonly missed words in a child's writing are highlighted, the phonogram is colored, and the word is divided into syllables. These words are then placed in a child's personal A-Z dictionary so he can refer to them as often as needed for them to become ingrained in his writing.

Spelling rules are best left until about fourth grade since most children don't have the capacity to apply "if-then" logic to situations before then. They are more likely to simply refer to the visual patterns they have developed in their minds. This patterning is crucial to their ability to notice if a word is spelled correctly or not. In fact, most teachers have noted that words spelled correctly on a test rarely translate into accurate student writing. This is because, besides knowing spelling patterns, a child has to develop the capacity to notice his own spelling. The individualized approach is already very personal to the child since it comes from his own writing.

Various "1200 Frequently Used Words" lists have been suggested as a backbone to a spelling program, but I think this fails in two ways. Firstly, words aren't presented in patterns, and secondly, students already may be spelling many of these words correctly.

Spelling Rules!

I have gleaned a few useful spelling rules over the years - useful because they reduce an entire pattern to a rule which can be applied that is true at least most of the time. So for instance rules such as, "When two vowels go walking, the first does the talking," aren't useful because this is only mostly true for beginning words. In the spelling of most words this rule is more often wrong. But the reasons for silent e at the end of certain words and the variations for adding suffixes and why some letters in a word are doubled are all useful.

Rather than memorizing the rules, it is best wherever possible to have the child discover the reason for the rule. Once he knows the reason why the rule works, he can figure out how a word should be spelled without having to memorize and apply the rule. All he has to memorize are the few words that don't follow the logical patterns. This saves his brain from having to recall dozens of memorized rules in order to come to one word's spelling. This speeds up his learning to spell because he uses memorization, patterning, analysis, repetition, and logical reasoning where each is best applied. The rules are taught in a discovery way so that students learn to think about why a certain pattern of words is that way. Learning a rule this way, the student masters the entire pattern. However, Montessori-trained children have already had practice manipulating word endings, giving them an awareness long before the discovery of rules is undertaken. These words are manipulated as part of the Word Study Tower.

To develop rules which are worth teaching, I have written a book called The Month by Month Spelling Guide which gives a dialogue to teaching these rules in a discovery fashion. Alternatively, Words Their Way has a method for discovering these rules using a hands-on approach. I also like Carol Thaxton's procedure in her book, Learn to Write the Novel Way, available from Konos Connections. This is also an incredibly useful book for teaching a writer's workshop to fifth grade and above.

Our language is not only about reading the ideas of others, but about effectively communicating our ideas as well. Along with all the lessons we've discussed, the Montessori child is continually constructing his own facility with language through the Writer's Workshop. From the Children's House, where the children draw and label pictures or create stories that are more in their heads than on paper, through the elementary classroom, the refining of the child's ability to communicate through the written word is continued.

Writer's Workshop is the most enjoyable part of our school day. I teach for 15 minutes and the students love to write for the next 45 minutes. My fifteen minutes consists of asking for a volunteer to give me a passage of 3-5 sentences which I write on the board. We then read the passage as a class and consider ways to increase the detail and descriptive qualities of the work. We might add more details about settings or characters. We might choose more descriptive words and powerful nouns. We might consider a variety of leads, or perhaps reconsider word order. Ideas usually fall into a category which gets turned into a poster for our writing wall.

So for instance, we might come up with other words for said, and the results of our brainstorming will be saved for later reference.

Once revision is accomplished, we begin a short lesson on spelling and editing. The students call out misspelled words which I circle. We then try a second guess at each word. I then write a corrected version of each word as needed. We then underline in red all the spelling patterns such as eigh, or the doubling of a consonant. Finally, we check punctuation and capitalization using The Write Source 2000 as a reference tool. I model this for the children, as well as the use of a dictionary.

When students finish their writing for the day, they will end their session by picking five words they think they might have misspelled on their spelling list which is on their clipboard (which holds their workplan, message, and unfinished work). The top of the list says:

Date 1st Try 2nd Try Check / Underline pattern Add to A-Z dictionary Add to Grapheme (if 6-9 years) or Phoneme (10-12 years) dictionary

Students are tested on their word list on Fridays at their homes.

The most important aspect of Writer's Workshop may be the recursive action of writing. Here the student begins the process of developing an idea, and as he is drafting may further develop his initial idea. He may find that in revision he's gone back into pre-writing, and in his drafting begun the process of editing. So the child develops his thinking in a non-linear fashion as it begins to find expression in his writing.

I have found that peer conferences are useful throughout the Writing Workshop. Some auditory learners especially need to try their ideas out out loud in order to be able to write. Others are jumpstarted through drawing pictures. For all the students the prospect of publishing a piece and reading it to the class seems to be a very satisfying reward.

Literature is incorporated as a connection to reading as well as writing. Students develop not only their reading skills, but analyze how authors use various techniques to engage their readers or communicate their ideas. Poetry is a sub-unit of this component and hopefully enjoyed in a variety of ways.

Composition and research are employed in many aspects of the Montessori classroom, but in this short discussion of writing it should be noted that the research process is also approached in a hands-on step-wise fashion. Students construct or use question cards, research for answers, and arrange the cards in the most logical order in order to prepare to write research reports. This allows the student to get a literal "handle" on the information as a way to help him construct his internal thinking processes.

Oral language skills are developed as students present their compositions, research, poetry, or literature analysis.

Since all aspects of writing start with the assumption that children have something to say, and with respect to their interests, their hearts and minds are engaged in a powerful, energetic, and focused way that makes learning not only fun, but retained and built upon in subsequent grades.

Lakeview Montessori School (519-735-5005, www.lakeview-school.com) carries all the reading series materials and the phonetic objects if you want to make your own printed materials.

Mandala Classroom Resources (847-446-2812) contains lots of useful additions to Montessori materials. I especially like the language excerpts, which 6-9 year old children symbolize and color.

Christian Book Distributors (800-247-4784, www.christianbook.com) is a source for Kathy's Month by Month Spelling Guide.

KONOS Connection (800-780-6827, www.konos.org) for Learn to Write the Novel Way.

Spalding Educational Foundation (877-866-7451, www.spalding.org) for Writing Road to Reading Words Their Way. Order via www.amazon.com.

Great Source Educational Group (800-289-4490, www.greatsource.com) for Write Source 2000.

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