A special mechanism exists for language. Not the possession of language itself, but the possession of this mechanism which enables men to make languages of their own, is what distinguishes the human species. Words, therefore, are a kind of fabrication which the child produces, thanks to the machinery which he finds at his disposal.
– Maria Montessori (1967, P. 191)
Dr. Montessori wrote extensively about a child’s drive toward acquiring language, and the tools that are a part of normal human development that assist with that language acquisition. According to Dr. Montessori, this period of time in the human life where language is most easily acquired is in the first plane of development, or from shortly after birth through the age of six. From the perinatal period, humans are keyed in to human speech, giving it more attention than other sounds in their environment. Soon they are compelled toward attempts to reproduce the sounds they hear from the people around them.
Dr. Montessori wrote that we humans rarely learn another language as well as our mother tongue, and that this is so because it is typically the language that we are exposed to during the sensitive period for language acquisition (Montessori, 1967). She elaborates that this learning of speech is not isolated to words, but also applies to sentence structure and grammar.
Learning to communicate through speech is a huge step toward independence in children, because they are able to make their needs and desires known and are better able to respond to the requests of others, and so when children make great strides into speech, we often see a corresponding change in their frustration and acting out.
In the Montessori Method, we teach the sound (phonemic) awareness and skills that help with writing as early as three and a half when children show readiness. During these pre-school years, children show a great deal of interest and motivation in the acquisition of these skills. Around three and a half years of age, children begin to be fascinated with letter and number symbols and are able to start distinguishing them from one another. Often children of this age use writing tools to start trying to form letters. From this time to around five years old, it is common for children to have a strong motivation toward writing and the fine and gross-motor work is particularly appealing to them.
Readiness for reading occurs slightly later than writing in most children because meaningful reading requires a great deal of interpretation and mastery of letter sounds as well as phonogram sounds and the myriad of exceptions to rules of the English language, whereas writing can occur as soon as a child is familiar with just a small number of letter sounds. Children who are around four years of age begin to understand how sounds come together to make words, and around this age the child will begin to recognize sight words.
The Montessori philosophy and materials support this development of language knowledge and skills in a variety of ways. In the practical life area of the classroom, children are encouraged to develop their fine motor skills through grasping, pouring, spooning, and scrubbing, always from left to right, top to bottom, so that the child’s mind begins to develop this pattern naturally.
In the Sensorial area of the classroom, one of the earliest materials children are given lessons with are the knobbed cylinders, and while this material aids in developing concepts of size, it also requires a pincer grasp to lift the cylinders from their block and replace them. Across the classroom there are many activities that build this pincer grasp, including botany and zoology puzzles, puzzle maps, and pin punching. Sewing and art works also serve to build hand strength and fine motor skills necessary for learning to write.
Additional pre-language materials in the Montessori environment serve to build broader language concepts, these include activities to build visual discrimination, auditory discrimination, and concept development. Often language shelves have several visual discrimination activities for the youngest children such as matching identical objects, finding the object that is different, matching objects to pictures, and three-part cards, which add the more difficult task of matching labels. Common auditory discrimination games played in the Montessori classroom include rhyming games, I-spy (isolating sounds in the name of an object), and games to practice blends.
The environment also has materials to aid children in developing concepts, such as go-together objects, opposites, patterns, and sequencing pictures to gain awareness of the logical flow of a story. Many of these materials consist of small objects and these small objects appeal to the child, who is in a sensitive period for just these sorts of small objects and finds working with them quite engaging.
While these pre-literacy works are commonly found on the shelves of the Montessori classroom, and serve to broaden a child’s exposure to language concepts, Dr. Montessori designed just three language materials.
Each of these materials was designed to isolate different skills needed to begin writing and then reading. She wrote that, “Writing is a complex act which needs to be analysed. One part of it has reference to motor mechanisms and the other represents a real and proper effort of the intellect.” (Montessori, 1948, p. 203). By this she meant that by learning the skills involved in writing separately, children are better able to acquire these skills easily.
With this complexity in mind, Dr. Montessori developed an aid to writing called the metal insets, consisting of a set of shapes that can be traces from the inner edge or the outer. Initially the outer frame is set within a square holder, making it easier to keep the metal stencil frame still. Once the child has mastered this supported frame, they learn to hold the outer frame with one hand and trace with the other. The next step is to trace the outside edge. This is more difficult because the child must press down on a peg to hold the inside shape in place while maneuvering hands to trace around the entire shape. Once the stencils are removed, the child has a piece of paper with the desired shape, and there is a progression of control exercises the child will complete that leads to ever greater pencil grip and control of movement. This development of the hand control necessary for the writing process is known as the motororic component of writing, and is separate from knowledge of letter sounds and the creative process of writing.
Before a child can express their thoughts in writing, they need to make a connection between the letter sound and its shape. The tool that Dr. Montessori designed for this process is a set of wooden cards each with one letter affixed to the front in a rough sandpaper material. As mentioned earlier, children who are in the sensitive period for language are also in the sensitive period for movement, and by creating a tracing surface of a textured material, children can store the shape not just visually, but through their sense of touch as well. This tactile storage of the letter shape as it relates to the sound is accomplished using muscle memory, and it is not uncommon for children who struggle to visually recall a shape to be able to recall once they’ve traced the sandpaper. With the sandpaper letters children play games to learn the sound (phoneme) that connects to each letter shape (grapheme). Consonants and vowels are different colors in the sandpaper letter alphabet to aid children in distinguishing important vowel sounds.
Once a child has acquired a small number of sounds, they may be ready to embark on the creative process of writing. The last Montessori-designed material in the language environment is the Movable Alphabet. This ingenious tool allows children who are not yet able to write with pencil efficiently to express their ideas. By separating the motororic component from the creative writing process, many children can get great joy out of writing. Inventive spelling is common when learning to write, and children are better able to express themselves when not limited to words with which they are already familiar. Correct spelling comes later. Often small objects are used in conjunction with the movable alphabet to give the child an appropriate motivation for early writing.
Dr. Montessori wrote about how the skills for writing can come together quite spontaneously when a child has access to the movable alphabet, “It is after these exercises with the movable alphabet that the child is able to write entire words. This phenomenon generally occurs unexpectedly, and then a child who has never yet traced a stroke or a letter on paper writes several words in succession. From that moment he continues to write, always gradually perfecting himself. This spontaneous writing takes on the characteristics of a natural phenomenon, and the child who has begun to write the “first word” will continue to write in the same way as he spoke after pronouncing the first word, and as he walked after having taken the first step.” (Montessori, 1965, p.97). While this isn’t the case for all children’s language development, children who are learning to write for the first time typically experience a new-found autonomy and sense of self-efficacy that carries them into more and more challenging tasks throughout the classroom.
Once a child can write some using either the movable alphabet, or chalk and chalkboard (a common first foray into motororic writing), or pencil and paper, that child may or may not be able to read as well. Some children can blend sounds efficiently and make interpretations from their own concept of sounds that make up a word to the actual spelling, and then make meaning of a series of words strung together, but most need intermediate steps to get there. For children who are successful in writing simple phonetically regular words, they may also have success reading simple books with short sentences and the words they already know how to write. Many of these simple books are available for beginning readers.
The English language is quite complex, and in order to aid children in achieving fluency with reading and writing there are further skills that we can support them in obtaining. Sometimes children have trouble isolating consonant sounds and so we include materials to give them exposure to listening for consonant blends. Also, our language has very common sounds (phonograms) such as ch, th, and sh, that are not phonetically regular. Once children learn to recognize these letter combinations in words, their writing and reading can expand significantly. Other phonograms include, but are not limited to oo, ay, ar, ie, and ou. Another common rule in English that can help emergent readers/writers is the silent e rule, as in rate, kite, rode, and pure. Learning simple rules helps children to become more fluent. The movable alphabet is regularly used to play games with children to give them exposure to these language concepts.
Basic grammar and punctuation concepts are interwoven throughout the Montessori language curriculum as well. Grammar appeals to their sense of order, and order is one of the many sensitive periods children experience during their time in the primary classroom environment. Children are exposed to concepts such as nouns and verbs in oral language games, and can start classifying these words as soon as they have enough sounds to write or read short words. In the Montessori classroom, the grammar solids and the farm table is a fun tool used to introduce a multitude of grammar concepts, including labeling and parts of speech. With the grammar solids and later the grammar object shapes, the child associates each part of speech with a given shape and begins to see how sentences are put together in our language. Many children take great joy in applying their knowledge of grammar concepts, and in turn this understanding of grammar expands their overall literacy skills.
A great deal of care is taken in the Montessori environment to provide children with developmentally appropriate and fun language materials that appeal to the stages of their development and their sensitive periods, and it is because of this carefully prepared language environment that children tend to thrive in their early language and literacy development in the Children’s House.
Montessori, M. (1948). The Discovery of the Child, 6th ed. Ballantine Books.
Montessori, M. (1965). Dr. Montessori’s own handbook. New York: Schocken Books.
Montessori, M. (1967). The absorbent mind. New York: Deli Publishing.