When our oldest child was about 12 months old, we started teaching him sign language. I don’t remember why.
But I remember how absolutely stunned I was the first time he signed something he wanted me to give him, and how thrilled he was that I understood him. I remember the day he was sitting beside me signing “bug.” I didn’t see any bugs around us, so I assumed he was just confused. But I looked again. There was an ant crawling beside him, and he was just excited and wanted to tell me about it.
I remember my husband telling me that they had been outside together and found an earthworm. Our son had looked him in the eyes to ask, “what’s this called?” and daddy made up a sign on the spot. Later that week at dinnertime my son asked (with sign language) if his food was “hot.” I said, without any signs, “no, it’s just warm. You can eat it.” And he responded with the sign for “worm?” “No, it’s not a worm, it’s warm!” Later, he heard me say “ice” and pointed to his eyes… One-year-olds are amazing, simply amazing. And although it wasn’t intentional, by teaching him signs, we were also teaching him to trust that he could come to us when he wanted to learn something, and we would be his teachers.
I clearly remember when this child was 2 years old. We taught him to count to 10 and sing his ABC’s. We talked about shapes and colors. I didn’t know what I was “supposed to do” next. He clearly wanted to learn more. I considered myself an “educated” person, but looking in the eyes of this toddler, I felt utterly clueless how to proceed. I had no idea that children this little could be capable of understanding so much, so soon.
Maria Montessori spent the majority of her life studying children and how they learn. I admire her for not asking, “What should we teach them?” but “How do they learn?” They certainly don’t learn much by sitting in chairs, feet swinging, listening to adults talk on and on, she discovered. They learn best through movement, through the work of their hands, and by using all of their senses. And they definitely want to learn how to read.
Montessori learned that the prime interest, or “sensitivity” to learning how to read began at age 3 and lasted until about the age of 6. Within this window, a child can learn to read almost effortlessly. This is almost as amazing as the fact that children – even beginning at age 2 – can learn to perfectly speak and understand multiple languages, so long as they are used frequently, in context, in the home. It is the only time that the human brain is capable of learning new languages effortlessly. Although the capacity to learn multiple languages is maintained, as the human ages beyond 6, more effort is required.
So, how does a Montessorian teach a child how to read?
First of all, by providing the child with an environment which is conducive to peacefulness and full of spoken language. By the time a child is 12 months old, be in the habit of speaking in complete sentences to him or her, using sophisticated vocabulary. When the child is 3, you can begin introducing letter sounds to the child in the following way, using the “three-part-lesson.” Once you become familiar with teaching new information in these three steps, you will love the gentleness and effectiveness of this process, and will use it in every subject you teach to children of all ages.
Obtain a set of 26 lower-case sandpaper letters. Pick out three. Invite the child when she is in a good mood and in-between other activities. Ask her something like “would you like to see some letters with me?” If she’s not interested, just put them away for a month, and then ask again. If she is interested (and she probably will be), show them to her one at a time. As you show the child the letter, trace it with your right index finger while you say the sound the letter makes. Show her an “S” while you say “sssssssss.” Begin with all short-vowel sounds. “A” sounds like the ‘a’ in “hat” and so on.
The child learns the sound the letter makes before she learns the name of the letter!
It only takes a couple minutes to look at three letters. Do more if the child asks for more. Offer the lesson daily, or weekly, or just whenever the opportunity arises. (Why lower-case first? Look at early-reader books. Which do you see most of, upper-case or lower-case?) We keep our sandpaper letters in labeled paper sacks (shown above,) with supplemental pictures, books, and objects (shown below – click to enlarge.) In a Montessori school, these “sound boxes” would literally be in sturdy wooden boxes, but that was an expense I didn’t want to make. The small paper sacks work fine for home. The letter stickers on them are upper-case because that was what I had available, but I would have preferred using lower-case.
After the 26 initial sounds have been presented to your child, repeat them as often as you like, but begin asking the child questions. Put 3 letters in front of her and ask something like “Let’s play a game. Can you point to the letter which sounds like ssssss?” If she’s wrong, don’t say “no, you’re wrong!” Just point to the correct card and say “this one sounds like ssssss.” Speak in the positive, and make a mental note to re-teach the sounds she hasn’t quite learned yet.
Part Three: Asking For Speech
When you think the child can point to most of the letters correctly, then start pointing to letters yourself while asking the child, “do you know what sound this letter makes?” You don’t want to rush this process; you want to set the child up to succeed. And when the child does answer correctly, refrain from giving praise (“yes, what a smart girl you are!”) and instead just focus on affirming the fact at hand. (Yes, “s” sounds like “sssssss! You got it.”)
Learning to write letters and learning letter sounds are two very different skills. Experienced Montessorians tell me that most children learn to write letters before learning all of their sounds. My 3 sons did the opposite, but it really doesn’t matter. The point is to keep the processes separate. I think one reason (little boys, especially) will say they “don’t like to read” is because their kindergarten teachers taught them letter sounds while giving them paper and crayons and making them write the letter. And if writing that letter perfectly is difficult, then the child thinks “reading is difficult, so I don’t like it.”
When we respect how young children learn naturally, they will learn effortlessly and joyfully. So, formal handwriting is optional here until first grade. I provide them with many preparatory activities and large bubble-letters to write in, if they want to. And if the child can trace a sandpaper letter with his finger before trying to write the letter, his brain simply has a better concept of what it is trying to get its arm and hand to do. The Italic book A is then provided when the child shows an interest in learning to write.
Well. That is entirely too much for one post. Once the child knows the 26 letter sounds, she is ready to start blending them together. I’ll address that in Part 2!