Language, simply put, is a system of symbols with an agreed upon meaning that is shared within a group of individuals. Maria Montessori understood that children have to learn language, that it is not inborn. She also understood the adolescent mind has a long sensitive period for language. Because language is deeply connected to the process of thinking, the child will need to be spoken to and listened to often.
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Each child learns language at their own rate and pace. There can be different factors, such as a child learning multiple languages at once. Most often, with little effort, the child will be able to learn oral language by being in an environment that fosters conversation. Early on, toddlers will begin to make intentional sounds, “At one year of age the child says his first intentional word…his babbling has a purpose, and this intention is a proof of conscious intelligence…He becomes ever more aware that language refers to his surroundings, and his wish to master it consciously becomes also greater….Subconsciously and unaided, he strains himself to learn, and this effort makes his success all the more astonishing.” (The Absorbent Mind, p. 111) Most children by the age of two will have a rapid growth in language comprehension. Towards the end of the second year the child is able to combine two or more words into basic sentences, “Every child…bursts out with a number of words all perfectly pronounced. And all this occurs at the end of the second year of his life.” (The Absorbent Mind, p. 103)
The directress plays the most important role by giving objects labels within the environment. It is essential that all language be given to a child within a context. The child needs to know the names, labels, and the meaning of things in the environment in order for them to have relevancy, “At about a year and a half, the child discovers another fact, and that is that each thing has its own name.” (The Absorbent Mind, p.113) This allows the child to see and understand the greater picture of things and gives things meaning. Once the greater picture is achieved, it can then be broken down into smaller details.
The Montessori language materials isolate elements of language and offer ‘portals’ for the children in the exploration of language. Maria crafted the materials to be presented to the child in the same manner in which they learn oral language, starting with nouns, articles, adverbs, etc. After a new concept is presented to the child, there should always be a return to the original environmental language using storytelling, poetry, storybooks and everyday speech. This allows the child to clearly see how the new concept is applied, with context, in our world.
The Montessori preliminary language exercises give the child the vocabulary for objects in the immediate environment. Three part cards with appropriate terminology are a wonderful material to introduce new vocabulary for nouns. Sandpaper letters are a great tool to introduce the child to the sounds of alphabet. Puzzles may also be placed on the shelf, for they indirectly teach the left to right reading style. By the time the absorbent mind of the child has reached the age of six, they will come to understand that the sounds and words have meaning and that these symbols can be used in writing. The Montessori curriculum helps the child develop writing skills through many materials. Tracing the sandpaper letters, working with the movable alphabet, metal insets, as well as using the sand tray, all help teach letter formation. A silent helper in the Montessori classroom is the practical life area. In the practical life area, you will find many jobs that indirectly teach proper pincer grip for holding a pencil.
Introduction to reading comes through phonetic reading boxes. The reading boxes are cleverly organized, going from simple to the complex. Reading does not follow the same process of writing, which is taking our own thoughts and symbolizing. When we read, it is not our language with which we are working with, it is the author’s language. Reading is the analysis of the language followed by a synthesis. Story telling and socio-dramatic play in the environment can help the child develop an imagination that fosters a higher capability to understand what is being read to them.
The Montessori language program is like no other. With a prepared Montessori environment, the child can flourish in orally, in their handwriting, and lastly in their reading.