I offer the following classroom scenario to illustrate one of the frequently mentioned differences between traditional and Montessori approaches to language, writing before reading. Almost always Montessori education offers the active component of any subject before its passive component. This is a key to reaching very young children. Here is one of the earliest Montessori language lessons, tracing a letter and associating its sound.
It is the middle of February. Terry and Tracy are three-and-a-half-year-old students who seem fascinated with the sandpaper letters that Maria Montessori devised a century ago. These sandpaper letters are individual letters, cut out and mounted on blue and red boards; vowels on blue, consonants on red. We sit on the floor around a low table. I pick up the red board with the t on it. Using three fingers I trace the sandpaper letter t slowly as I would if I were writing it, carefully watching my hand. When I'm through tracing, I look up at the children and say “t,” the soft quick sound made by placing the tongue at the top of the back of the front teeth, and quickly blowing a burst of air across it. Here we do not use the letter's name. We refer to these letters always by their sound. The two children take turns tracing the letter.
“Can we use the sand tray?” asks Terry after each of us has had our turn to trace.
“You certainly may,” I am happy to respond. And we repeat the round of letter-tracing with the additional step of using a shallow box of sand to trace the letter freehand.
A few weeks later Terry and Tracy, who seem to have become good friends, have learned five or six sounds. I invite them to play a game of “I Spy.” The game goes something like this: still at the same table, I trace the letter t saying its sound “t”, and I pass it to each of them to do the same. Then I rather pointedly look around the room. I say, “I spy something big that starts with 't'. Can you guess what I'm looking at?” In this case I am staring as obviously as I can at a table. They would usually take turns trying to guess, but this time my selected object becomes irrelevant to our game because Tracy spots a towel and says “Towel.” In looking for mine, she has found one of her own.
I reply, “Towel! That's even better than mine, Tracy. Can you show us the towel?” Tracy walks to the hand washing exercise and touches the towel hanging beside it.
On another day as Terry and Tracy are becoming more proficient, we are expanding the game by naming objects that have our sound at the end of the word. Terry is quick to point under the table, “foot! foot!” Then on a different day, we tackle the most difficult: finding a word with the “t” in the middle. “Do you think we can find “t” in the middle of a word?” I ask, thinking this could be a hard one, but Terry surprised me again by pointing at the t and laughing, saying, “letter, letter!”
Some other classmates are roaming by, so I decide to change our quest to “I see a girl whose name begins with 't'.” This is fun and often captures the interest of those who may have temporarily lost their sense of self direction.
“Oh,” say Tracy and Terry in unison, “Tisha! Tisha!” So Tisha joins us.
Of course the purpose of this game is to teach. But not to do so by correcting children and telling them they are “wrong.” If you do this at this early age, they will either quit or begin acting silly. Then the lesson they will remember will not be about sounds, but about failure. So what do I do if someone is wrong? When I can, I use everything that happens as a positive teaching moment. First, I try to look puzzled. Then I say the word with the sound in the wrong place. For example, if we are looking around the classroom for an object that begins with “t,” but the child points out a chair. First I would ask, “Can you tell me what you are pointing at? What is it called? He would say, “Chair.”I might look puzzled and then say, “'t,' 't', 't'air?” a couple of times, shake my head and say, “That doesn't sound right to me. Does it sound right to you?” The child usually laughs at the funny word so I repeat my invitation, “It starts with 't.' Guess again.” If all else fails, here in class we never dwell in failure. After any series of earnest but incorrect answers, like the American quiz show “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” there is always an “ask a friend“ option.
NOTE: I have used the letter t as an example here for simplicity. We use all the letters in the alphabet in approximately the same way, one or two at first but more as the child becomes at ease with these lessons.