Maria Montessori observed that the child rapidly acquires language from birth until six years of age without ever being taught, and she believed that this phenomenon provided evidence for her theory on the Absorbent Mind (Montessori, 1949, p. 94). The Absorbent Mind states that children from birth until three unconsciously take in their environment and shape themselves from any information and stimulation they can come into contact with. The child from three to six years of age is consciously using specific things in his environment to build up his mental and physical faculties. Hence, as linguists today found, language seems to be learned almost intuitively and the child is born with the instinct to decipher and acquire the language of their culture (Chomsky, 2000).
Children are able to absorb language from their environment and easily learn how to speak, read and write if language in its various forms is present in their environment during the period of the Absorbent Mind (Montessori, 1949). This window of opportunity for learning Maria Montessori called a Sensitive Period. “So language like vision and most other brain functions, is bounded by a critical period, an early phase in which a child must experience language, or else its hardware won’t wire up right” (Eliot, 1999, p. 354). The quality and quantity of language a child is exposed to during the sensitive period directly affects his language skills and brain organization (Eliot, 1999). Therefore, it is critical that parents of young children talk to them often and give them a multitude of vocabulary. The television is also an unacceptable substitute for giving language because it has been found that language should be connected to emotion and for a child to acquire the language they must be spoken to directly (Eliot, 1999, pp. 385-386). Children’s early experiences with language in their environment greatly affect their social, emotional, and intellectual development; “Language should begin very early: by just three years of age, children are already headed down vastly different paths of verbal achievement as a result of their cumulative experience with language” (Eliot, 1999, p. 386).
Language in the Classroom
Much evidence has been provided for Maria Montessori’s theory on the Absorbent Mind since it has been observed that children, without ever being taught, seemingly explode into language, reading and writing. Within the Montessori primary environment, language is given in all the areas and throughout the day at Language, Reading and Writing in the Montessori Classroom 2 any opportunity. Enriching the child’s vocabulary expands his capacity to clearly communicate to others and express himself. Once the child is able to better express himself, his personality begins to truly surface and shine.
Language in the Montessori Language Area is taught with the Three Period Lesson. With this lesson the teacher can evaluate the child’s understanding without pressure or stigma, so that his intrinsic motivation is not thwarted. “The three periods might be thought of as association, recognition, and recall” (Lillard A. S., 2005, p. 178). The adult first states the name of an object. Next, the adult asks the child to hand her or point to the object when she states the name. Lastly, the child is asked when the adult points to a particular object to recall that object’s name. If a child cannot complete a certain stage of the lesson, the Guide stops and resumes it from the beginning another day. With this lesson the Guide is able to see if the child comprehends the presentation’s concept and language.
The Language Area of the Montessori Primary Environment
The child has an urge to learn his language in this particular period because from birth to age six, he is undergoing a critical period for language acquisition (Lillard P. a., 2003, p. 390). During this time, the child can learn his language effortlessly and without fatigue. After the age of six, when the sensitive period has passed, it becomes much more difficult for the child to learn to read and write (Pinker, 1994, p. 298). Therefore, in the Montessori environment, the child undergoes mastering his language before the elementary years. The Language Area in the Montessori Primary environment, consisting of Spoken Language, Enrichment of Vocabulary, Written Language, Area of Reading, Reading Classification, Word Study, Function of Words, Reading Analysis, Interpretative Reading, and Language Extension provides the child with many forms of language to help satisfy his desire to clearly communicate and more fully adapt to his culture.
The Enrichment of Vocabulary section within the Language Area of the Montessori environment is for giving the child new words for objects in his world. From two years old and on until elementary, the child is continually absorbing new vocabulary at an amazing rate, “By the time a child is six, it’s been estimated that he understands some 13,000 words, although he doesn’t speak nearly that many” (Eliot, 1999, p. 373).
Written Language in the Montessori environment is given as early as age two and a 3 half with Sound Games. The Guide might state to a group of children, “I am thinking of an object that starts with the sound ‘A’,” and have the children look around the environment and guess ‘A’ words. With this knowledge the child can begin to analyze word sounds, and recognize that each word is made up of these sounds. It has been said that writing is one of the first academic obstacles a child must overcome, however in the Montessori environment the different obstacles this task is made up of are broken down, so that the child overcomes them one at a time when working with other materials (Montessori, 1967). In this way when the child is finally presented with the task of writing when he is prepared, and can meet this challenge with success. In Montessori education, the child learns the phonetic sounds of the letters and learns to write in cursive. With fluid cursive writing, the child can more easily create the letters and connect them to form words. After the child knows about 10-12 letters, including the vowels, he can begin creating words with the moveable alphabet. Although writing with a pencil at this time may present too many obstacles, the child of 3 ½ can easily take the cursive letters of the moveable alphabet and begin connecting them to create words that he has analyzed. With some practice, the child will then be able to move on to using a chalkboard to write, and then paper. Maria Montessori deemed this sequence of learning to write “the method of spontaneous writing” (Montessori, 1967, p. 194).
In Montessori education, the child commonly learns how to write before he reads. The child has less difficulty constructing a word that he is analyzing and thinking of than reading, because reading has an additional dimension of difficulty; it is a synthesis of the sounds in a word that are in the mind of someone else. In the Area of Reading, the child has learned through many Sound Games that words are made of sounds, he knows the sounds and symbols of the letters, and is beginning to break down many words into sounds. After some time working with the movable alphabet, the child is ready to be shown the first presentation in this area: the Phonetic Object Box. The Guide takes out small replicas of objects, they are identified, and then the Guide writes the name of one of the objects down and gives it to the child. This is the first time the child reads; he first makes the sound of each letter, and when instructed to make them faster the sounds blend and the child can identify the word. The child is then instructed to place the label next to the proper object. With this exercise, the child learns that reading is silent communication.
Now that the child is reading, he is introduced to the Reading Classification, Word Study, Function of Words, Reading Analysis, Interpretative Reading, and Language Extension areas. In Reading Classification the child is given a set of cards with a picture on each which relates to one specific category (such as rainforest animals), a set of labels, and control cards that have both picture and label on them. The child names and lays out the cards, and then reads each label and matches them to the correct card. When finished, the child is able to use the control cards to check his own work. It is at this point that the child is intensely interested in reading and labeling his environment (Montessori, 1967).
Word Study & Function of Words
The child then enters into the areas of Word Study and Function of Words. Here the child is able to recognize the deeper meaning behind words, guiding him closer to Total Reading, which is the ability to fully comprehend and actively interpret the meaning of what another has written. These exercises are more like games and provide the child with a simple and fun experience with grammar.
Reading Analysis & Interpretive Reading
Reading Analysis and Interpretive Reading take the child into Total Reading. These exercises help the child further recognize that reading sentences and stories give him a glimpse of another’s thoughts and feelings.
Written By: Mrs. Monroe
Chomsky, Noam. (2000). New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind. Cambridge: UK. Cambridge University Press.
Eliot, Lise, PhD. (1999). What’s Going on in There?: How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life. New York: NY. Bantum Books.
Lillard, Angeline S. (2005). Montessori the Science Behind the Genius. New York: NY. Oxford University Press, Inc.
Lillard, Paula and Lynn Jessen. (2003). Montessori From the Start: The Child at Home, from Birth to Age Three. New York: NY. Schocken Books.
Montessori, Maria. (1949). The Absorbent Mind. Madras: India. Publishing House.Montessori, Maria. (1967). The Discovery of the Child. Fides Publisher.
Pinker, Steven. (1994). The Language Instinct. New York: NY. Harper Perennial.