Doubling Down on Literacy
Originally published on the Higher Ground Education Substack Feed
One of the big questions from the pandemic has been how it would affect critical milestones of child development and learning. There’s been a flurry of news coverage recently on studies tracking social and language deficits in children.
Here’s a good summary from Natalie Wexler. She notes that children coming into kindergarten and early elementary are very likely to need intense, specific support to catch up on literacy. And she also cites the work of researchers who measure a pandemic-correlated decline in the number of “conversational turns”—back and forth vocalizations—starting at the earliest years of life.
This is a tragedy. It’s a tragedy that is especially worth us pausing on, because we are extremely well-positioned to actually do something about it.
Montessori’s Innovations in Literacy
Montessori education is rich with innovation: it offers the child unprecedented freedom, rethinks the teacher-student relationship, integrates practical work into education, extends education down to tiny infants, and more.
Which aspect of Montessori’s approach first made her truly internationally famous? Which one shocked the world and kickstarted a worldwide movement that continues to this day? It was actually a very specific outcome: she taught 4-year-olds how to write.
Before 1907, the wealthiest families, using the most cutting-edge educational methods, didn’t start teaching literacy until 6 or later. And the trend at the time was actually to push literacy later. The methods of teaching a child how to read and write were so torturous and so commonly resisted that progressive educators thought it was better to just wait until it was practically interesting to the child, for example, until the child wanted to write letters to his or her friends, at 8 or 10 or 12 years old. (This is what Rousseau advocated in Emile.)
Montessori, on the other hand, took preschool-aged children who were in living in destitution, in the slums of San Lorenzo—and, almost incidentally and certainly unexpectedly, taught them how to write.
One day a child began to write. He was so astonished that he shouted aloud, “I’ve written! I’ve written!” Other children rushed up to him, full of interest, staring at the words that their playfellow had traced on the ground with a piece of white chalk. “I too! I too!” shouted the others, and ran off. They ran to find a means of writing; some crowded round a blackboard, others stretched themselves on the ground, and thus written language began to develop as an explosion.
How did she do it? The key was a complex process of indirect preparation of the young child for writing.
There’s no one singular key, like a simple material or learning experience. Writing is not natural in the way that speaking is, and nor is it a simple, discrete task. A lot goes into literacy:
- An ability to isolate phonemes out of the stream of spoken language
- Understanding the alphabet, that sounds (phonemes) map to letters (graphemes)
- The analysis and synthesis of decomposing words into sounds and recomposing sounds/letters into words
- Vocabulary: knowing the words that you are reading (or want to write)
- Fine motor control of the hand and wrist, to use a writing implement
- Gross motor control of the arm and elbow, to use a writing implement
The genius of Montessori was to, first, break writing down into its components. And second, make each component practicable at a very young age, in a certain order, and for its own sake. When children use learning materials by holding onto small pegs on the top, they are delighted to complete a puzzle—and, without knowing it, are practicing to hold a pen. The same goes for sound games, nomenclature, practical life activities that strengthen the arm, and so on.
Any of these skills can be points of failure. It’s well-established that domain-specific vocabulary is the major reading challenge for many students. An incapacity to lock onto component sounds blocks alphabetism.
Conversely, properly investing in all of these skills, in the right way and in the right order, is a reliable way to impart literacy and to do so joyously. And this is a process that starts at birth.
Fueling the Fire of Language and Literacy
While there is always individual developmental variance in skill outcomes, our general expectation is that children are reading and writing when they are 4 years old. Literacy is directly and obviously central to the Children’s House curriculum and learning environment, which feature the sandpaper letters, the moveable alphabet, and more.
But, as noted above, this only works if we get all the elements of literacy right—not just the alphabet, but all its phonic and physical prerequisites. Education for literacy starts at birth and never stops.
Infant and Toddler environments are rich in spoken language. Specifically, they are rich in language that is directed to a child in a conversational way—even if the child isn’t yet capable of speaking back.
In Toddler environments, structured language games start in earnest. I can’t resist sharing these photos of and guide comments on my 2-year-old daughter using the rhyming objects tray, which is designed to sensitize her to the phonetic properties of words.
While full-blown reading and writing don't usually happen until 4 years old, it’s common for a 3-year-old who has been well-prepared in phonics to start learning the alphabet via the sandpaper letters and even experimenting with the movable alphabet. It’s this intelligently structured approach to language exposure that enables “writing without writing”, as Montessori put it—that is, that enables the child to use the movable alphabet successfully, even in absence of penmanship, which comes later, developmentally.
Literacy has always, since the classical age of Greece, been a core part of the job-to-be-done of education. But for two dozen centuries, it was a rote exercise taught to older children. Montessori unlocked the child’s potential for literacy earlier and more joyfully, by using brilliant task analyses and pathbreaking developmental psychology.
Internalizing the Challenge of Literacy
Helping children learn to read and write is still one of the primary functions of education. It would be at the top of almost any parent’s list of what they wanted from a school, and it should be at the very top of ours.
Montessori was unequivocal on this point:
Possession of the art of writing is not a mere skill; it represents the possession of a superior form of language added to its natural form. Written language complements spoken language and is integrated with it. … Written language, therefore, must not be considered merely as a subject in schools, and a part of culture. It is, rather, a characteristic of civilized man.(2)
Literacy is both a practical superpower and a powerful addition to the psychological makeup of a person. It changes the way one uses language, the primary tool of thought, and enables one to use it to reach across time and space, and to crystallize thoughts into objective forms for reflection and consideration.
At the outset of this note, we reflected on the fact that many children are already behind in their development of literacy due to pandemic stresses and social limitations. But the reality, as you probably know, is that there are always children who are “behind” for one reason or another. Montessori’s first cohort of children in the tenements of San Lorenzo was almost certainly disadvantaged on this score, having comparatively little exposure to literary materials and having parents that tended to be more absent than present.
Fortunately, as Montessori educators, we spend a lot of time with our young children and have a set of educational tools to give them an ambitious, multifaceted, full-court press of support—wherever they are on their journey.
And that is a major part of our work: to know where our students are with respect to literacy, and to figure out how to inspire and challenge them to unlock their full potential for human language. Pandemic-related learning delays are an opportunity for us to double down on our current approach—to remind ourselves of it as needed, and to be even more excited that we can play a pivotal role in helping children grow up right.
Dr. Matt Bateman
Dr. Matt Bateman earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy in 2012 from the University of Pennsylvania. He taught and continued his research at Franklin and Marshall College in the Department of Psychology, on topics ranging from neuroscience to evolutionary theory to philosophy, before joining the LePort Schools as Director of Curriculum and Pedagogy in 2014.
In 2016, Dr. Matt Bateman became a founding member of Higher Ground Education. He is now Vice President of Pedagogy for Higher Ground and the Executive Director of Montessorium.
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