Building The Reading Habit In Children

 
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In the Montessori curriculum, we use stories to introduce ideas, teach new concepts, and to reinforce or extend lessons.

The change in our brains when we listen to a story versus a lecture composed of facts and figures is dramatic. When listening to a story versus a list of facts, a child uses additional parts of her brain and is able to connect emotionally with the characters. The child also builds a stronger emotional bond with the storyteller.

On top of that, listeners of a story deepen their capacity for empathy and grow their attention span. Every one of these results in what Montessori education hopes to instil in children.

As a parent, you have a natural advantage over the school: you know your child in a way an educator can never do. From the very beginning of life, your child has learned many things from you simply by imitation. In the same vein, you can help prepare her for reading in the same way.

Simply put, your child will want to read and write if she sees that you enjoy reading and writing. It won’t matter what it is that you like reading: newspapers, magazines, light fiction, poetry or serious non-fiction; it only matters that she sees you having a good time while reading it! The other most important factor in helping your child on the journey towards reading is to read to her whenever you can.

Here are some tips on promoting the reading habit at home:

  1. It is very important that your child can access books independently. When your child is very young, have a small shelf at her own height so that she is able to choose books for herself when she wants to read. If you don’t have room for a shelf, prop some books on the floor up against the wall, making sure the front cover of each book is visible -- remember that it is impossible for children to choose books when they can only see the spine!

  2. Let the number of books available for the child to directly access at any time be limited (this applies to toys too!). Keep changing the selection of books accessible from time to time.

  3. Read aloud as often as you possibly can to your child, and at-least once a day. It is possible that reading together is the only shared activity in a day for busy, working parents and it can help create a special bond between you and your child. Physical contact is often vital and it is important that both of you must be able to look at the book at the same time.

  4. Ensure that you have shown your child how to handle books -- we often forget that this is a skill in itself. Show your child how to gently turn the pages of a book, how to carry a book, and how to put a book back on the shelf after reading.

  5. Because children enjoy the same book over and over again, it is very likely that they are going to ask you to repeat them for many consecutive days! Choice (of the book) & repetition are critical needs for children less than six, and It is important to follow these needs (even if it may be boring for you!)

  6. You will end up reading certain books many times -- however, do not be tempted to paraphrase a book just because you are anxious to get to the end! Remember that children very quickly remember the story, and it will be disconcerting to them.

  7. To clarify expectations, be clear before you begin how much you are going to read (as a daily practice). With small children, the appropriate stories tend to be quite short and you can decide together whether you read one or two. Once you are reading books with chapters, you will have to agree on the number of chapters you will read per night.

  8. Over time, as you settle into the daily reading practice, look at the printed words on the page and ask your child open-ended questions about what she thinks might happen next, and what she believes the characters might be thinking. This will encourage her to give active attention to the story, and active participation of this kind has been shown to have a good effect on reading ability in young children.

  9. Remember that all such reading must happen on physical books! (Not tablets, phones or any other reading devices). Children gain a lot from the physical sensations a book offers: the size of the book, the smell, the type and texture of paper, the richness of the illustrations and so on. It is clear that some books make a deeper impression on children than others, and in part, this can be due to the fact that more senses have been aroused by these books than just the ear and the eye.

When your child begins to go off by herself and chooses a book, handles it gently, gets comfortable and starts to look through it in a world of her own, you will know that you have succeeded! Building the inner motivation to read books is the first step; the actual act of reading the printed word will easily follow.

[Adapted from Lynne Lawrence, “Montessori Read & Write: A Parents’ Guide to Literacy”]

Control the urge to intervene

 
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Observe how carefully this 22-month old child is trying to string beads together.

Of all our many responsibilities towards children in school, perhaps the greatest one is to develop and protect their sense of concentration. Very often, this is achieved by controlling our adult urge to interfere in their work, and allowing them to correct their own mistakes.

While this is easy to say, it is very hard to do even for trained and experienced Montessori teachers. We have to keep reminding ourselves that struggle is good, that the young child learns best when struggle leads to discovery.

To help foster the child's concentration and independence, Dr Maria Montessori had her own advice for teachers (and parents!):

"I suggested to some teachers that they should wear a belt with beads attached. Then every time they have an impulse to interfere, they would draw a bead along. This is very useful, because when we have an impulse, we must act, and the reaction with the bead is a help. From day to day, one would make observations upon oneself in this way until one came to the point of not having to draw any more beads. We should then find that we had acquired a great calm and sense of repose. Perhaps we should have become transformed within. At any rate, we should have learnt the following: that almost all these impulses to action are unnecessary."

Fantasy & Reality in Montessori

An immediate difference most people notice between conventional kindergartens and Montessori environments is the absence of fantasy in Montessori.

When young children are building their own models of the world based on their formative experiences, is it fair to offer them things that are inconsistent with reality? Rather than providing children with amusing but fake tools, we prefer to offer them the real thing (real mops, brooms, knives, glasses, and so on).

However, this does not mean that Montessori children are discouraged from pretend play. Very often, children enjoy experimenting in different ways: both inside the environment (with the real tools of practical life), and outdoors (with that all-time favourite - sand). But this natural inclination to pretend should not be mistaken for a love of fantasy. Dr Montessori believed that children revealed their unmet desires during pretend play -- no wonder then that children love "making" yummy food in the sand pit!

Movement and Cognitive Development

Nearly a century ago, Maria Montessori pointed out that it was a grave error to think of purposeful movement as something different from the higher functions of the mind. Recent research now shows that movement and cognitive development are indeed closely related.

As Montessori educators, we recognise that children have an need to engage in movement. Purposeful movement is at the center of the Montessori approach to early childhood education, as it confers emotional, intellectual and physical benefits.

If you watch a Montessori environment closely, you will see coordinated movement is everywhere: be it carrying materials carefully, balancing on narrow beams, or carrying and moving chairs without any noise.

As children spend time in a Montessori school, they learn to coordinate their body and place it under the ready control of their mind.

Preparing Children For Life

People often ask us why we have practical life activities in the Montessori environment. How are these related to the child's development, they wonder.

At one level, these activities are great for building fine motor skills, understanding sequential processes and developing concentration in young children. However, we must remember that practical life activities must eventually be PRACTICAL! They have to help equip children for real life.

When our 6-8 year olds stay in school overnight for sleepovers, they put all that practice in practical life activities to use. The children are responsible for planning the dinner menu (they decided on salad & sandwiches), purchasing the groceries, doing the actual cooking (with minimal adult assistance), serving dinner, and cleaning up after.

Speaking as adults, we very much enjoyed the hospitality!

Algebra In Early Years ?!

 
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One of the amazing things about Montessori education is the subtle, indirect introduction of complex mathematical ideas (algebra!) right in the preschool years.

For instance, this 3 year old is working intently on the "Trinomial Cube” material. On the face of it, this is a fascinating puzzle that requires the child to place 27 different cubes in a manner that allows the box to close. However, there’s something much deeper going on: this cube is actually the geometrical representation of the algebraic equation (a+b+c)^3. As the child grows older, this serves as a foundation for understanding the concept of “cubing” a number or set of numbers.

By converting a dense equation into a wonderful, self-correcting puzzle, Montessori shows us that even young children can understand and subsequently master concepts far beyond what we may normally expect!

The Road to Memorisation

 
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In conventional education, it usually transpires that rote memorisation comes first, and then conceptual understanding arrives (if at all).

In Montessori, conceptual understanding combined with sufficient practice leads to memorisation in a very natural manner. The addition strip board is a typical example of this process: the child works on single digit addition using concrete material.

After sufficient practice — along with recording the sums on slate or paper — the child is able to naturally increase her recall of individual sums & eventually memorise them.

Further, the concrete materials allow the child to make her own discoveries; for example, it is common to see children discover the commutative law of addition on their own (a + b = b + a), or in the case pictured above, that the number 10 can be split into two smaller numbers in many different ways!

The Path to Writing

 
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Young children are often cognitively ready to express themselves through the written word, but have not yet developed their fine motor skills enough to write beautifully themselves. But how do we isolate the cognitive from the physical when it comes to written expression?

Dr Montessori’s insight was that by using printed “movable alphabets”, we can allow children to express themselves with the written word without yet engaging in the physical act of writing! Children as young as 3 can start constructing words phonetically, without worrying about the shape or form of the letters just yet.

This provides the cognitive & expressive practice the child needs, without overwhelming their hands with the physical effort they are not yet ready for. As with other materials, the movable alphabets illuminate a key Montessori principle: to isolate a single, specific concept for the child to thoroughly master — in the case, the skill of word-building.

Free play in Montessori

 
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While some may think that Montessori environments place a premium on “work”, it is important to remember that free choice can include an option to choose free play at appropriate times — much like these children have chosen!

Research shows that free play in schools has numerous benefits linked to children having an outlet for their energies, building physical capabilities, as well as an unstructured opportunity to build social skills in group settings.

As the great child psychologist Jean Piaget once said, “It is through game playing, through the give and take of negotiating plans, settling disagreements, making and enforcing rules, and keeping and making promises that children come to understand the social rules which make cooperation possible."

Muscle Memory In Writing

 
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Maria Montessori famously said, “What the hand does, the mind remembers”. The hand reports to the brain; the brain guides the hand; the cycle continues, resulting in the development of the intellect.

Thus, while learning to write, it is important to not jump too quickly into pen-paper work before building and refining the child’s muscle memory using their hands. The “sandpaper” letters give the child a concrete, tactile experience that helps imprint alphabet patterns in the brain.

In this case, this child is working towards mastering his understanding the letter “v” by tracing the corresponding sandpaper letter. This is critically important preparation before the child physically engages in writing the letter on paper or slates (and the coarse sandpaper is very enjoyable to run their fingers through!).

Nesting Dolls in Montessori

 
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The first Russian nested doll ("matryoshka") set was carved in 1890 by a couple of Russian craftsmen; today they can be found across the world, including in Montessori environments. We love our Indian version of the original Russian matryoshka dolls!

What do these dolls have to do with Montessori, you ask?

Initially, young children love the surprise of opening these beautiful dolls to find another inside. Soon they begin working to undo and put together the dolls in the right order. Nesting materials like these dolls help children understand spatial relationships, develop fine-motor co-ordination, build the language of comparison (big, bigger, small, smaller), as well as prepositions (inside, outside, under). These dolls also give children the opportunity to concretely experience the concept of a whole object that contains individual parts that are nestled within.

Sensorial Development in Nature

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour.” - William Blake

 
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Isn't it sad that children today often have the majority of their interactions with nature through a tablet, phone or TV? This is a feeble replacement for the real experiences our children deserve: feeling the softness of a petal in the fingers, listening to the songs of the birds in the forest, smelling the earth after the first rain.

It is critically important to maintain the link between child and nature. A direct relationship with nature is fundamental to the sensorial development of the young child. Further, as the child grows, it allows her to experience the wonder of belonging in this beautiful world of ours. On some occasions, nature can be brought into the prepared Montessori environment; on others, as in the case pictured, the children go out to see and experience the world as it is.

The Toddler's Sense of Dignity

 
 

We often forget that children don't automatically understand how to do some self-care tasks (blow their nose, comb their hair, wash their hands) that adults assume are easy. Remember: children really WANT to be able to do these things well & take care of themselves.

This wonderful extract from Dr. Montessori's book The Secret of Childhood, details the deep sense of personal dignity in young children:

“One day I decided to give the children a slightly humorous lesson on how to blow their noses. Since after I had shown them different ways to use a handkerchief, I ended by indicating how it could be done as unobtrusively as possible. I took out my handkerchief in such a way that they could hardly see it and blew my nose as softly as I could. The children watched me in rapt attention, but failed to laugh. I wondered why, but I had hardly finished my demonstration when they broke out into applause that resembled a long repressed ovation in a theatre. I had never heard such tiny hands make so much noise, and I had no idea that such small children would applaud so enthusiastically. It then occurred to me that I had perhaps touched a sensitive spot in their little social world.

No one really teaches them how they should blow their noses. When I tried to do so, they felt compensated for past humiliations, and their applause indicated that I had not only treated them with justice but had enabled them to get a new standing in society. Long experience has taught me that this is a proper interpretation of the incident. I have come to appreciate the fact that children have a deep sense of personal dignity.”

The Spirit of Self-Reliance

 
 

People often wonder why we make a big deal about children taking off their shoes on their own & placing them in the appropriate slots.

Wouldn't it be faster and easier if the adults just help them do it? Of course it would, but that is not the point. In Montessori, the goal is not to just get the act done, but to help the child recognise that they can take care of themselves.

Self-reliance and improved problem solving are important products of allowing children to become independent. Further, indirectly, children build their concentration, fine motor skills and co-ordination by relentlessly using their hands for a variety of self-care tasks.

Most of all, remember that we can help children remove their shoes. But what we cannot do is build self-confidence & independence FOR them. There are no shortcuts to this.

Practical Life: Matching Keys with Locks

 
 

Some Montessori activities are genuinely complex, and can be very confusing for adults unaccustomed to our approach. However, some other Montessori activities are very simple to understand, but can breed endless complexity with little tweaks.

One of our favourite introductory practical life exercises is the lock-and-key set: this is a simple set of locks and keys, with children trying to match the correct pairs. Based on the child's level, the set can contain a variety of differently sized locks, or a larger number of pairs.

It is not unusual for us to see children younger than 3 working on solving this puzzle for an extended duration of time without asking for any help. It is indeed a wonderful activity for developing fine motor skills and problem-solving abilities, and very easy to replicate at home!