During the sensitive period for language (ages 0-6) when the mind absorbs the sounds, words, and grammar of the environment effortlessly, the child is innately driven to make meaningful connections to the objects and people around him, to communicate his needs, and to describe his thoughts and feelings.
Through spoken language, the dual-language environment enriches and enlarges the child’s awareness of sounds, vocabulary, and verbal expression in both English and Chinese simultaneously. In the same way a baby develops spoken words spontaneously, the hands-on multisensory language materials enable the child to create writing and reading on his own. This is not applied as skills training. Instead, the appropriate materials and activities are presented to the child when he is thirsting for new knowledge, allowing writing and reading to manifest spontaneously through a voyage of self-discovery.
As the Montessori Method is an “aid to life,” so is a child’s ability to use language to communicate his or her ideas to others. Maria Montessori recognised this and took into account the human tendency for communication and the sensitive period for language that is present in very young children. Thus, in the Casa classroom the language programme for the young child is a voyage of discovery. The child learns to build on what he already has, expanding his ability to communicate needs, then wishes, thoughts, and finally, ideas
As spoken language serves as a foundation for the child’s later facility of reading and writing, emphasis is placed on establishing a solid oral-auditory experience first in both languages.
Children initially adapt to hearing the living language through their daily routines in their dual-language classroom. While the new child may respond in any language he chooses, the teacher speaks only in her designated language; the Chinese teacher never uses English to translate her intentions or vice versa, instead she might use body language to convey meaning. The teacher models the art of conversation and actively listens to her young students.The vocabulary acquired during this stage is applicable and useful to the child’s everyday life at school and home: the names of activities and materials, the greetings we use at the beginning and end of the day, the phrases to communicate socially with friends, and the words to express one’s needs. Vocabulary enrichment is also built through stories, poems, songs, and fingerplays. The teachers follow-up by asking open-ended questions that elicit language from the child (who, what, when, why, where, how).
Children are introduced to vocabulary through replica objects and picture cards. At this age, they need to see and feel things to process new information so if the real object is available, we would invite them touch and experience it to gain a more meaningful connection (e.g. a vegetable). These Classified Cards are categorised into different topics that help the child to organise his world: objects in the home, items of apparel, modes of transportation, types of buildings, different mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, fish, etc. If a teacher notices that the child shows enthusiasm for a particular subject outside of the available selection, she will prepare a new set of cards to follow his interests (e.g. different types of boats after a sailing excursion). Seasonal topics, such as objects relating to a holiday, will also be available on rotation.
Between the time of birth and six years of age, the child’s motor mechanism is fixed and as the body’s instrument to write, the hand must be trained with care: “[It is] the most precious instrument of the human will” (Montessori, Discovery of the Child). Before writing, the child’s hand and pincer grip must first be thoroughly prepared through extensive use and repetition of the Practical Life and Sensorial activities.
If we give a child a pencil to practice writing before his hand is physically ready, it often results in frustration and poor habits, such as improper grip. The hands-on materials in the Casa environment provide the child with an abundance of practice beforehand so that when he goes to use the pencil to write, he is prepared, eager, and ready. This is the way Dr. Montessori sought to perfect the child in writing “without writing” (Montessori, Discovery of the Child). The pincer grip is used to manipulate fine materials, such as the knobs of Cylinder Blocks or lids of small bottles, and the arm is steadied for greater control as the child washes and scrubs tables. The index and middle fingers trace along different geometric shapes and refine the child’s hand-eye coordination. The lightness of touch in the fingers is honed through tactile exercises and a series of Mental Inset activities graduating with increasing complexity from tracing to grading. The preparation of the hand for writing is essential regardless of language, and both teachers work together closely to observe the child’s readiness for pre-writing activities. As the language is not phonetic like English, the progression to writing in Chinese happens differently.
When the child shows a broad range of vocabulary, the teacher begins to play Sound Games to bring awareness to the 26 English phonetic sounds. This activity is done orally and often makes use of objects in the environment that the child can physically see (e.g. “I see something that you are wearing that starts with the sound ‘juh’ (i.e. j sound), do you know what I am thinking about?”). Children will also play this game with each other, especially with the beginning sounds of their own names. The teacher encourages the child to first attend to beginning sounds, then he progresses to ending sounds, and middle sounds. The child absorbs that English words can be broken down into individual sounds. When the child shows accurate awareness of phonetic sounds and a readily prepared hand, the teacher then introduces the letter symbol through Sandpaper Letters. These letters are lowercase just like most of the written words children see. They are traced to develop muscular and visual memory of the appropriate symbol for each sound that the child has already experienced orally. The teacher often gives different children different letters, with the expectation that they will share lessons and correct each other’s strokes. Simultaneously, the child will be shown how to put individual sounds together to form phonetic words; this can be done using the Moveable Alphabet even before the young child’s hand is ready for holding a pencil. After the child is invited to form letters using different implements such as chalkboards, sand trays, and white boards, which can be reset easily without leaving a smudge of a mistake. Joyfully, the child begins to form letters, that have been embedded in his memory through repeatedly tracing.
Later he progresses to writing short phonetic words, longer phonogram and puzzle words, and finally to simple sentences and stories with illustrations using pencil and paper. At this point, he will also be introduced to basic punctuation, capital letters, and the different functions of the parts of speech. These lessons, presented in the final months before transitioning, are reinforced in Lower Elementary.
As the language is not phonetic like English, the progression to reading in Chinese happens differently. In English, typically the Casa child will begin to write six months before reading. However, because of the nature of characters, reading in Chinese generally begins much earlier than writing.
Once the child recognizes individual sounds in words and that the written word can be read, he goes through a series of joyful discoveries that sparks a lifelong love of reading. The Casa child responds with sheer delight when he realizes that he can understand another person’s written thoughts and ideas. This experience, often described as an explosion into reading, must not be pushed prematurely or it reduces reading into a skill or chore. Dr. Montessori advocated that the child should be guided beyond decoding graphic symbols, to a level of total reading, which entails understanding the words, style, and sentiment of the author.
To read in English, children need to work with all three codes; they will first learn to read words phonetically, followed by words with phonograms (over 90 sounds that are created when certain letters are combined, e.g. “th”), and sight words that must be memorized. Extensive work is introduced for children to explore and remember the many different phonograms of the English language. Around the same time, they will also begin to show more awareness by actively using phonograms to compose simple sentences.