We have a few labels put out in our garden to help children identify some of the plants growing in the outer environment.
Little wooden strips painted and mounted on wooden stakes, thrust into the ground. But like most things these labels have come to have many uses.
In the past few months, we have had 3 children from the primary environment discover reading through them! A stroll in the garden, has witnessed them sound out each letter on the label and discover that they can read!
A couple of days ago, a child pulled out a label from the earth. Upon being requested to place it back, he obliged but only after he sounded each letter and realised that the label said, ‘pumpkin’!
He had discovered reading!
You can imagine his delight. After that hand in hand with an adult he went to every label and read it, his grin getting broader and broader.
Working with children it is all about ‘teachable’ moments and sometimes they are hard to miss!
We sat down on the ground, still damp after a recent spell of rains, and with a stick I carefully wrote out a word. He read it, though ‘devoured’ is more like how it was taken. The next thing we knew we were surrounded by a group of children, all wanting a ‘word’ for themselves!
There were several beginning readers, as well as children who had not yet discovered reading for themselves. Each one got a word. The readers read the words for the non-readers, while the latter carefully observed, as their friends de-coded the squiggles in the mud. Over and over again, the children shouted in excitement, “I want to read” , “Give me a word”, “Write ‘nutella’ for me” and it went on and on!
While carefully drawing the words on the damp ground, I thought of Sylvia Ashton Warner, an educator who worked with Maori children and often took them to the river side to give them words in the sand! (you can download her book titled ‘teacher’, here)
Now this has become a game that we sometimes play when outdoors and the children have dubbed it, ‘word, word’.
So how does this happen? How do children ‘discover’ reading, rather than being ‘taught’ reading?
Any note on reading cannot begin without a mention of the child’s sensitivity to language between birth to 6 years. A child passes through special times in her life when she easily incorporates a particular ability into her schema if allowed to practice it exhaustively during this time. Montessori called the unique sensitivities of young children ‘sensitive periods’. Her understanding of sensitive periods has now been confirmed by modern science and even popular culture, with Time magazine calling it ‘windows of opportunity’. The child ages birth to six years old passes through three significant sensitive periods; those for order, movement and language.
Reading in the Montessori method, is a synthesis of many individual strands that a child ties together for herself.
The path to reading looks something like this:
All through their time in the primary Montessori environment, children are given the tools to build a rich and precise vocabulary. The environment itself is one in which a love for language should be in the ‘air’. Good quality poetry and books should be read to the children and made available in the reading corner. A love and respect for books should be modelled by the adults.
Children imbibe the left to right orientation required for reading, through engagement with the exercises of practical life. As they spoon grain from one container to another, pour water from a jug into wee glasses and cups, prepare their places to make dough or flower arrangements, they not only gain in independence but in effect are working on the left to right orientation required for reading. The step-by-step procedure in a presentation, helps children indirectly gain the ability to sequence. Again, another pre-requisite for reading. They are also gaining the ability to concentrate.
Through their work with the sensorial materials, they gain the ability to compare and contrast their sensorial impressions. They hone their visual discrimination skills, required to discriminate between the shapes of letters for reading.
Then there are the ‘sound games’ or ‘oral phonetic analysis’. A simple game played with the youngest children where they practice recognising individual sounds in a word. They are able to pick out beginning sounds, ending sounds, middle sounds and finally sequence all the individual sounds in a word. Through these games, they discover that words are made of individual sounds and enjoy picking out sounds in the words that they encounter in their daily lives.
Children are introduced to the sandpaper letters where they trace the letters over and over again. Through this they connect the squiggle to the sound it represents. They associate sound with symbol. Indirectly they are building a motor memory of the symbol for writing, which will come later.
And then there is the moveable alphabet. A child builds words with cut outs of the letters of the alphabet. They carefully sound out the individual sounds of the word they wish to build and then identify the corresponding symbol and place them in sequence on their mat. Can they read what they have built at this time? No, not yet, but this too is an important step towards reading which is yet to come.
With exposure to all of this, by and large most children, tie these different strands together and voila! you have reading – reading, as a point of arrival!
Reading ‘discovered’ rather than ‘taught’ is a joyful process and the child can truly say, “I have taught myself to read!”
“It is the adult who makes learning to read and write difficult when he or she approaches the two as subjects to be conquered, rather than discoveries to be made.” ~ Maria Montessori