Language Development in Early Childhood

How a child learns to speak and understand the spoken word is a mysterious process. As long as a child is exposed to some language in his/her early life, s/he will almost always learn to speak. We don’t entirely understand why, but we know this to be true. She will learn the vocabulary that she is offered. We can do much to enrich these offerings, to give the child a greater wealth of words at her command, but we can not make her learn to speak. That occurs in a way that, at present, remains a mystery.  However, the same cannot be said for writing or reading. These, we teach.  Montessori believed that language is innate and it is in the nature of humans to express themselves both orally and through the written word. The Montessori Language Arts curriculum, therefore, starts the moment the child first enters the environment.  Steps taken to support the child’s language development include­;

  1. Spoken Language: (helping to create an internal dictionary and practice using the words in it),
  2. Phonetic Awareness: (helping to teach the phonetic sounds within words and the sounds/symbols of our alphabet),
  3. Creating Words (Writing): helping to put these symbols together to make words)
  4. Reading: helping to decode those sounds/symbols to decipher words.

Montessori Language: Ages 0-3 – Montessori believed that the sensitive period for language begins at birth and continues to about six years of age. From birth, the child has been absorbing the sounds and speech patterns of family and home environment. Long before being able to speak, the child listened intently while acquiring the sounds of her native language. Babies learn to recognize and repeat the individual sounds of their language and toddlers learn to recognize, name, and pronounce the names of objects in their environment. In the Montessori Infant/Toddler environment, daily exposure to language through conversations and the reading of good literature helps the child strengthen her vocabulary and increases independence as she becomes more cognisant of the world around her, giving her the ability to name her wishes and desires.

Montessori Language: Ages 3-6 – is a natural extension of the patterns of communication that have already been absorbed. Through every conversation, every book read aloud, every new word that is taught, the Montessori student is learning language, and thus, learning to read. In the Montessori Preschool environment, emphasis is placed on the process of acquiring language. Knowledge is constructed by mental and physical activity rather than on passive learning. Writing is taught before reading through the direct and indirect aims of the Montessori Practical Life and Sensorial works. In the Montessori 3-6 Language curriculum, writing itself is seen as a direct preparation for reading.

Montessori educators use precise language that is neither too simplified or given to baby-talk in order to give credence to the work the child is doing to acquire vocabulary and language skills. As Montessori educators, we help the child to focus her attention to the sound of her own speech, making fine distinctions between sounds. From our attention in oral language development emerges the child’s need to write. Unlike speech, writing and reading require instruction of some sort and require some degree of effort by the child. She must exert herself on the components of our language to build it for herself. She must mount each of these steps:

Step 1: Spoken Language
There are many ways the adult can facilitate the acquisition of verbal language but we can not directly teach it. Instead, we prepare the environment. We naturally focus on offering the child rich oral language experiences. This is essential yet there is other work we do that is as critical, if not more. We must adjust the child’s environment, both physical and navigable (e.g., daily routines, human interactions), so that it does not in anyway block the expression of the inborn, natural directive to communicate. We trust that given the right environment, the right support structure, the child is inherently capable of developing a strong, logical, ordered, and gracious language. Our work in this regard is mostly indirect and it begins with the child’s surroundings for one of the most significant ways we can offer assistance is by providing the child with an organized and accessible environment.

Step 2: Phonetic Awareness
Traditional education demonstrates a somewhat predictable swing between the teaching concepts of phonics versus whole language. The reality is that both of these concepts are valuable and necessary. The Montessori approach teaches both, but it teaches phonetics first. Why? Because 50% of our language is phonetic. It follows predictable rules…and children love rules. They are drawn to find the logic and order within our world. The natural directive for order and precision are very strong in the young child and the phonetic half of English is compliant in this respect. It is systematic and predictable. There are rules that, when followed, hold the key to cracking the code of English. We begin by teaching the child these rules. We teach them the sounds of each letter and of key phonograms. We encourage them to build phonetic words, and later, when they are ready, to read phonetic words. This process slowly builds the child’s confidence. It lays out the patterns of English. It presents the rules the children love to follow and gives them opportunities to practice applying those rules, to practice hearing the sounds in words, saying the sounds of each letter, writing letters, using those letters to build words, and reading phonetic words. Then, once the child has confidence, once the child believes she can crack the code of English, we slowly reveal the non-phonetic half of English…the words which don’t follow any rules at all. Wow! Words that don’t follow any rules at all? That’s interesting! And learning follows interest.

Step 3: Creating Words (Writing)
Traditionally when we think of writing, we think of putting pen to paper. But there is more to it than this. Before one can have success with writing by way of the hand, one must be able to build words in the mind. This is the intellectual component of writing. It refers to the ability to put letters together to create a word. It can be done even if one has no muscular control of the hands. As such, this intellectual component of writing may develop even before the hand is able to hold a pencil. Our first work in aiding the young child to master writing is to prepare the mind for the work of writing.

Step 4: Reading
At some point, when the child’s needs for verbal language, for phonetic awareness, and for writing have been met, there is a magical event. The child reads his first word. Just as we can not make an infant take his first steps, this discovery is not something we as adults can make happen. It will occur on its own time table and for reasons that will remain mysterious. We can only prepare the child to make the discovery in all the ways we have discussed. Once this preparation is complete, we continue to find exciting ways to engage them in the language
work while we wait. And while we wait, we trust that, she/he will spontaneously begin to read.  Our intention with all of this work is to help children become masters of the spoken and written word, to realize what Dr. Montessori called Total Reading. We want children not only to be able to read and understand the words of others, but to realize their own voice, to trust in it, and to measure everything else against it. This is a much loftier goal than teaching a child to work with the mechanics of letters and phrases. This is the work of developing the child’s full potential.