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Is earlier better? A reflection on the race to literacy

 

I live in a country where children are expected to start reading and writing at 4 and a half.
They are assessed and sometimes ranked publicly in the classroom at such a young age based on their school performance and literacy level.
But is earlier better?
What's the impact of forcing children into this race? Is all the practice worth the time we take from their childhood?

The Montessori method is light years away from this so when I find myself quietly reporting that I have absolutely no idea if my daughters can read or write (well ant least to which extent they do it), I often receive puzzled looks in return.

The way Montessori approaches literacy cannot be summarised in a bunch of minutes. Also, I  have found limited resources that are actually quickly accessible to parents and easy to understand, without needing to read a whole book about it.

So I decided to write a post, because when I stop and think about how children learn to read and write in Montessori it still feels so magical, so right. And I also need to remind that to myself, when the pressure coming from a traditional Education system that's all around me insinuates doubts in my mind.

In fact the traditional Education system based on age pushes parents to over-question themselves and their children.
 Is my child getting on ok, is he as 'good' as his peers, is he developing well given her age? Is he behind?

So many questions that lead us to compare, compare, compare..instead of observe. 
Observe your child, trust your child. If given the right tools, he can learn anything, at her own pace, the pace that's right for that child. 
Not because he is 4, 5, 6 or 7 years old, but because he is a unique individual.

Even if your child does not attend a Montessori school, there's so much you can do to slow things down and support him, starting form the choice of a school that has a less competitive, more nurturing approach to learning. Also, you can stop stressing about it! and stop praising your child in relation to school matters. Praise is never a good idea, when it involves literacy it's even more detrimental. 

We could say that, in Montessori, the path that leads to mastering literacy is an indirect, holistic one.
It is aimed at developing the skills needed to read&write, instead of teaching and lecturing. 
It starts off with a range of different practical activities and arrives to the pen and sheet of paper only at a later time, only once the child has developed enough hand dexterity.

What are practical activities? 
When they are 2.5/3, children start scrubbing tables and floors, cleaning windows, polishing mirrors, silver and tiny objects, pouring beans and liquids using jugs and mugs in different sizes and materials/weights which increasingly challenge their motor skills.

No it's not an intensive course in housekeeping. 

Although taking care of the environment is key in the Montessori ethics, what these activities ultimately do is to build gross and fine motor skills, they develop the hand muscles and improve hand dexterity. 
Just what they will need in order to hold a pen nicely and produce some beautiful writing, in the most natural way.
Children sew letters on pieces of paper, before they even know that they are letters.
They cut and glue to create shapes, they draw precise lines into specific metal shapes called 'metal inset', following a specific, graceful movement aimed at increasing precision.

From practical activities they then move onto pre-writing and pre-reading activities.
They explore the alphabet using the so called 'sandpaper letters' which are small wooden boards with sandpaper letters on them, which guide the hand for writing as the child traces the letter shapes in the style and direction that they are written.

The child will then explore words using the wooden movable alphabet, which can be in international print or cursive (here in the UK cursive is taught in the elementary classroom).
3-part cards are also used in the classroom, to expand the child's vocabulary and to start associating images and words as they are written.
The written symbol always goes hand in hand with some sort of two- or three-dimensional representation of reality. 



The sensorial experience is always the starting point, Montessori presents concepts going from concrete to abstract, which is immensely easier and more natural for the young child. 
The same applies to numeracy, maths, geography and science.

When the child is ready, he will connect all the dots, and he will write. Not because he will be assessed on it, not because we ask him, but because he will want to do it. Maybe he will want to write down a story with a friend, or a message to someone.
Children are not taught how to spell words (in case of English, Italian is much more straight forward)but they write phonetically, which means that they write the sounds down.

This journey continues through the elementary (primary school) years, which start at around 6 in Montessori.
Yes 'around' because the child moves to 'Year 1' when he is ready. 

Do you have exactly the same needs and abilities of people who are your same age? Don't think so.
Why do we expect that from children? Why do we assess all 5 year olds assuming they are all the same?

Ok going back to literacy.

Despite the big debate, there is no robust research showing that an early exposure to language symbols  has a positive impact on subsequent education.
The opportunity to learn from complex stimuli and events are vital early in life, and that success in school begins in infancy, children’s early learning is so complex and multifaceted. 

For example, research shows that young children rely on what has been called “statistical learning,” a form of implicit learning that occurs as children interact in the world, to acquire the language spoken in their culture.

While we wait for Montessori to do its magic, what do we do?

- We read together. 
- We talk A LOT to our babies, from birth.
- We offer a rich, appropriate language to the child from birth (this means that there is no such thing as difficult words).
- We play sound games.
- We use writing purposefully.
- We make reading fun, always.
- We forget about what other children are doing, reading, writing.
- We let our children spend every minute after school in nature and in unstructured, self-chosen activities.

No, after school sport is not free time. It is scheduled time, a time when the child is being directed by someone to do something, just like in school.

This is their childhood, and that's what they should be doing. 













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