Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A Montessori Approach to Language

Language, more than anything else, distinguishes humankind from other living creatures.  Communication, among other significant advantages, is the most important benefit we derive from language.  Language also plays a vital role in the life of an individual and therefore, can provide insights into a child’s development.  Although a child does not need to be taught to speak, he must have exposure to language in order for it to fully develop.  Beginning in infancy, the sensitive period for language acquisition undergoes significant growth and culminates around the age of six.  Not only is a language rich environment a necessity to positive language development in infancy, but it is also a vital component as the child enters into the Early Childhood Montessori classroom.  The study of language is an essential feature during the first few years of a child’s education.    During this time, the teacher becomes an integral part of the child’s language learning.  Our role is to provide the gift of language for each child as he navigates through the most important years for language acquisition.  Ultimately, we are forming the foundation upon which future civilization will stand.

Language begins in infancy when a baby begins to make sounds.  During the second month, babies coo and respond to the human voice.  Even at these early stages, babies are responsive to singing and voices.  This attentiveness is the beginning of the child’s effort to learn her native language.  Around six months of age, babies babble using definite syllables.  At this stage, babies are able to make sounds heard in all languages.   With the encouragement of hearing their own sounds and the language that surrounds them, infants are able to develop their native tongue.

By the age of one, babies are not only able to repeat sounds and words, but are also able to understand words.  Eventually, they will be able to speak them one at a time.  This phase of language development can last anywhere from two to twelve months.  Interestingly, children all across the world learn roughly the same first words.  These include object words, actions words, modifiers/adjectives, and social interaction words.
During the second year, there is a rapid growth in language comprehension.  Towards the end of the second year the child is able to combine two or more words into basic sentences.  This year is marked by a sudden and rapid development that Montessori referred to as the explosion of speech.  “Every child…bursts out with a number of words all perfectly pronounced.  And all this occurs at the end of the second year of his life” (The Absorbent Mind, 10, pg. 103).  After struggling to express himself with just a few words, a child around age three, can suddenly and without effort, use hundreds of words.  She uses nouns, verbs, and other parts of speech correctly and in the proper form. 
Babbling babies transform into talking toddlers with ease and finesse.  The more a child is exposed to language during the first years, the more her language abilities will be able to develop.  Montessori believed that by the age of three, two agreements have been made within the child’s language development.  They have not only succeeded in hearing and reproducing sounds, but they also have created meaning through an understanding of syntax.   Furthermore, Montessori believed that children learn meanings of words and can construct sentences using correct grammar and syntax in order to convey thought.  By the time children enter the Early Childhood Montessori classroom, their language skills have already formed a solid foundation.  From this foundation, we can further enhance the children’s language acquisition and knowledge through the guidance provided in the prepared environment.

Our role as Montessori educators is to provide an environment which is built on the child’s previously constructed language knowledge.  Firstly, a child must have the ability to speak about a given entity.  The elements of the prepared environment specifically meet this requirement.  One of the first concepts instilled within the child is their attachment to the environment.  This is demonstrated through the exercises of Practical Life.  Secondly, the child must be given keys with which to explore the environment.  The Sensorial materials are the very tools utilized by the child with which he can discover and navigate with language.  “Once the child has a great deal of sensorial manipulation, the words describing his experience are the crowning event” (Bettmann, pg.6). 
The Montessori classroom must also create a sense of safety and security within the child so that language may be cultivated.  While the area of Practical Life assists in giving the child specific language vocabulary, the exercises of Grace and Courtesy can also help the child feel comfortable in their environment by giving him the “appropriate words to function harmoniously with others” (Bettmann, pg.6)  The prepared environment additionally nurtures the child’s self-confidence through its precision in order.  Once the child internalizes the general function of the classroom, he will be at peace to further explore his abilities, specifically language capabilities.
Vocabulary Enrichment cards.
The teacher also plays a vital role in the environment pertaining to language.  She herself is a tool and should exemplify language as the representative of the human spirit.  She does so through her own usage of language throughout all areas of the classroom.  This may include recitation of poetry, reading of books, or the simple pleasantries of everyday conversation.  The teacher’s role is not only to demonstrate the beauty of the spoken word, but also to provide the tools necessary for language exploration.
Poetry Basket.
The teacher’s knowledge and understanding of the sensitive periods for language learning is essential to the function of the prepared environment.  She will understand that a child experiences a sensitive period for writing around the ages of 3.5 to 4.5.  Through her preparation, she would therefore know to introduce the Metal Insets and the Moveable Alphabet at this critical time in order to promote language development.  Additionally, the teacher can facilitate a child’s interest in reading through the introduction of specific reading lessons.  She has an understanding of the child’ sensitive period for words, their symbols, and consequent meanings.

Metal Insets
 The prepared environment also incorporates movement into all language lessons.  The child learns most easily if he can move and manipulate objects during periods of understanding.  For this reason, all Montessori language materials involve bodily motion which provides opportunities for the refinement of movement.  This can be seen in lessons utilizing the Sandpaper Letters.  While the child is introduced to the symbol of a sound, he is also able to utilize movement as a tool for learning.  In turn, the kinesthetic element becomes a critical component to language learning.

Writing practice with Sandpaper Letters on the chalkboard.
 The Montessori setting provides a platform from which the child can further develop his knowledge of language.  While the teacher herself inculcates the beauty of language through her interactions among children, the Montessori Language materials further enhance language acquisition.  The importance of language in the classroom parallels the distinction it has within mankind.  “Not only does [language] fuse men into groups and nations, but it is the central point of difference between the human species and all others.  Language lies at the root of that transformation of the environment that we call civilization” (The Absorbent Mind, 10, pg. 98).


  1. Hello Sasha,

    Can you please tell me more about ''Vocabulary Enrichment cards'' please.
    Why there is a dot under each word. What is the basket in the basket. I will be very happy if you can tell me more to do it with my children and my two students.
    Many thanks

  2. What a great blog! I myself have recently become interested in becoming a Montessori school teacher...it just suits my teaching character so well! Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences with this great learning approach! :)

  3. Being able to also learn foreign language is very important.

  4. Nice post! Learning a foreign language is open to anyone willing to exercise patience and perseverance through the process. I think you are a really great example for all those who want to learn a new language. Thanks for all the information.
    Spanish school Costa Rica