Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Language Arts - Early Phonics ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ BONUS: Hammering, a Reprise

If only I had known then what I know now...

Mums and Dads of babies, listen up:


Oh, I know that learning the alphabet is important, and that a lot of people think that how quickly your child can learn his letters and numbers is directly related to his/her level of intelligence, and to your care and attention as a parent, but rattling off a list of letters (or, more commonly, being able to sing the alphabet song) or even the ability to recognise letters and name them is still a couple steps removed from being able to read and write, and it is entirely abstract.
The Montessori method always strives to proceed from the concrete to the abstract, and to learn that the sound a letter makes is different from its name requires you to move from the abstract to the concrete. If only I had known a couple years ago, before Ella learned her letter names:



Do you see what I mean? Just in case you don't, I'll explain a little further.

A child who learns his alphabet by the song really doesn't know his alphabet at all! He knows how to make the sounds that are supposed to go with the music he hears. If he sees a letter, he doesn't associate that with the first sound in the song, nor does he associate that with the symbol 'A.' Most importantly, he doesn't associate it with the sound 'Æ' (the way 'A' sounds in the words 'cat,' 'tab,' and 'pad'). Eventually he will need to learn these associations in order to read and write.

A child who learns to recognise the letter symbols and to define them by their letter name, is still at least one step away from truly learning her alphabet. She might see the symbol 'A' and be able to identify the name of this letter as 'EH,' but she does not, as yet, associate that with the sound 'Æ,' or even the other 'A' sounds of 'ah' (the way 'A' sounds in "car," "palm," and "law"), and 'eh' (the way 'A' sound in "bay," "laid," and "take"). Granted, this last sound made by the letter 'A' will be easier to learn as it is pronounced the same way as the letter name.

However, a child who learns that the symbol 'A' represents the sound 'Æ' (the way 'A' sounds in the words 'cat,' 'tab,' and 'pad') skips the extraneous step of learning the letter's name, which has little practical use at this juncture. When she sees 'A,' she thinks 'Æ' which puts her on the road to forming simple "pink series" words. ("Pink Series" refers to words, nouns in particular, formed as consonant-vowel-consonant - hereafter to be referred to as C-V-C - such as pal, mud, dog, bin, and set)

After doing more reading, I've changed the way I've been teaching letter sounds. Rather than introducing letters 3 at a time, I've gone to having a 'letter of the day,' which follows basically the same format. (Please note: This is just the way I do it, and I'm not sure how close it is to the "pure" Montessori method... but I will find out soon enough, as I'm getting the Language Arts Manual shortly.)

Here you can see what I endeavour to have set up each time Ella comes into the classroom. Simply put it's a sequence of activities designed to either help her with phonetic pronunciation in context or to encourage her to write the letter symbol with concrete, tactile materials.

Ah, the classic sandpaper letters! Please note that the above photo is not proper Montessori. But, as I mentioned above, Ella already was familiar with her letters and their names.

If you're lucky enough to be starting Montessori before your child knows letter names and symbols, then you should start with lower-case letters. Yes, that is the opposite of how most children are taught the letters; most parents and teachers begin with the upper-case. Perhaps it's because the upper-case letters are larger and more noticeable. But, in almost every book a you read to your child, the vast majority of letters are lower-case. Beginning there means that your child can recognise whole words sooner, rather than just recognising the letter. If you begin with upper-case, you will still need to teach lower-case before your child can recognise a word, because usually only the first letter in a word is an upper-case letter!

So, rather than going backwards, I began by picking up where Ella was, using both upper and lower-case letters simultaneously. She practices both the sound of the letter and the movements used to write the letter by lightly running her finger over the sandpaper letter, using the same movement as is typically used when hand-writing, while saying aloud the sound 'Æ' at the beginning of each new line or curve made.

After she has done this at least once each for the upper-case and the lower-case, she moves on to unguided letter writing. This is her favourite part! I've put cornmeal in a square cake tin and she uses it as a tactile method of making the sound's symbol. The similarity of feel between the sandpaper letter and the cornmeal reinforces the concept of making a letter symbol.

When it doesn't seem to look quite "right," she goes back and re-traces the sandpaper letters, getting a feel for the movement necessary.

These two steps have been especially helpful with the handwriting of the upper-case letter 'A.' Until recently, every time Ella wrote her name, it looked like "EllH" because the two vertical lines in her 'A's never met at the top!

After our initial lesson with 'A', she began to form her upper-case 'A's in a more recognisable form, but she would do it with four lines rather than three. She kept the 'H' appearance, but added a line across the top so it looked like two squares, one atop the other, with the bottom square not having the final, bottom line!

Over time and practice, her 'A' has evolved into two downward-sloping curves, resulting in a shape similar to an upside-down U, with a line across it. Her 'A's continue to become more 'A'-like!

That 'A' is mine! I was taking these pictures on a day she was up at my Mum's visiting.

This is one of the ubiquitous "LeapFrog" learning toys. Initially I had the Leapfrog letters from Ella's Fridge Phonics in the basket with the other 'A' stuff, but I've since removed this element from our sequence of the letter-stuff line-up. I've removed it for two reasons:

First, it teaches multiple sounds for some letters, which can be helpful if you actually want to teach that way, but since I'm only doing one sound at a time (the other sounds for the same letter are introduced later, after the child has become accustomed to the first sound and is able to use it in words) I don't want her to be confused by all the potential sounds this letter can make and she doesn't need (yet) to distinguish between the letter name, and all the different letter sounds.

Second, it emphasises the letter name more than it emphasises the letter sound and this entirely without context. Essentially, it's trying to teach two or more things at once, but it's teaching it in an abstract way. Yes, "'Eh' says 'Eh' and 'Eh' says 'Æ'," as the little ditty goes, but that's three pieces of information that the child has to absorb, and the meaning of one 'Eh' (the letter's name), the meaning of the other 'Eh' (one of the sounds that the letter 'Eh' might represent), and the meaning of 'Æ' (another sound that 'Eh' might represent). Furthermore, even if this was the way you decided to teach your children to read, 'A' actually makes a minimum of three sounds, not just two. 'Eh,' 'Æ,' and 'Ah.'

Now, if you just got confused trying to figure out what I just wrote, imagine being a child trying to sort all this out, and they don't even have a context for the use of this information.

But with Montessori, the first thing you endeavour to do is to make what you're teaching concrete, using as many of the senses and learning methods as possible. So, after hearing/saying a sound and associating that with a symbol, the Montessori method puts it immediately into context.

Behold, my 'Æ' basket. If you're sitting there thinking, "But the 'A' in 'arm' doesn't make the sound 'Æ', it makes the sound 'Ah,' not only are you completely right, but you're also a very fast thinker! I gathered up these items late one night for the next morning's lesson and I just grabbed it because it started with 'A.' Oops! My Bad! I've since removed it. So our 'Æ' basket now holds: Annie (the name of the train car), apple, ambulance, and alligator. We examine the objects, name them, and see if we can hear the 'Æ' sound at the beginning.

Where the 'Æ' basket puts the sound into context as the first sound in a word, this last stage puts the vowel sound into context in the middle of a word. Essentially we look at the picture, say the name of the object in the picture, and see if we can hear the 'Æ' sound. I was lucky enough to get these cards second hand, but they are available new at Montessori Research and Development, as are many of the "Pink Series" classroom materials.

And that's it. That's what we've been doing for language arts. We've done a letter a day for five days: L, H, T, A, and P. I'll post some pictures of one of our consonant materials, so you can see the difference between presenting consonants and vowels.

Today we did a game that helped pull the ideas we've been planting all together. It's called the "Knock, Knock" game.

I kicked Ella out of the classroom for a few minutes, telling her sternly not to peek, which of course meant that she had to tease me by pretending to peek and I had to keep jumping up to chase her away with a growling, monster voice! Meanwhile, I put out the sandpaper letters arrayed in a semi-circle, and at the top of each pair of letters I put the objects that are in each letter basket (I'm in the midst of switching to letter boxes, since they can stack easier, and space is at a premium). Then I turned the sandpaper letters upside down.

When Ella came back in I would reach to a sandpaper letter and knock on it, as if knocking on a door. I'd say, "Knock, Knock! Who's there?" And then Ella had to figure out what sound was hiding away. She would use the objects just above the upside-down sandpaper letters as a reference. If she couldn't remember right off, I'd get her to say the names of all the objects and told her to listen for the first sound. Today she only got one wrong.


I promised a special bonus in this post: I've now got photos of Ella doing her hammering. She just loves it!

She is rather precise when it comes to placement. She knows exactly where she wants it so that it looks just so.

She really enjoys hammering, and while at home, with her little plastic hammer she bangs willy-nilly, when using the 'real' hammer in this kit, with real tacks, she concentrates on what she's doing and is meticulous in her aim. She's yet to bruise a thumb or finger!

This activity is excellent for fine motor skills.

See how she holds the piece of wood by the edges, rather than holding the tack itself? I think that's how she avoided banging herself. I never taught her that, she just figured it out.

She was very proud of her 'train.' Can you see it?

What a silly girl! Anyway, the train has two small, round wheels on each end, and two red squares, a green square, and a blue triangle for "cars." (Don't ask me which end is the engine and which is the caboose - I don't know!)

She's also got a beautiful, square sun up in the sky!

Okay, now for an extra-special treat (if this works right): Ella hammering!!!

Other things to read about Montessori Language Arts:

Oh, and today I'd like to say "Hello there!" to my Readers in/close to Denver, Colorado, and in the Greater Vancouver Area (including, but not limited to, my best friend). For the most part, I don't know who you are, but you've really plumped up my statistics, which probably means either a) you are loyal readers or b) you made a mistake, came to my site, and before you could change to another webpage the baby cried/Johnny hit Suzy/the dog wet on the carpet and you flew away to fix matters, leaving my website up on the computer... Hmm... Now that I think about it, statistics probably don't mean that much after all! Nonetheless, "Hello Out There!"


At 6:39 p.m. , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting your experiences. I am just getting started with the idea of incorporating montessori methods into my homeschool program. I love to see ideas and hear the experiences of others. Once again, thank you for taking the time to post this information. I will definately be checking back.

At 6:54 p.m. , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am so excited to find your blog. I am about to start a more structured homeschool program and want to implement some Montessori Methods. My daughter, like yours, has a foundation based on a more traditional method. I believe that the information and experience you are sharing here will be very helpful as I attempt to prepare for this great adventure. Thank you!!!

At 11:59 a.m. , Anonymous Jess said...

THIS is what I was looking for (and hoping not to have to spend a ton of money for someone to tell me). Thank you so much for posting this info. By the way, your daughter is adorable!

At 5:30 p.m. , Anonymous Melanie said...

Thanks so much for a lovely website. (Which by the way, I stumbled upon out of the blue). I am just getting started on teaching some under privilidged kids english, and had no idea where to start. Now I have some great tips, and i just love the montessori methods of teaching. Keep up the great work!!!


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