Literacy is one of the fundamental aspects of education, enabling us to connect through speech and the written word. Not only does it underpin our communications, but it also provides endless possibilities for the imagination. The curiosity and creativity inspired by both factual and story books is an amazing gift that we as educators can share with the children we work with.
Hearing language spoken whilst being read instills an understanding of the links between speech and written words, different dialects and languages as well as an awareness of how books can be used.
Storytelling can take children on epic adventures, share morals and values, provide a safe space to explore emotions and experiences, as well as develop the recognition of letter symbols and phonetic sounds. For all adults caring for children, storytelling is also a time of togetherness and focus; it is time spent on a shared adventure, wherever that story may take you! This quality time, whether in a setting or at home, can be incredibly beneficial for children’s cognitive, social and emotional development.
The power of storytelling was highlighted in a study published in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioural Pediatrics in 2019, which emphasised the difference in the vocabulary of children who regularly read books with adults and those who did not. The research estimated that by the age of five, children with frequent storytelling experiences acquire 1.4 million more words in their vocabulary and understanding.
This increase in vocabulary can also be supported through daily interactions with children as observed within the Montessori approach; consistent use of accurate terminology (e.g. ‘look there’s a foal’ rather than ‘look there’s a baby horse’), positively correcting language (e.g. repeating the child’s sentence back with the correct word ‘yes, he went outside’ rather than pinpointing a mistake ‘we say he went not goed’) as well as providing independent exploration of auto-didactic literacy materials and book corners enable children to develop their pre-literacy and literacy skills at a pace that suits them.
Montessori highlighted a period of sensitivity to language beginning in the womb until five years old. She described observing an explosion of language and literacy skills with very little direct teaching, but through a natural instinct to understand and communicate. If nurtured and supported through an engaging favourable environment, children can flourish during their sensitive period for language.
Throughout childhood, children’s interest in literacy can be supported holistically in all environments they may engage with. Here we share some different perspectives on supporting children’s literacy.
Jen Merritt-Little and her husband are bringing up their two boys in a Montessori inspired home environment with both children now attending a Montessori Primary School. Jen shares their experience and approach to nurturing a love of literacy at home,
‘The number one thing is modelling a love of reading and books. We made sure that we didn’t only read when the boys were in bed or napping but they saw us reading for pleasure regularly. We take weekly trips to the library where they can choose their own books without our input or any judgement. If they show an interest in a specific topic, then I order or borrow books on the subject, not just fact books but narrative non-fiction, books that explain and teach a subject by telling it as a descriptive story.
When our eldest started at his first school he became quite overwhelmed by the reading homework and logging daily reading records, so he went through a year of not reading at all. I think this was down to it becoming all about ‘work’ and not pleasure. We didn’t pressure him and let him listen to lots of audiobooks instead, trying not to make a distinction between listening to and reading books. Now he loves reading.
At the Montessori Primary school they now attend, the boys are aware reading is part of their homework but beyond that it is up to them as to what they read and how long for. At school, they take time to build dens and read in the garden and the teachers know they are book worms, so they don’t need much encouragement!
I recommend finding books that you like reading out loud to your children, so you can enjoy them together. Also, when they are very young be prepared to read the same picture book over and over again repeatedly for weeks!’
Anna Blackman, owner of home-based Montessori setting Mimosa Montessori in Winchester, describes the language rich environment that is fostered in her setting. To discover more about Mimosa Montessori, explore their Instagram page @mimosa_montessori
‘Mimosa Montessori works with children age 16m – 5years in a home-based environment. Our vertical grouping enables very young children to be exposed to language from older peers within a small and supportive environment, similar to that of a large family. Our prepared environment aims to grow children’s vocabulary and love of language from a very young age through our rich conversations at snack and mealtimes, during collaborative play and while outside in nature.
Alongside child to child conversations, we as adults talk to children at their eye level, giving plenty of time for the children to respond and build on the conversation, always naming everything by its proper name.
Children within a sensitive period for language will be particularly open to learning new words with a strong desire to know rich detail about all areas of learning…Our children love to explore language baskets on the shelf to learn new vocabulary and match objects and image cards in a range of areas, often linking in with the children’s current interests.
We rotate books according to our observations of the children – leaving favourites out and adding in new books to grow children’s understanding, always providing books which promote positive role models and challenge stereotypes. Our book corners within the inside and outdoor classrooms are special places for children to read independently and for adults to share books with children, exploring questions and observations together as they arise.’
Bethan Newman, Assistant Head of Aldersbook Primary School in London borough of Redbridge, shares their approach to promoting literacy in the Primary School classroom,
‘We strive for our children to be ‘confident, curious, independent and involved learners.’ We want our children to develop a love of books and reading…The Montessori literacy materials perfectly reflect how young children learn and progress in literacy. Being able to spell words using the alphabet box drives children to want to write and form letters. It is always a joy to see a child’s face after they have spelt their first word using the moveable letters.
The reading areas in our rooms reflect our aims for our Montessori classroom, they are calm and inviting with space for children to relax and access rich texts independently. It is the role of the teacher to show and model their love of reading to the children. We find the promotion of stories and love of reading, develop our children’s own ability to story tell.’
Jeremy Clarke, Senior Montessori consultant at the International Montessori Institute with Leeds Beckett’s Carnegie School of Education, discusses the fundamental aspects of literacy which Montessori educators consider to nurture children’s engagement,
‘In Montessori elementary classrooms, literacy can be seen in all areas and at any time during the school day. The reasons for this are broadly threefold. Firstly, the elementary classroom continues the literacy skills development that begins in the children’s house and utilises the same logical step-by-step approach to introduce and embed concepts such as those associated with more advanced grammar and spelling. By working with individuals, no child is left behind as they receive the support that matches what they need at that moment to develop.
Secondly, the purpose of learning literacy is made clear through its use in the classroom. Children are supported in using their skills as a part of their everyday lives. Reading for pleasure is supported alongside reading to enhance their learning in all other curriculum areas.
Finally, it is the environment that supports these first two aspects. A classroom that allows the freedom of time for a child to genuinely read for pleasure – to get lost in the text and read until satisfied – is a gift that cannot be underestimated. An approach to writing that allows a child to edit, and re-edit their work repeatedly, learning new skills and improving others without an arbitrary time limit or deadline places value on that work, and affords a level of respect that the child deserves.’
James Crawley, MCI’s Talking Montessori webinar host, describes his experience as an educator and how he supported children’s literacy skills whilst working alongside them in the classroom,
‘Follow the child and observe their unique way of learning. If a child loves inventing stories, give them a Dictaphone to explore the sounds and rhythms of language. Become their scribe, writing their story for them. Make it real and the writing will follow.’
Preeti Patel, Head of Education at Montessori Centre International offers an insight into the roots of literacy learning within the Montessori approach,
‘Maria Montessori, more than 100 years ago, recognised that children need a language rich environment with adults who role model and promote the grammatically correct use of language and rich vocabulary. This is now reflected in Montessori settings all over the world. Children’s literacy development is nourished through the interactions with the adults and supported through a wide range of reading and writing learning activities.
Literacy development is a vital part of children’s overall development; it is one of the foundation blocks for life. In order to socialise, make decisions, develop understanding, develop independence, problem solve, manage money and work all individuals need literacy skills. However, before these can be developed children need to develop their ability to speak, to listen, to understand, to follow – spoken word, to concentrate and make marks. Then as children develop further, they will start to make connections between the letters they see on a page and the spoken word. It is therefore vital that early literacy and reading experiences are happy and positive so that children do not just learn to read and write but enjoy reading and writing throughout their life.’
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