Just as every child is unique, so is every teaching context. Increasingly in our global community these teaching contexts involve children who are learning English in addition to another language or languages being spoken at home. A Montessori prepared environment is particularly suitable for facilitating second language acquisition and requires little if any adaptation to meet the needs of children learning English who are being immersed in the language.

A wealth of language is naturally generated through presentation of and practice with the materials, even where these do not have language as their main aim (for example, working with the Pink Tower could generate language such as cube, square, smaller than, bigger than, it looks like…, I think it is…, Let’s see if…, build, put on top of, knock down and much more, depending on the child). Due to the child having chosen the activity themselves, they are already interested and self-motivated, thus making learning new vocabulary and practicing both productive (i.e. speaking and later writing) and receptive (i.e. listening and later reading) language skills, more effective.

As Montessori materials tend to be concrete objects, children learn through action; new language can be readily absorbed using this multi-sensory approach because the child is activating many of their senses as they engage with the materials. Whether they are primarily auditory, kinaesthetic, or visual learners, by engaging their senses and using their hands to manipulate objects, children’s experiences naturally become committed to memory, along with the language that is used to describe them.


Using the 3 period lesson

Because correct terminology is used as a matter of course in the Montessori classroom, it is naturally rich in lexis. The three-period lesson (3PL) is an ideal way to introduce new vocabulary to non-native speakers as it takes them in a focussed way from passive knowledge (stage 2, where the child demonstrates understanding but does not actually produce the new word/s) to active knowledge (stage 3, where the child produces the new vocabulary).

With regard to production of the target language, it is important to respect each child’s approach to learning. Some children simply jump in and start experimenting with the new language. Unsurprisingly, it is rarely helpful to intervene directly to correct a child’s grammar or pronunciation at this stage of early exploration; surrounded by rich models of the target language they will soon develop in fluency as well as accuracy. Other children however adopt a different approach, listening and absorbing without speaking much (if at all), sometimes for weeks or even months. As long as the child is content and attentive to their environment this is nothing to be concerned about; they are absorbing language all the time and will speak when they are ready, sometimes going from beginner level to producing full sentences in one leap. As ever the best approach is to follow the child.


Using the Montessori literacy materials

As with any child, it is only through careful observation that the teacher can determine potential readiness for embarking on the literacy materials. With children learning English as an additional language, it is important to take into account their level of literacy in their first language in order to determine existing strengths and weaknesses, and also to be aware of possible “interference” from this language (for example, children who can already read or write in languages that read from right to left, or vertically, will need to be shown that in English text runs from left to right and horizontally). The sandpaper letters, large movable alphabet, and insets for design require no adaptation, assuming the child is ready to be introduced to them.


Other pre-literacy and literacy activities

Just about any activity, game, song or book can be used with children learning English. It is important to think carefully about the aims, both in terms of vocabulary to introduce and/or revise and in terms of the skills to be practiced, which can be either receptive (listening and later reading, where the child is receiving information in the target language) or productive (speaking and later writing, where the child is producing information in the target language). These four main skills can be further broken down into sub skills to practice, for example listening for gist, or narrating a story from picture prompts. Aims should be as specific as possible (e.g. ‘use the Rainbow Song to revise colour words’, or ‘play Twenty Questions to practice asking yes/no questions’, rather than just ‘practice speaking’).

Some activities that work particularly well:

  • Card games such as Go Fish, Memory, Snap etc – can be geared towards specific vocabulary depending on the cards used, and can also generate lots of authentic classroom language
  • I Spy, Twenty Questions, Odd One Out – in other words the same sort of pre-literacy games you would play with native speakers, but with vocabulary chosen for and graded to suit the children you are working with
  • Total Physical Response (TPR). The teacher first gives a command and demonstrates it (e.g. says “hop” and hops), then gives the command for students to follow (e.g. says “hop” and students hop). Ultimately, after some repetition to insure that the students fully comprehend the new language, students are invited to give the command themselves.
  • Kim’s Game: Begin by putting around 8-10 objects representing vocabulary you want to revise on a tray, then cover the tray and remove an object. Show the tray again and ask the child to tell you which item has been taken. Children can also set up their own trays for others to “play”. (The Montessori stereognostic or mystery bag could work in a similar way.)


In conclusion

Finally, regardless of your teaching context, make use of any knowledge of languages other than English that you can access – a quick survey of children’s families, school staff, your neighbours and friends etc. may surprise you! Use these languages as a resource, both for the benefit of your children learning English and to broaden the horizons of other children as well.

A few other activities:

  • Mark on maps where children come from and link this to the curriculum
  • Learn and use some new words or phrases in the different languages of your class (greetings and numbers work well)
  • Ask family or friends to come in and read a familiar story to the children in a foreign language, or teach a song, or do a cooking project – this offers authentic experiences for all the children in the class, as well as cross-cultural opportunities to explore language

Activities such as these will raise awareness about different languages with all the children in your class, while giving your second-language learners additional confidence and creating language-rich experiences for all of you.

First published in Montessori International, issue 87