Montessori

Montessori Motivation

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We are often amazed at the capabilities of Montessori children.  They bounce home from school each day excited about their learning.  As adults, they tend to be driven and innovative.  How does one cultivate such an attitude toward the world?  How might we guide our children to want to learn?  To want to discover?  To always pursue more without being told they must?  The key lies in what type of motivation we utilize.

Rewards and Punishments

In most traditional education settings around the country teachers use systems of rewards and punishments to drive desired behaviors.  Most of us grew up experiencing this type of system, and it can be easy as parents to occasionally rely on these tactics as well.  These are extrinsic motivators, and they’re more common than you might think.

Rewards are positive and external.  For example, a teacher might give a child a gold star sticker or a special stamp on their paper if a child does well.  They may let children have extra playtime for following directions or a pizza party in exchange for getting their homework done.  Rewards can take many other forms, too, including verbal praise or good grades on a report card.  

Punishments include any negative external motivator.  These include bad grades and removal of privileges, but sometimes include harsher examples.

Believe it or not, there are even more ways to impart subtle, nuanced external motivators.  Any time we make a statement or even use a facial expression that conveys our own pleasure or displeasure with a behavior or action, we are utilizing external motivation.  While these tactics may sometimes work in the short term, research shows they do little for long-term motivation success. 

Intrinsic Motivation

Some forms of motivation don’t come from an outside source at all, but from within the individual.  The good news is, children are born wanting to learn.  We are curious beings and have the innate ability to work for our own joy.

Think of a time you accomplished something great.  How did you feel afterward?  Were you thinking about how others would perceive your accomplishment or were you satisfied with your work for its own sake?  In Montessori schools, we often guide children to reflect on their own feelings after they complete a challenge.  They may come to us, excitedly showing or retelling.  We may be inclined to say, “Good job!”, but those types of statements are better off unsaid.  If we reward a child with our approval, they will work to seek that approval in the future.  If, instead, we ask a child how they feel about the work, or comment on something factual we notice, the drive will remain within them.  We might say, “I noticed you kept trying even when that was challenging.  How do you feel now that you completed it?” or “It seemed like you enjoyed that work.  What will you do next?”  These types of statements make it possible for us to acknowledge a child without placing our own judgements on their experiences.

Research suggests that while external rewards may work occasionally, intrinsic motivation is much more effective.  In one study, preschoolers who loved to draw were divided into three groups: one was told they would receive a reward for drawing, one was told they would not, and a third received an unexpected reward afterward.  Not surprisingly, the group that expected a reward drew for much less time and created less aesthetically appealing drawings.  There was little difference between the other two groups, although they far outperformed the first.  [ https://www.spring.org.uk/2009/10/how-rewards-can-backfire-and-reduce-motivation.php ]

Driving Forces in Academics

So how do Montessori teachers guide children to want to do their work?  As we mentioned before, that’s the easy part.  The desire to work is innate in children.  Our job is to nurture and honor it.  Even the terminology we use is intentional.  Our youngest students aren’t asked to play during the morning cycle, but to work.  We let them know we recognize what they’re doing is important.  It’s work, and we are there to support them in doing that work.

As Montessorians we also believe that a beautiful environment full of enriching materials can serve to motivate children.  We consider what the children before us need, and we carefully select and place appropriate materials on the shelves for them to discover.  

Montessori materials are typically autodidactic.  This means that the learner is able to self-correct their work while they are in the process of completing it.  For example, a child placing wooden cylinders into holes will know they need to adjust their work if the final cylinder doesn’t fit into the final hole.  These built-in corrections allow the child to work and learn directly from the materials without teacher input, essentially furthering the child’s independence and internal motivation.

Montessori guides are also adept at utilizing children’s interests to help them succeed in areas that challenge them.  A child who is reluctant to read but loves dinosaurs may just need a basket of books about dinosaurs.  A child who resists math but adores their friends may need to work cooperatively to find success.  Knowing what sparks a child’s enthusiasm is the key to opening a whole world of academic content.

There are other structures built into the Montessori day that support intrinsic motivation.  The three hour uninterrupted work cycle is one, as is allowing for ample student choice.  The strategies allow children to select work that is meaningful to them, and to spend time really getting deep into that work.  We allow them to fully explore their interests, which is where real creativity and lasting learning take place.  Children feel empowered by their independence, and this in itself drives them to explore deeper learning.

When we teach children to follow their own instincts, even when it comes to learning, we are preparing them for a lifetime of success.  School won’t just be a place they have to go and have information delivered to them; it becomes a place where they look forward to going so that they may discover the world for themselves.

Montessori Basics: Observation

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Montessori classrooms rely heavily on the art of observation.  You may see it in action some time, or you may have an opportunity to try it yourself (which we welcome and encourage!).  If you ever walk past a classroom and see the children working intently, while the guide is quietly sitting in a corner with a clipboard, know that guide is working intently as well.  

Why we do it

Dr. Maria Montessori was a scientist and a physician.  Her education and background helped her look at the world in a way that is different from most traditional educators.  Observation of children was what inspired her work in education, and she used it to develop her methods.  Not only that, but Montessori guides all over the world rely on observation to learn about their students, gain insight about developmental phases, inform our decision-making, and to assess the children’s mastery of skills.  So what are the main goals of observation in the classroom?

  • Planning appropriate lessons - Montessori educators are trained to have extensive knowledge about child development.  While most traditional teacher education programs require students to take a course on the topic, development is essentially the foundation of everything we do as Montessori guides.  Practiced guides know so much about the behaviors of growing children that seemingly insignificant occurrences signal a transition into a new plane of development.  The toddler that has mastered toileting and can be observed spending long amounts of time with practical life activities is making the transition necessary for the primary classroom.  A child nearing six that has lost a tooth and seems suddenly very motivated by social interactions with their peers is moving into the second plane of development and will respond well to lessons involving storytelling and deeper information about cultures around the world.  The challenge of the guide is to identify the moment when a child is entering a sensitive period; this is their development showing they are ready to learn specific skills that must be taught in a way that honors their growth.  

  • Making sure the environment serves the children - While the guide’s role in a child’s education is important, the environment plays an even bigger role.  It is the guide’s job to make sure the classroom environment allows children to find what they need, feel inspired to work, fosters independence, and allows for safety and comfort.  If, during an observation, it is noted that a piece of furniture disrupts the flow of movement, it will be moved at a later time.  If many children prefer to work on the floor, it will be important to note whether there are enough work rugs for them all to use.  If no children have used a specific material in a number of weeks, it may need to be reintroduced or removed from the shelf.  Each item in the classroom must be placed intentionally and with a specific purpose in mind.  If it is no longer serving its intended purpose, reflection and a solution are required.

  • Assessment of skills - The word assess is derived from the Latin form to sit beside.  Montessori schools do not determine mastery with the use of tests, but rather by utilizing observation.  Instead of giving children a piece of paper with questions on it, we watch them in action.  When a child is able to independently place number tiles in random order on a hundred board, we know they have grasped the concept of ordering those numbers.  A child who is able to complete complex patterns within the shape they traced using a metal inset, and who also frequently uses the sandpaper letters correctly is likely ready to learn the written formation of letters using a pencil on a piece of paper.  This assessment, of course, ties back into planning appropriate lessons, as the guide has concrete information to inform their instruction.

What it looks like

  • Formal observations - A Montessori guide will likely observe in the classroom most days, or multiple guides may take turns observing.  These observations typically last between fifteen and thirty minutes, but the amount of time can vary.  While each guide has their own preferred method, they typically sit quietly and use a notebook to record what they observe.  Children are taught about the importance of this work and they know not to disturb the adult at this time.  Sometimes a guide will sit in a specific chair or use a special clipboard to signal to the children that they are working.  For new guides, the temptation to intervene can be powerful, but we learn that unless a child is in danger it’s often best to wait it out and see what happens.  Most classrooms have a second adult that is able to redirect a child who may be overly disruptive, allowing the observing adult to continue.  During this time the guide simply watches and takes lots of notes.  It is important that the notes be strictly observational and that any judgement or inferencing be reserved for another time.

  • Informal observations - During the course of the work period, guides will make a great many observations in the moment.  While walking across the room to retrieve something, while speaking to a child, or even whilst in the middle of a lesson, there are many helpful bits of information a guide can gather and record that will help make the children’s educational experience the best it can be.  As you may imagine, this results in many, many notebooks full of amazing and adorable anecdotes. 

Visitor observation

Whether you are considering Montessori for your child, they are in a program but getting ready to move to a new level, or if you’re just curious and want to learn more about the philosophy, observation is one of the greatest tools available to you.  Even the most experienced guides make time to visit other Montessori schools when possible so that they may observe other classrooms and gather fresh ideas and inspiration.  We invite you to contact us should you be interested in giving it a try.

When you enter a Montessori classroom to observe, it is very important to know that the children will be engaged in their work and the goal is to watch without disturbing them.  In many other scenarios in life, we announce ourselves upon entering a room, perhaps even greeting others enthusiastically.  When observing in the classroom, we ask that visitors refrain from doing these things, tempting as it may be!  You will likely be greeted by an adult or child and directed to a chair.  Having a notebook or clipboard is helpful, as you are sure to experience moments you will want to record.  If a child approaches you and greets you, by all means please feel free to briefly greet them in return.  In general, however, you will need to sit quietly and observe in a way that the children forget you are there, leaving them free to focus on their work.  Montessori children are quite used to visitors, so this shouldn’t be a problem.

Some questions that will help guide your observation include:

  • In what ways are the children displaying independence?

  • How do the children choose their work?

  • What do transitions between work look like?

  • How do the adults respond to the children?

  • How do the children respond to the adults?

  • How do the children interact with one another?

  • How do the children care for their own basic needs?

  • Does anything about the classroom environment surprise you?

When your observation is complete, it is best to slip out of the classroom quietly.  In this situation you are not expected to say any formal goodbyes.

You can do this at home!

While home is very different from the classroom, there are ways that parents can apply the basic concepts of Montessori observation.  While trying to engage with our children, it can be easy to fall into patterns in which we begin directing their play.  Every once in a while, sit back and watch as your child plays.  You may notice them using their toys in surprising ways, and this may give you insight to their interests and maturity.  Similarly, it can be tempting to jump in and help any time your child spills something, falls down, or struggles to do something.  Instead of rushing to the rescue, wait.  If they ask for help, of course, lend a hand, but oftentimes they will want to address the situation themselves.  Watching to see what our children are capable of and nurturing their independence is one of the greatest gifts you can give them.  

As you pay attention and observe your child’s play, eating habits, sleeping habits, and social habits, you may learn many new things about their development.  This, in turn, will allow you to reflect on how you might best support them on their journey through childhood.  Slow down, observe, and enjoy those moments.

Zoology in the Montessori Classroom

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Montessori curriculum tends to give children opportunities to learn about fascinating areas of study very early in their school career.  Science is no exception, and one major component of a Montessori elementary (and even primary!) education is the study of zoology.  This post will highlight the content covered and how students typically explore the work.

Starting with the big picture

In the Montessori world, most areas of study start with the big, overarching picture and gradually narrow down to specifics.  This gives children a firm understanding and context in which they can place the details.  Zoology is no different.

What better way to teach about life on our planet than to begin with a look at the five kingdoms?  Montessori children learn about monera, protista, fungi, plants, and animals.  These early lessons are simple; they describe the major defining characteristics of each kingdom and give a few examples of each (with pictures, of course).  One neat feature of this work is that the lesson can be given to younger children as they first begin to learn about zoology, but can be given again at a later age when children are ready to expand upon this knowledge.  Science material that can be appreciated at different levels of learning is especially handy in a multi-age classroom.

Categorizing

After children learn about the five kingdoms, they begin to categorize the animal kingdom.  The simplest way to do this is to define and sort the vertebrates and invertebrates.  Children learn the evolutionary advantages to having a backbone, when the earliest creatures with spines began their life on earth, and which modern animals have one or don’t.  

After mastering their understanding of vertebrates and invertebrates, children begin their study of the five classes of vertebrates: fish, reptile, amphibian, bird, and mammal.  Once again, this work starts out simple but becomes more complex as time goes on and the child’s knowledge base expands.  

A layered curriculum

A six year old’s study of reptiles will look very different from the study of a child just a year older.  The six year old will likely be at the word level of reading and learning (especially early in the year).  They will learn that a turtle has a head, feet, tail, and a shell made up of a plastron, carapace, and bridge.  You may have noticed that some of these words are quite familiar, and some are most likely brand new and fascinating to the child.  On the other side of the table our seven year old will be studying the body functions of the turtle.  They will discover how the turtle meets its needs for movement, protection, support, circulation, respiration, and reproduction.  This will include information such as the reptile’s three-chambered heart, the fact that it lays leathery eggs, and that it uses lungs to breath in oxygen.

Older students may review this information by playing classification games and asking one another questions (much like a scientific version of the game twenty questions).  They may conduct research on animals they find particularly interesting, which gives them opportunities to explore their own work, learn how to research properly, write a short report, and gather more zoology information.  Eventually they will go on to more deeply explore invertebrates and their contributions during the evolution of life on earth as well as what they look like and function like today.

What are three part cards?

Many areas of study in Montessori classrooms utilize three part cards, particularly in primary classrooms.  While studying zoology, children will use this style of material as they work to define the five classes of vertebrates.  What, exactly, are they?

In the primary classroom, a set will include cards with pictures, cards with labels, and a control card that displays the picture with the label so that the child is able to check their own work.  While something similar may be used with students just entering the elementary level, three part cards at this level tend to look a bit different.  They generally consist of a picture, label, and definition.  While there is a control available as well (often in the form of a booklet or wall chart), the elementary-style cards provide a higher level of reading opportunity so that the child is able to practice multiple academic skills within the same work.

The beauty of three part cards is that children are drawn to them, they have built-in controls that foster independence and self-teaching (after the initial lesson), and a teacher observing a child using them can quickly discern the child’s level of mastery

Extensions and more...

As mentioned before, studying zoology lends itself seamlessly to research projects for older students.  Students of all ages can benefit from art integration as a means of reinforcing concepts while expressing their creative side.  For example, a collage of a fish’s body may be made, which may then be turned into a labeled diagram.  

Did you know that the Montessori study of zoology directly ties into large parts of the elementary history curriculum?  Many of the animals the children study in their science lessons can be found on the Timeline of Life, which is a beautiful and impressionistic material that teaches children about the evolution of life on earth.  Starting with the beginning of the Paleozoic era, in which one-celled organisms and simple life forms floated through the sea, through the Quaternary period and the emergence of early hominids, children are able to see the connections between the various kingdoms and classes, bringing the details of their learning back to the big picture again.

Freedom Within Limits

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“To let the child do as he likes when he has not yet developed any powers of control is to betray the idea of freedom.”  -Maria Montessori

One of the more common misconceptions about Montessori education is that we let the children run free to do what they please all the time.  It is true that we let our students make choices for themselves, not just about their work but about their preferences and even care of their own bodies, but those choices are made within carefully crafted parameters.  To give a child (or any human) choice is to give them empowerment.  To give them choice within boundaries will assist them in becoming the adult they are meant to be.

Why give choice?

When we give children the ability to make their own choices, we are letting them know we trust their decisions.  If children know the adults in their lives trust them, they will begin to trust themselves.  When a person has confidence in their own abilities, their thoughts and energy can be put into new ideas and making progress.

Decision making is a skill that must be learned just like anything else.  From the most basic everyday tasks to major life events, we all need to make choices in our lives.  When we create an environment that allows children to practice this skill and be successful, they are given an opportunity to become successful as they grow older.

Giving choice is also a means of showing respect.  We respect that children should have a say in what they want.  While as adults our role is to keep children safe and guide them, we do not have all the answers nor do we understand what is always best for each child.  Giving kids a say shows them that we honor their autonomy.  

Why place limitations?

While we believe it’s important to give children choices, too many choices can feel overwhelming and be counter-productive.  Placing some limitations keeps their decision-making process safe and manageable.  Children actually want us to define limits for them as boundaries give them a sense of structure that is critical for their development.

Think about the last time you went to a typical grocery store.  Just deciding on a box of cereal can seem like huge task!  There are so many choices, and while it feels good to have options, there can definitely be too much of a good thing.

Another benefit of placing limitations on choices is that we can create a scenario in which any choice made will achieve the desired results.  If we want children to practice a specific skill, we can give two or three options that will allow them to do so.  If we want them to complete a certain task or meet a goal, we can envision different paths that will lead to the same destination and let them decide which they would like to take.

What does this look like in the classroom?

When it comes to academic work, Montessori children get to make choices about which work they will focus on, where they sit, who they sit with, and in what order they do things.  They move about their mornings with a sense of purpose, because they get to call the shots in regards to their own education.  In a structure like this, school doesn’t feel so much like a place where you go to receive knowledge that’s being given to you; it’s a place where you go to explore, learn authentically, and immerse yourself in work that’s important to you.

With all those choices, it’s important for teachers to create an environment that sets kids up for success.  Montessori guides only give children lessons on materials they are ready for.  They only put materials on the shelves that the children as a group are ready for.  The materials they do put out are so beautiful and interesting that the children cannot help but want to choose them.  

Even when it comes to taking care of themselves, we want children to be in charge.  We create structures that allow them to eat when they are hungry, use the restroom when they feel the need, and to rest or move their bodies as they see fit.  Most Montessori classrooms have a snack table that children can sit at whenever there is a seat available (limiting this to two chairs is one way guides make snack socializing manageable).  Children don’t need to ask permission to use the restroom; we make sure they have access to a toilet that they can use at any time.  The furniture in our classrooms are arranged in such a way so as to encourage safe avenues to body movement, individual seating, group seating, floor seating, or table and chair options.  As adults we need variation and choice to be productive and we recognize that children do as well. 

Our job as Montessori educators is to create the conditions for children to independently make decisions that will help them grow and develop.  We want them to explore who they are, to learn about each other, and to gain basic academic skills.  We want to cultivate inquisitiveness, leadership skills, and a sense of humble independence.  All of these goals can be met through careful planning of a classroom environment that facilitates choice within limits. 

What might this look like in the home?  

It can help to observe in your child’s classroom to get ideas.  If you are just getting started with offering choice at home, it can help to focus on just a few areas in the beginning.  Food, clothing, and entertainment are good places to start.

While we do not advocate making separate meals for everyone in your home (this can quickly lead to picky eating habits), kids can have some say in mealtime choices.  Find ways you are willing to be a little flexible and ask their opinion.  Perhaps they can choose some fruits or vegetables at the grocery store, or help decide what gets packed into their lunches.  If you have several dinners planned for the week, your child could help decide which one to have on a particular night and then help you prepare it.  When it comes time to eat, let your child practice serving themselves, while reminding them about the importance of not wasting food and only taking as much as we expect to eat. 

Getting dressed for the day is great time to practice decision making.  This tends to be one area that requires the most intentional release of control from us as parents, as young children tend to have quite the eccentric tastes when it comes to personal style!  Keeping weather and activities of the day in mind, set some guidelines and let your child pick out their own clothes.  Some Montessori experts recommend only putting desirable options in the child’s drawers.  If this isn’t feasible, even young children can follow simple directions such as, “Please choose something with short sleeves and long pants.”  Expect combinations you would never choose for yourself and remember that this is an important step in their development and self-expression.  How we dress is one way we present ourselves to the world and letting your child make these choices tells them you trust that they know who they are.

When it comes to having fun, children love to give input.  If you read stories at bedtime, your child could select whatever number of books you decide, or they could choose from a pre-selected few that you give them.  If you let your child watch television, give them a pool of shows that you feel are appropriate to choose from.  If you want to get them outside, ask them if they would rather go to the playground or ride their bike.  The key is to consider your true objective, then present multiple ways to achieve that goal.  

We hope that this post has been helpful, and we would love to hear how you implement choice at home!

Math Fact Memorization: Montessori & Current Research

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When someone starts talking about memorization of math facts, people tend to have strong opinions.  We all had a variety of experiences as children ourselves, and those experiences coupled with notions of best practices in education can cause for heated debates.  In today’s post we would like to share the results of recent research on the topic.  At first glance, the results may seem at odds with Montessori theory, but upon further examination this couldn’t be further from the truth.  Read on to find out why our materials and methods can provide children with exactly what this “new” information suggests they need.

The Findings

This summer Paul L. Morgan, Ph.D. published an interesting article for Psychology Today.  Morgan works at Penn State as a professor in the education department as well as Director of the Center for Educational Disparities Research.  He and several colleagues (George Farkas and Steve Maczuga) conducted research to investigate instructional practices and their effects on student achievement.  Their specific focus was on first grade classrooms in math.  

The researchers observed a variety of students and classrooms and determined that the only teaching method that had a positive effect on student achievement was teacher-directed instruction, as opposed to student-centered.  [This is the part where those of us who adore Montessori will audibly gasp, but keep reading!]

Morgan, Farkas, and Maczuga define teacher-directed as the following: “Teachers initially demonstrate specific procedures for solving problems, and then provide students with repeated opportunities (e.g., worksheets, routine practice and drills) to independently practice these procedures. Teacher-directed practices should help students increase their procedural fluency in applying explicitly taught and repeatedly practiced sets of procedures to solve mathematics problems, which should result in more effective use of higher order thinking and problem-solving skills.”

What Do Montessori Teachers Do?

According to the researchers’ definition of teacher-directed learning, this is exactly the approach that is taken in regards to students learning their basic math facts in Montessori classrooms.  Our initial reaction is simply a result of semantics and misconceptions.  Do Montessori teachers utilize worksheets and drills?  Well, not exactly, but we still meet the definition in other ways.

One of the most common misconceptions about Montessori education is that the children are let to do whatever they want all the time.  Some people think that choice is the driving force (it is, at least in part) and the students run amok.  Anyone who has spent any time learning about Montessori or observing in a classroom knows the opposite to be true.  Montessori is really all about choice within limits.  Teachers create an environment rich with materials that call to the children, and while they do have lots of decision-making opportunities, they are only provided with options that will lead them to meet desired outcomes.  The same is true for math fact instruction and practice.  

Let’s get down to the facts: in Montessori classrooms, the teachers provide direct fact memorization instruction.  At the lower elementary level in particular, one will find shelves stocked with materials that were designed to aid the process of math fact memorization.  Typically a teacher will give a child a lesson on a material to explain how it is to be used, and then detail their expectations to the child.  Children are generally going to be practicing and recording their facts on a daily basis.  Montessorians believe that while understanding the concept of why we manipulate numbers and having a visual representation helps children in the long run, we agree that when it comes down to it those basic facts really need to be memorized with an emphasis on speed and accuracy.  This is one of the reasons our children are able to solve larger complex operations problems at a younger age than children in many traditional settings.

Bead Cabinet

Bead Cabinet

Taking a closer look at specific materials, how they are used, and their intended outcomes may help to refine these points.

  • The bead chains/bead cabinet: Children begin using this material as early as 3 years old.  While the initial purpose is for children to learn to count, during the elementary years that skip counting translates into speedy memorization of multiplication tables.  The transition tends to be fairly smooth, as they’ve already been practicing for years!  Bonus: the same material will help them understand squares and cubes just a little further down the road in their school career.

  • Addition and subtraction strip boards: While a student initially uses these materials to explore the concept of adding and subtracting, they quickly notice patterns and build speed as they gain confidence.  These materials are typically introduced at age 5 or 6.

  • Multiplication and division bead boards: Like the strip boards, these are initially used by students to gain a basic understanding of the concept.  As they master individual facts, they naturally start to create shortcuts for themselves and a trained Montessori teacher will observe that they are ready to move on to more challenging materials.

  • Finger boards: Created for each of the four operations, these materials are essentially wooden versions of the classic fact charts.  Children are slow to fill them in the beginning, but after repeated practice they build speed and accuracy.  Control charts are readily available for immediate feedback, ensuring that even when a child is practicing independently they will be able to know whether they are answering correctly or not.

  • Blackline masters: Montessori teachers have blackline masters, which are essentially paper copies of the finger boards, that are available for children.  Children are expected to complete the material and then record the information on the paper version, thus providing another layer of repetition.  

Room for Improvement?

If there is one area that many math teachers (Montessori and otherwise) could stand to improve upon when it comes to math facts, it would be taking the time to target math fact instruction.  Making sure our students are practicing daily, quickly, and accurately is critical, but might we also help them practice smarter?

Sitting down with each individual child to gather a quick assessment periodically can make a huge difference in progress.  While gathering data in this fashion is time-consuming, we may find it well worth the effort.  Teachers can sit with a child and quickly run through a chart of facts, asking the child for answers orally.  Highlight the facts the child can answer quickly and confidently, leaving the others blank.  Teachers make a copy of this sheet so that the student can keep it to reference.  When it’s time to practice math facts, children can focus on the ones they haven’t yet memorized, rather than eating up time going over the facts they’ve already mastered.

If you are interested in reading more about Dr. Morgan’s work, follow the links to his article and the research findings:

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/children-who-struggle/201808/should-us-students-do-more-math-practice-and-drilling

http://journals.sagepub.com/stoken/rbtfl/J2BxFXoAWRPSo/full

The Keys to Handwriting Success

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This is not a news flash:
Handwriting instruction is disappearing in schools across the United States.

You’ve probably already heard this sad revelation, and while it’s certainly not true for all schools, more and more are eschewing handwriting instruction to make more time for other, standards-based skills.  The result is a generation of children who are not gaining a sense of how important it is to be able to write beautifully and they are simply not learning cursive – period.  

If this makes you cringe, here’s the good news: people are noticing and speaking up, and some schools are finding ways to fit handwriting back into the schedule.  Even better news?  Montessori schools never dropped it in the first place.  Read on to learn more about how this 100+ year-old educational approach guides children in the art of writing beautifully.

Indirect Preparation

If you walk into a Montessori toddler or primary classroom, you will see very young children working with materials that develop fine motor skills.  While fine motor proficiency can serve children in a wide variety of ways, Montessori intentionally created materials that strengthen the hand as indirect preparation for handwriting.

Each time a three-year-old lifts a knobbed cylinder they are developing proper pincer grip.  This same action is repeated in many other materials.  The child may be working to joyfully refine a sensorial skill, but at the very same time their tiny fingers are slowly working their way toward being able to hold a pencil correctly.

Many Montessori materials are designed to be used working from left to right in order to prepare the child to move in that direction while writing.  Even the materials themselves are organized in a left to right fashion on the shelves.

Manipulating a Pencil

Long before they are ready to write a story (or even a word!), Montessori children begin learning how to carefully manipulate a pencil.  The metal insets are a beautiful material that were designed specifically to prepare the hand for writing.  While the shapes in the material are reminiscent of a geometry lesson, that is not the primary intention.  What’s meant to be the focus is the teaching of a variety of handwriting skills, including pencil grip, applying appropriate pressure, moving the pencil left to right, and further strengthening the muscles of the hand to build stamina.

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Early Letter Formation

Montessori primary classrooms are equipped with a special material that helps children learn how to form letters.  The sandpaper letters are wooden tiles with letters made out of a sand-textured surface.  The children use their fingers to trace the shape of each letter, and later use the tiles as a reference while learning to write for the first time.  

Another option for children to practice letter formation is to use their finger and ‘draw’ the letters in a small tray of sand.  Both sand writing and using the sandpaper letters appeals to the sensorial nature of the primary child, making these activities fun.  

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Cursive or Print?

By the time a Montessori student is 4 or 5 years old they begin writing joyfully because they are well prepared.  Montessori schools typically focus on teaching children to write in cursive, even in the primary classroom.  We have found that there are many benefits to emphasizing this style over manuscript/print writing.

Learning to write in cursive has many advantages:

  • It’s nearly impossible to reverse letters in cursive.

  • Cursive writers can read print, but the reverse is not always true.

  • The ligatures in cursive may help early readers see groups of letters (oa, ing, th, and so on).

  • The flow of cursive words allows the writer to focus on the ideas of the writing rather than the formation of individual letters in isolation.

A Continuation

When children enter a Montessori elementary program, their teacher will emphasize the mastery of cursive writing and take the time to review any letters or skill gaps they may have.  From here on, children practice constantly.  They have notebooks they are expected to record their daily work in, and that work is expected to be written beautifully and neatly.  Not only that, but the children themselves take great pride in the beauty of their own writing.

As time goes on, students do eventually learn skills such as keyboarding.  Fortunately, they have been given a foundation that emphasizes the power of neat handwriting.  In our fast-paced, shortcut-filled world, it’s nice to think that our children will grow up to enjoy sitting down to craft a thoughtful letter, using a pen, some paper, and their own hand.