The Montessori way

EDUCATION BEAT

Pioneers: Montessori educators teach reading by breaking skills down into small, easy tasks that children as young as 2 find enjoyable.

May 16, 1999|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

A MONTESSORI class is an orchestra. The teacher is the conductor and students the players. But each player is working on a different part of the symphony -- with the teacher's blessing and guidance.

When I entered Sulocha Fernandopulle's primary class one morning last week at the Montessori School in Lutherville, not a head turned to inspect the visitor. Twenty-six kids ages 2 1/2 to 6, the teacher and her assistant, all were too busy.

Several of the children were working in pairs or trios, but most were alone, absorbed in reading and pre-reading activities.

Justin, 5, was writing a short story about Africa, using color-coded letters -- blue for vowels, pink for consonants -- from a flat box known as the "movable alphabet." His story was spread out on his mat, his personal work space. (Perhaps a future journalist, he started with his byline.)

Another 5-year-old, Andrew, proudly showed me his own written story. He'd titled it "The Boy Hw Cod Wof" -- "The Boy Who Cried Wolf." Andrew had the famous story down pat. No one criticized his misspellings. He's only 5, after all, and at Montessori, invented spelling is not a sin.

Nearby, Michael, 2 1/2, was matching jigsaw pictures of logical mates -- hammer and nails, for example. In the corner, Rebecca, 4, was drawing in a shallow box of sand. She used her fingers and a miniature rake and tiny fan to create imaginative patterns.

Those patterns eventually would become letters. Those letters would become words. For now, though, the point was to develop Rebecca's hand-muscle control. She's just learning to grasp a pencil.

Teacher Fernandopulle, a 25-year veteran, and her intern assistant, Shannon Brown, were orchestrating all of this. They moved from student to student, usually on their knees. I counted 15 different activities, and there may have been more in a class of 26 kids of five ages. Where there were small groupings of two or three, older students were "peer teaching" younger classmates.

This is the world devised by Maria Montessori, an Italian physician -- the first female doctor in Italy -- who spent the first half of this century developing a philosophy of child growth and a rationale for guiding it.

No dummy, Montessori. She knew that when the sap of puberty rises, it's too late. Get 'em while they're young and naturally curious, and engage them actively in their own learning.

Montessori put sound, smell, taste and feel into learning. Montessori classrooms are filled with objects and gadgets designed for the enjoyable manipulation of youngsters. You don't want Montessori's bill for scissors, colored paper and Elmer's glue.

Sandpaper letters, for example. These are bright pink or blue wooden squares with a sandpaper cut-out of each letter glued to the center. The child traces the sandpaper shape with the index and middle finder and says the sound the letter makes. He's seeing, feeling and speaking, even if he isn't yet "reading."

The movable alphabet is a key to prereading instruction. The teacher gives a 4-year-old the word "cat." The child breaks the word into individual sounds, then searches in the movable alphabet for the letters that make the sounds.

Thus, the child will hear the pure consonant sound of "c," recall which letter makes that sound, search for the "c" in the movable alphabet and place it on her mat. Same thing for "a" and "t." Then, putting them together, the child will see the composed word "cat."

She isn't expected to "read" the word, though. She moves on to more advanced words, phrases, sentences and even stories. Eventually, she begins to read what she has "written."

It's pure phonics, of course, and there are those who say children who will naturally become proficient readers -- as most of these children will -- shouldn't have to waste time on phonics.

Montessori educators disagree. Reading, they argue, is a complex skill best taught when broken down into smaller, easier tasks, and when the instruction progresses from the concrete to the abstract.

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