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by Sandra Besselsen
Thursday, January 27, 2022
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Walking into a Montessori elementary classroom, you will more than likely find a group of children moving beads from tubes to a set of boards, as well as transferring these colorful beads between one another. From a distance, it may look like the children are playing with beads. But on closer observation, the children are actually discussing and working through a long division problem. At each level, the Montessori classroom is equipped with a wide variety of materials to assist the child in their learning. This group of materials is designed to aid the child as they pass from a concrete to an abstract understanding.  

As children first learn about numbers, quantity is introduced first. This is concrete. The child can see and hold the quantity. Once quantity is understood, numeric symbols are introduced. When ready, the child is asked to associate the quantity (concrete) with the symbol (abstract).  

When it comes to learning place value, operations, fractions, equivalence, area, etc, the child works with materials first. The colors and movement through the materials are an intentional progression to help the child understand mathematical concepts in their concrete form. Practice with the materials are repeated often as new steps and ideas are presented. It is in this concrete work, manipulation and exploration of materials, that the mind comes to a complete understanding of the concept. 

Children work and grow gradually toward abstraction. Each child will need varying amounts of repetition using the materials. Eventually, they will come to the point of working with paper and pencil only, as most of us were taught to do from the beginning. This will be easy work for them because a clear, deep understanding has already been made with the materials. As adults, we have to be patient not to rush the process. It is in this process that children are also learning patience, perseverance, and teamwork.

This idea of moving from the concrete to the abstract is most easily seen in the area of math, but materials are used in many other areas of the classroom to aid in the understanding of other concepts. Even as children learn the parts of speech and begin to analyze (diagram) sentences, they associate shapes and symbols with each of these parts. Maria Montessori wanted children to have an experience while learning about writing. Impressionistic charts are used in biology and geography to give a visual representation of important ideas, appealing to the imagination of the child.  

All of these materials are vital to the prepared elementary environment. They allow the children to access abstract concepts in a tangible way. The materials give children concrete experiences that make way for a deeper understanding of the world around them.  

"Education is a natural process carried out by the human individual, and is acquired not by listening to words, but by experiences in the environment.”

~Maria Montessori

by Megan Fellows
Thursday, January 13, 2022
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Many of us who grew up attending traditional schools learned to read before we learned to write. We were taught the names of letters before learning the sound made by each letter. However, the Montessori sequence of lessons gives children opportunities to write before they even begin to read. 

The intellectual process of writing in the primary classroom begins with spoken language activities like storytelling, poems, songs, and sound games. These activities give children the vocabulary and ideas they need to express themselves through writing. Children are also directly prepared with the Sandpaper Letters. The Sandpaper Letters allow the child to use tactile, auditory, and visual modalities to identify the graphic symbols that represent sounds. 

To understand writing in the Montessori environment, it is important to understand the process of reading and writing in general. When an individual reads, they are reading someone else’s thoughts rather than their own. They are also identifying symbols and attaching sounds in a short period of time. Therefore, reading involves decoding, fusing sounds and attaching meaning all while being under a time constraint. Writing, on the other hand, starts with a thought already known by the child and then involves identifying a sound, attaching a symbol, and transcribing. Dr. Montessori designed a material called the Moveable Alphabet that removes the challenge of transcribing, making early writing a much simpler process. All the child has to do is identify the sounds and corresponding symbols of a word. This material is unique to the Montessori Method and the key piece to early writing. 

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As the child works to identify individual sounds in words to write, they are also learning the code to reading. The child in a Montessori environment is given repeated and frequent opportunities to make their own words first. This eventually results in what Dr. Montessori described as a spontaneous explosion into reading. Once a child understands how to decode phonetic words, they begin to study and incorporate phonograms, sight words, alternative spellings, parts of speech, sentence structure, and the importance of word order. All of this work supports the child to reach total reading. Total reading is not only the mechanical ability to decipher letters and words, but also the intellectual ability to understand what we read, allowing us to create mental images of what is being described. 

At around the same time a child is learning the intellectual process of writing, they are developing the mechanical skills needed for the art of handwriting. These handwriting lessons come after years of indirect preparation of the hand and support the child to eventually transcribe their thoughts without the Movable Alphabet. Children also learn to write in cursive because it lends itself to the natural movement of the hand and leads to fewer reversals of letters. When the child begins to read, they will read text in print and begin to differentiate the two styles.

The thoughtful progression of language presentations in a Montessori environment supports children to joyfully and effortlessly acquire the skills needed to write and read. Adults must provide a rich language environment but also recognize that every child will begin the process in their own time.