That we must strive to ensure children have a strong foundation in spoken language is one of Montessori’s most important lessons, says Barbara Isaacs…
Long before Piaget, Montessori recognised that children develop in stages, and that each stage is unique and essential to their subsequent development. She named the first stage the Absorbent Mind – this being the time when children need an environment where they are given freedom to move and explore using their senses, supported by an empathetic adult. A hundred years on, we take these principles for granted. However, it is always helpful to reflect on how Montessori perceived the first six years of life and why exploration, communication and the child’s uniqueness remain at the heart of her pedagogy.
Montessori identified and named the genetic traits of all human beings ‘human tendencies’. These natural predispositions for exploration, orientation, creativity, gregariousness and communication manifest themselves in ‘sensitive periods’: unique periods of time, when the child is interested in and repeats certain actions, such as climbing stairs, or is attracted to the same small objects such as stones on a path or to the same nursery rhyme or story book. For observing adults there doesn’t seem to be a particular purpose to these actions, yet they have a significant meaning for the child, supporting what Montessori describes as “psychological maturation”.
Montessori describes the sensitive period for language as the longest, spanning from the womb to about six/seven years of age. Starting with what appears to be the passive (or dormant) stage, when the child needs to hear language spoken, Montessori advocates that the infant gets involved in the sounds of his/her environment. She urges the prime carer to take the child to the market and engage in family life. She warns of the sterility of the nursery where the child lacks the auditory stimulation of daily life.
She also refers to cultures and communities where the child accompanies the mother in virtually every aspect of her life by virtue of being carried by her in a sling or tied to her back. However, for this infant the opportunities to explore the environment by being physically free may be limited, and we know from the work of Sally Goddard Blythe and Sue Gerhardt that opportunities for exploration go hand in hand with language development of the child.
Facilitating exploration once the infant begins to walk will be linked with his/ her explosion into language – the height of the sensitive period for language, which is likely to last 18 to 24 months. This is the stage when the toddler begins to name objects and point to others of interest. The carer should always give the correct name as the child is exploring an object; this will enhance and develop cognitive understanding as well as extend vocabulary. Montessori urges us not to use baby language because the child has enormous capacity to absorb the new words at this period in his/her life. So a flower found in the garden should be named as daisy, rose or sunflower, and the tiny insect crawling in the grass as ant, earwig or ladybird.
As the toddler begins to express more complex ideas through short phrases and first sentences, the sensitive adult will mirror, extend and respond to ensure that the child’s language skills are extended and that the child feels supported in his/her efforts to express ideas, feelings and discoveries. Listening to children of this age whilst playing gives the adult real opportunities to assess their level of language skills and identify possible areas for further development.
Spoken language supported by songs, rhymes and sharing of books and opportunities for role play provides the best foundation for the next stage of the sensitive period for language when the child is gradually introduced to the printed word and how to decode it and express his/her ideas through writing. Without a strong foundation in spoken language, this next stage of the sensitive period for language becomes a real challenge both for the child and the educator.
Barbara Isaacs is the academic director of Montessori Centre International.