The Montessori Alternative: Reading Without the Basal

By Ken Wald

At MacDowell Montessori School, a public school in Milwaukee, children are learning to read with a Montessori approach to the teaching of language skills. We absolutely don’t need the basal reader for instruction. There are three essential elements for a child to learn to read in a Montessori classroom. These elements are the beginning of instruction at three years of age, the exploration of the universe by the elementary child, and the freedom to work cooperatively with their peers.

Dr. Maria Montessori developed her approach through her observation of children three through five years. She applied her conclusions to the language arts. For example, she noted that children about four years old loved to explore through a sense of touch. Children from six months through five years are fascinated with language. She put these two together and cut out letters from sandpaper. She presented these to the children as sounds of letters, not names. This led the children to the blending of sounds, to building their own words, and eventually to writing. In Montessori classrooms writing comes before reading.

At MacDowell, the children begin the program at the age of three or four, and are present basic phonics with the result being the memorization of consonant sounds and vowels. The children form the shapes of the letters using tactile materials to improve fine motor skills and to internalize the sound and shape together. Children use a movable alphabet (cut-out cardboard letters) and later they begin to create sentences or short stories with this material. We also challenge children to memorize non-phonetic words which we call puzzle words such as: the, was, are, and of.

Montessori observed a profound change in childen about the age of six. She noted that the children 0 to 5 years old are interested in facts, they use their senses to explore the world, and they seem to take in information without analyzing it. About the time the child reaches the age of six, the child wants to explore and understand the world beyond his home or his classroom. They begin to question why and how things happen. Learning for them is not what the teacher can give to them but what the children can discover. Tied with these characteristics of discovery and curiosity is the ability to envision something they can’t see which we call imagination. Also, they are drawn to the extraordinary: things such as the largest flower, the vast numbers of insects on Earth or dinosaurs.

Since exploration is a psychological characteristic of the child from six to twelve-years, research is important to the children. The teacher presents a lesson to give an impression or tells a historically based story to fire the imagination but only gives some of the facts to allow the rest to be discovered by the child.

Reading Throughout the Curriculum

In Montessori classrooms, reading is not a separate subject. Instead, it’s integrated throughout the curriculum.. The reading content is not one programmed basal but the content areas of all the sciences, history, math and geography which we call our cultural studies. The teacher also presents a story on the history of spoken and written language; This leads the children to study the etymology of words and the history of literature.

One tool available to us is the use of Montessori-unique booklets which we cal} the nomenclature. These are specially produced booklets with illustrations, definitions of the terms and the term highlighted in red ink. The children learn the names and definitions of concepts and objects through the use of-these books after the presentation of the concepts involved. The nomenclature booklets enable the child to encounter the word first in isolation and then defined in sentence. There are traditional nomenclature booklets for Zoology, Botany, Geography, History, and Geometry. For instance, after a lesson on the function of a flower, a flower nomenclature book is studied by the child to learn the names and functions of the individual parts of a flower. Resource books accompany and are extensions of these booklets and we teach the children research techniques.

The Montessori teacher will have lessons and lead discussions with the children to determine the questions to answer in their research. Information is collected and written in their own works. Often students work together and naturally analyze and comprehend reading material for each other. Good readers teach new vocabulary to less able readers. Lessons on the use of indexes, table of contents’, and library skills are essential. The classroom should have books, encyclopedias, and references ranging from early reading ability and above. Children write facts on slips of paper and then order and group these slips for a final draft. The child and teacher further edit for good sentences, punctuation, capitalization, and spelling. With discovery as the motivation, research is a key to comprehension and writing skills.

Children As Initiators

Peer cooperation and peer tutoring is encouraged and developed in the elementary classroom. The class make-up is multi aged. There are three class groupings of children: three to six years old, six to nine years old, and nine to twelve years old. As the teacher is presenting lessons to small groups or individuals, the other children are pursuing their academic interests and responsibilities, and work completion is flexible, determined by the child’s need or satisfaction. Even without teacher encouragement, children naturally work together, check each other’s work and teach new vocabulary. In these classes, the children are the teachers, and the adult is the facilitator.

Recently, I was excited by a spontaneous learning experience in my class. After a teacher-directed exercise of the poem “The Owl and the Pussy Cat” by Edward Lear, the children spontaneously began to dramatize and memorize poetry such as “Casey at the Bat” and poems by Langston Hughes. They taught each other words, choreographed actions to the words, and memorized parts from the poems. All I did was put the poems in the classroom and give the children the freedom to work in groups with them. I was delighted to hear two six year-old remedial readers recite by memory “The Owl and the Pussy Cat,” each taking a line in turn.

The Montessori reading approach immerses the child into the application of reading by stimulating the natural interest in topics of science, history, and culture that children will research and discover together. Reading is not an isolated learning experience like the basal system, but a tool refined by the child’s natural curiosity about planetary history and the printed word.

Ken Wald is a teacher at the MacDowell Montessori School in Milwaukee.