Words, Words, Words: Oral Language in The Montessori Classroom

Words, Words, Words: Oral Language in The Montessori Classroom
By: Anisa Foy

The Montessori philosophy is that the child goes through learning cycles where he/she is irresistibly drawn to a learning activity. This is termed a “sensitive period” for an activity. From birth to age six, the child is going through the sensitive period for language and is able to absorb any language presented with the greatest of ease. This is the reason why children have a much easier time picking up the languages they are exposed to, while adults find it difficult.

In Montessori education, we capitalize and make use of the sensitive period for language as soon as the child arrives in the primary room. We surround the child with words that describe his/her world. Of course, the primary child is unable to read on arrival, so how are the words presented? Through direct experience with the objects being named. The acquisition of language in the primary years is termed
“Sensorial Language” as the child gets to see, feel, touch, hear, taste, and even smell the names they are being given.

A brief description of all the words a primary child will acquire in the first three primary years is mind-boggling and includes:

  1. Objects of the environment, playground, park, library, all parts of a home, all furniture in a home, and any place a child may visit.
  2. Names of fruit, vegetables, and food.  
  3. Names for all the sensorial materials in the room and all the concepts they teach, with comparative and superlative language for each concept. Example: thick, thicker, and thickest.
  4. Names of colors and shades of color, with comparative and superlative language.
  5. Names for every shape in the geometric cabinet. Examples: rectangle, square, trapezoid, parallelogram, triangle, circle, oval, ellipse and many more.
  6. Names for all the geometric solids. Examples: sphere, ellipsoid, prism, ovoid, pyramid and so on.
  7. Names for all superimposed figures. Examples: concentric, tangent, adjacent, and inscribed.
  8. Names for all the shapes of leaves in the leaf cabinet. Example: spatulate, linear, elliptic, ovate, etc.
  9. Globes in the geography section. Examples:  land surface, water surface, continents and oceans.
  10. Puzzle Maps with the name of all continents, oceans, and names of countries.
  11. Zoological forms through cards showing life cycles and names of living objects.
  12. Rough and smooth boards, fabric boxes, thermic bottles, and baric tablets, which give the child experience and names for each experience.
  13. Sound boxes, tasting bottles, smelling bottles, which give the child experience and names for each experience.
  14. Collections of pictures dealing with social environments with names for different areas depicted.
  15. Pictures of different animals with names of each, including names of male, female and young.   

The main purpose behind exposing the child to all this vocabulary at such an early age is two-fold. The first is to take advantage of the sensitive period for language which is very strong from birth to age six. The second purpose is to build the child’s self-confidence by providing words in which he/she may correctly express ideas, thought and description. A child arrives with limited means of self-expression and may appear hesitant and shy. As their vocabulary grows, they more confidently participate in oral language presentations in which small groups are shown artwork, social scenes, and activities and they are encouraged to talk about what they see.

In my early years in the primary room, a little girl age 4 came in totally unable to express herself coherently. She made sounds and appeared to be conversing animatedly but what came out was total gibberish, and she appeared upset when no one understood her. After some gentle prodding with the parents, I learned that the child had been cared for by a nanny who spoke no English, and was placed in front of the television for the better part of the day watching soap operas and cartoons in various foreign languages! She was too young to comprehend any of what was going on, but did see people communicating, and it appears she devised her own sets of sounds to express herself, as she saw people do on the shows! There was nothing wrong with the child’s ability, she simply had not been exposed to vocabulary and correct forms of speaking. Needless to say, within a couple of months in the classroom, she was communicating and expressing herself just as well as other children her age.

It’s almost unbelievable how much vocabulary can be absorbed in the first three primary years! The most amazing part is that the child does not feel any pressure to learn, remember or reproduce. There are no tests and no pressure to memorize; it is almost a game.

So, one may well ask, “How does the child remember?” In the Montessori primary room, we build the child’s confidence by encouraging a repetition of all the vocabulary work as long as interest is evident. Unlike a traditional school, the lessons are available on the shelf and the children help themselves, work individually, and repeat as often as they feel the need to do so. The only criteria is that any initial lesson is presented as a one-on-one presentation to a child by the teacher.

The Montessori primary years are an explosion of language discoveries. Through individualized lessons, a prepared environment full of experiential materials, and encouraging oral presentations, a young child will naturally develop oral language in the Montessori classroom.