Lower Elementary Aids to the Practice of Written Language

Introductory Remarks

As the newborn fixes upon the sounds of human speech, and exercises the physical mechanisms needed to articulate these sounds, the mind stores impressions of meaning. The simultaneous blending of speech patterns and meaning brings about the spoken word in the young child. The child then moves, in Montessori schools, to associating the sounds of the language with the symbols necessary for writing. Through multisensory activities the hand and eye are trained for the mechanisms of writing without conscious effort. As the meaning of written communication becomes apparent, these mechanisms act as a power to express the already know spoken word. The significance of this can not be underestimated. For Dr. Montessori, this was a new language of communal expression, a second language that linked the child’s own thoughts with the greater social world about them. With this sudden and unexpected revelation, the link to reading now gains a new significance. For language embodies the culture, and is rich with nuance particular to the society in which the child grows throughout childhood. Their own expression links with history, and the growing social awareness of the elementary child is satisfied through the reading and writing of the spoken word.

The written form is expressed through activities in the elementary rich with variety and reflective of the culture. The child explores creative writing, linking the written word with their own inner thoughts. This builds consciousness of others, and so the child writes letters, invitations, scripts, and little dramas which can be expressed in the small social environment of the school and immediate community.

Writing is encouraged by a portion of the prepared environment structured to make available the necessary tools for writing in the form of specially designed paper, writing instruments, and the necessary art media for decoration. Exact tools with aesthetic appeal help to motivate the child. Skills are taught both formally and as a product of experience, and the child is presented a wide scope of possibilities. 

The Montessori elementary strives to provide the means by which the child can write freely as an expression of their own particular needs and interests. The necessary skills lessons do not focus on the group, but rather each child’s individual needs. This then becomes an expression of individuality and relates directly to the growing social awareness of the child as an aid to life. 

A wide scope of possibilities are presented as keys to individual exploration. Writing in the Elementary extends to the historical, grammatical, and syntactical aspects of the written word through language exercises and historical presentations directed towards human history. The written word becomes the child’s link with his culture and is a new means for developing his own unique personality. These experiences provide the grist for finding a purpose and means to connect with society. This is what Montessori called the child’s “cosmic task”. 

Creative Writing

The child entering the elementary will have experience with creative writing from the Casa. This should be encouraged and time allowed for a great deal of this. Journals can be provided, and specially designed paper with lines and space for illustrations can be used. If the children are having difficulty, you can develop skills by telling short stories that they repeat to you. Then invite the child to write the story, which you can do for the child and then they can copy it. The child is then encouraged to write a story on their own. You can dictate key words, and they can elaborate on it. This can be done in the form of the Casa question game. It begins with a simple action, forming the predicate of the sentence. The child then follows with answers to the questions why, how, when, where, and what. You can record these, or the child can, and then say that the information is there but the story needs to be told. Encourage the child to take these key words and compose a story.

Later the use of dialog can be given, first with the small moveable alphabet, and later on paper. You can highlight the dialog in colors, different for each speaker. Later the child can do the same on paper.

Factual Writing

The earliest work with factual writing will be much like the traditional language experience charts. Here the child recounts and event that they participated in. The guide can take the dictation if the writing skills of the children are lacking. They can go onto copy work if they wish. 

The development of research skills now becomes a parallel activity to the child’s factual or technical writing. With note taking techniques the child researches and gathers information for little reports on topics of interest. As their knowledge of content expands, so does the nature and length of these reports.

Keys to Research

The keys to research lie in the exploration of sources that are available in the classroom and the community library. A historical aspect is presented in the cataloging of references and in the organization and structure of the library. The Dewy Decimal System commonly used is investigated and the history of it given in the story telling mode. Library skills can then be expanded to include the use of reference tools. 

The dictionary is the first and foremost resource in the classroom. It’s history is known from the work in spelling, yet alphabetical order can now be focused upon and taught with the small moveable alphabet work indirectly, as the letters are arranged in the box in alphabetical order. A variety of types of dictionaries should be provided, from the simple to the expanded versions. The child learns the term “entry word” and uses it as a key to locating the word. Further to this the types and parts of the definition including the pronunciation code, etymological entry, levels of definition, antonyms and synonyms, and prefixes and suffixes can be investigated. 

The encyclopedia becomes a natural extension of the dictionary, and the ability to use its cross referencing component can be added to the research skills of the child.

The thesaurus is a more detailed compilation of words by similar meaning and extends the cross cataloging skill of the child. The history of its development, and the French doctor who authored it will be of interest to the children. Synonym work is first introduced with the grammar command card of the verb, so work with a thesaurus should follow that experience.

Organizing Content Through Note Taking

The ability to take notes begins in the Casa with dictation work. It can be built upon in the elementary by reading a paragraph and having the children tell what they heard. This is an oral summary stage. Next the paragraph can be read and the children write a summary of what they heard. This is followed by going on to write only key words. Then the children write a paragraph from their key words.

See that these paragraphs have a sequence of events to aid in the ordering of the information. Go on to two or more paragraphs. This is a good time to introduce abbreviations. 

Theme Project Work

Theme project work can be useful for the development of writing skills. Project work that grows out of themes that the entire class studies, such as  timeline investigations, challenges each student in their essay writing. Lessons are presented with both written notes in outline form, and a graphic representation of that information. The child takes notes and draws pictures during the presentations. From these pictures, notes, and further research the children create paragraphs summarizing each theme lessons, using these to create a timeline or little booklet. Inherent in this process is the need for each child to accurately explain particular concepts presented in oral lessons, to summarize accounts of these events, and draw conclusions by integrating isolated information into a vision of the whole. These theme studies push their writing skills to a new level of concise and well written paragraphs.

These essays also provided opportunities to improve skills in spelling and punctuation. The children were required to identify spelling errors in their written work and use proper spellings of words appropriate to their reading level. Attention was given to capitalizing letters that begin a sentence, and identifying and capitalizing proper nouns. In a developmentally appropriate way, each individual was expected to correctly punctuate finished copy using periods, commas, question marks and exclamation points. 

The project work that grew out of the key lessons provided a context for improving reference and study skills. The children applied their reading skills in research work, further developing their skills in using a table of contents, an index, a glossary, maps and charts. They located definitions and information in the encyclopedia, atlas and dictionaries. They made efficient use of reference aids for research and read charts, graphs and time lines for information. 

Junior Great Books

The Junior great Books program employs the shared inquiry method of learning. The program uses excellent literature that engages both the intellect and the imagination in a group process that allows the participant to think for themselves and learn from each other. Shared inquiry is a distinctive method of learning in which participants search for answers to fundamental questions raised by the text. It relies on an active process in which the reader searches the text to interpret the author’s meaning and relates their understanding in light of their own experience and sensible reasoning.

The process for each story includes an initial discussion in which questions were posed about attitudes that the children have concerning an issue that comes up in the story.

Next, the first reading of the story is read out loud by the teacher. Each child follows along with their own script of the story and makes note of certain passages in the text that bring up issues or questions for further investigation. After the reading a list of questions is generated on the board. They are later answered by the children after the second reading, which they do silently in class. This gets them thinking more deeply and prepared them for the next stage of the shared inquiry. 

Later, one question is selected and the children go back through the text, physically marking spots in the story that illustrate the answer or parts that have a text clue to interpreting the answer. 

A third reading of each story is conducted out loud by the children. Small groups are formed and the children take parts in the story, acting and reading out passages. This helps them to put dialogue and narration in context and see deeper into individual characters. 

Next a question is posed and the entire group conducts a guided discussion. Each child is expected to make a contribution and relate their ideas on the question back to the text. Answers are supported, tested or expanded by others in the group. Essentially, the discussion became a thoughtful debate where the ideas of others are considered and the group struggles to find a common opinion. Lastly, each individual goes back and writes their answer to this question.

The Formation of Spelling Skills

It will be necessary to assess the child entering the elementary to judge the extend of the necessary preparation that has taken place in the Casa. There are numerous exercises which indirectly prepare the child for the work of the elementary. The eclectic approach of the Casa utilizes both auditory and visual aids to promote spelling skills. The unique emphasis of writing before reading links the child symbolically with the mechanics of writing before the ability of reading with comprehension takes place. This accelerates the developing of writing skills, based on perceptual experiences. 

First and foremost in the development of spelling skills is the work with sandpaper letters, which brings together the movements, sound analysis and visual recognition of the alphabet. Single sound- symbol association goes beyond phonetics and is used to identify dipthongs and digraphs which are letter groups with sounds. The work with phonograms shows the variations, and memorization of so called puzzle words provide a bank of sight words which enable the child to begin reading. These component skills blend to provide the necessary mechanical skills to spell. 

The essential element of timing makes this absorption almost effortless, and through appealing to the innate propensity for language in early childhood, the skills are realized through activities geared to that stage of development. Montessori education provides the maximum effort at the optimum time. Therefore, work of a remedial nature in the elementary, which may be necessary for some children, will require conscious effort and singular motivation on the part of the older child whose sensitivities now lie elsewhere.

A number of indirect preparations with elementary language activities act as aids to spelling and the first period of learning spelling patterns. The grammar work involving the recognition of parts of speech and their function in the sentence provides skills necessary for spelling. In particular, singular and plural forms of nouns, the comparative and superlative forms of adjectives, the conjugation of verbs, and identification of suffixes and prefixes with the etymology of words and their roots, expands and provide further details to the ability to spell. 

In the work called word study, the process of carrying the words in the memory while performing the exercise builds sight recognition skills and patterns of correct spelling are formed. This memorization through manipulation makes the process possible without directed effort, and avoids the traditional wrote and memorization given in other schools. In addition, the early reading skills are applied in all areas of the work in the elementary environment, thereby further aiding the memory through multidisciplinary exposure to a rich variety of words and their spellings. This memory foundation is a prerequisite step for abstracting rules and directed lessons in spelling.

Provided that these prerequisite experiences are present, the child can move on to the statement and exploration of rules. This might be seen as a second period in the stages of learning. This work is introduced with a history lesson, linking the child to the origins of the dictionary. Through understanding of the necessary work to compile words, the necessity for the formation of rules becomes apparent. A chart is prepared with these rules, and made available to the children to investigate as their interests develop. As is typical of the elementary child, they will enjoy exploring the exceptions to the rules, and find numerous examples. They may wish to take one rule at a time, and explore examples and exceptions. Eventually they made build up to going beyond the chart and devising their own booklets of spelling rules. This exploration stretches over a period of time dictated by the needs and interests of the individual, and should not be accelerated in relation to the needs of the teacher.

The third period would be the application of previous skills through the compilation of spelling lists. This can be assisted by prepared charts whose groups of words may be taken from traditional sources. They are practiced by means of a group activity in which one child may dictate and the other respond by writing or orally spelling the words. The traditional spelling bee can be altered to suit the needs of these exercises and provide friendly competition which appeals to the elementary child. They may discover homonyms which are words that have the same pronunciation as others but with different meanings and usually spellings.

The skills of syllabication are presented verbally and later in exercises of writing. This can be a natural extension of the child’s work with dictionaries, and result in their own discovery of pronunciation systems. The work is connect to word study, where history is blended to make the words for analysis interesting to the elementary children.

Throughout the child’s written work the teacher can respond to errors in spelling by following individual interests and needs, and so present these activities as keys to overcoming obstacles in written expression. In the reading process during the lower elementary years the child makes the passage to comprehension that identifies that writing is not just for personal expression but their writing has an audience, the reader. This new skill of writing for the reader builds with the child’s social awareness. The child should be encouraged to read his own writing and the listeners can give feedback on what they are hearing. Oral recitations can be structured for these presentations. Likewise, the reader can read the child’s writing to the child and intentionally bring attention to passages which don’t make sense because spellings confuse the reader.

Strategies for Spelling in Lower Elementary

• Montessori exercises known as Grammar Boxes.

• Montessori exercises known as Word Study. These lessons focus in on prefixes, suffixes, compound words and word families. Materials are teacher made. These exercises comprise one of the divisions of the elementary study in grammar. They investigate the component parts in words and their meanings. Through identification of the root word first, and then the isolation of the component parts of the whole word, the child discovers the component functions. Included in the analysis is the historical meaning of words and their root meanings. One indirect benefit of these exercises is the refinement of spelling skills by memorization of patterns in word construction. 

• Children keep own spelling dictionary, organized alphabetically, words are generated from their own writing and from group lesson content. Remedial work for the youngest children might include review of the key sounds and their variations as well as a compilation of word groups in a phonogram dictionary.

• Each child could have a weekly spelling list, a few common words per week to memorize. These words may be generated from list of commonly misspelled words, e.g. puzzle words, Dolch list or other conventional lists of sight words. The value in this work is to build a non phonetic sight vocabulary. Spelling quizzes may be useful in the memorization process.

• Guided lessons with spelling rules, such as “i before e except after c”, resources in conventional textbooks are useful for these lessons.

• Guided lessons in dictionary skills, with special emphasis on word roots and syllables as a tool for decoding new words.

• All written work that is published for an audience should be corrected for spelling errors. This emphasizes respect for the reader and avoids developing incorrect patterns of spelling.

The Forms of Punctuation

The first stage of exposure to punctuation takes place in the Casa, in early reading work and the building of sentences with the small moveable alphabet. This alphabet contains punctation marks for use in the construction of sentences and paragraphs. Early oral introductions to grammar, especially the conjunction part of speech, help the child top recognize the clause, and the use of commas in setting them off.

In the second stage of learning, punctuation is the awareness of its function through oral reading. Through gentle guidance the child can be made to see the function of punctuation marks in reading. The pauses and stops created give further meaning to written expression, and through reading these possibilities become apparent. The Junior Great Books program with the emphasis on choral and reading out loud is very helpful. 

Punctuation awareness can be linked to a historical perspective. The child learns that early documents were illuminated to break the tedium of “black and white books”. This may lead them to illuminating their own work, which highlights in color the punctuation marks. This added illumination focuses the child’s attention on the usage of punctuation and can be most helpful.

In the application stage, or third period of this work, prepared charts are made available to the child which state the rules for each punctuation mark. The activity used is with groups, in which one child dictates and the other responds with definitions both orally and later with writing. The children can work in pairs reading and writing the rules and applying them with illumination in their work. They may wish to give each punctuation mark a color. Oral dictation where one reads and the other punctuates will also provide variety in this work.

The Writing Journal

The writing journal is a useful organizational tool that provides a place for prewriting activities, for drafts that help the child ready for final copy, for note taking and planning. The child may also record his daily activities in this journal as a tool for improving both his awareness and his writing skills. This writing journal provides a chronology of progress and is a useful tool in illustrating that process to both the child and his parents. It becomes a portfolio of his writing and research. In this way it is useful to record the outcomes of the weekly conference in this journal. It may be effective for some children to reflect on what work they have accomplished as well as recording the work and lessons that will take place in the coming week. Some children may require this a tool for learning time management. Some children enjoy making lists and setting priorities, and so the journal may help them to plan and execute future projects.

Teacher and student comments that grow out of the weekly conference can be recorded here, and sent home to the parents as a tool for building the partnership of learning between home and school.

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