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

There are so many opportunities for teachers to optimize oral language in the Montessori classroom. It starts in the morning when we greet the children and welcome them into the classroom. "Good morning, Taylor. It's nice to see you today. How are you?" The children respond.

Greeting the teacher and having a conversation become second nature and part of the daily routine. Our use of language continues throughout the day. Although we use few words when giving a lesson, there are many opportunities for having conversations, reading books, telling stories, introducing new vocabulary, and even introducing new languages.

Maria Montessori tells us in The Absorbent Mind about the importance of language development: "Not only does it fuse men into groups and nations, but it is the central point of difference between the human species and all others. Language lies at the root of that transformation of the environment that we call civilization."

The absorbent mind of the young child allows him to take in, without effort, everything in his surroundings. The ability to learn multiple languages at this time is a wonder to witness. Have you ever had children enter your classroom at the beginning of the school year who could not speak a word of English? By hearing you and their classmates speak they pick up words, learn how to structure sentences, and, before you know it, they can speak English with ease.

I remember a four-year-old who started school in September speaking French only. By the time it was Christmas, she was able to communicate with her English-speaking friends. When cleaning up her lunch one day she announced, "Couscous is so messy!"

While young children are in the sensitive period for language, the more language we use in our daily interactions with them, the more language they will acquire.

Communicating with Parents

As Montessorians, we know that learning sounds indirectly prepares children for reading and writing. When parents think of language development, they often immediately think of reading and writing. On their own, they may not make the connection between oral language and later reading and writing.

We emphasize to parents the importance of creating an environment rich in oral language. We give them suggestions: talk to children; include children in social situations; include them in family discussions; listen to their ideas; have conversations around the dinner table; make rhymes; sing songs, play I Spy. All of these activities lead to greater success as children progress to reading and writing.

Encourage parents to use "real" words when they talk to their children. Vertebrate, invertebrate, quatrefoil, stamen, cordate, Papua New Guinea, Lichtenstein, isosceles triangle, superimpose, ovoid, equator, herbivore, tyrannosaurus rex, archipelago.

These are some of the words children hear in our classrooms on a daily basis. Parents are often amazed when their children come home and nonchalantly use words like askew, sensible, appropriate, available, interruption... Again, being in the sensitive period for language, these words come easily to children.

Give parents a few gentle reminders so they won't have to think twice about the way they communicate with their children. The parent who takes their children to the park to feed the "duckies" will soon be asking, "Do you see the male mallard?"

Circle Time is Language Time, Too

Add Vocabulary to Classroom "Jobs" at Circle Time

Circle time is the perfect setting. It is during the first circle of the day that many teachers assign "jobs" for the day. One of the favorite jobs in my classroom was the weather person. Incorporate new vocabulary. Ask the weather person for his assessment of the weather.

The weather person goes outside or looks out the window and assesses the weather. Is there precipitation? Is it windy, sunny, cloudy, partly cloudy? The child tells the class what types of clouds are in the sky (cumulus, stratus, cirrus). Children check the rain gauge as part of their job. Also, have the child look at the thermometer. What is the temperature?

Don't worry if the children don't get the words quite "right." A cherubic weather announcer we heard about returned from making her assessment of the weather and proudly told her classmates: "It is 3 degrees and partly today!"

Sing Songs at Circle Time to Reinforce What Children are Learning

Singing songs is a language-rich and fun activity. Remember to sing songs that include colors, movement, rhyming words, parts of the body. Choose songs from other cultures. Songs about peace, love, and nature will round out your repertoire.

The continent song is a great example of using the repetition of words to aid in the child's development of language. "Seven continents in the world. Tell me what they are. North America, South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. Don't forget Antarctica. Don't forget Australia. Seven continents in the world. Tell me what they are!"

If the children are studying another language, it's easy to create your own songs. Here's one Melody's mom composed for me. "Ventana/window, puerta/door, techo/ceiling, piso/floor. Lapis/pencil..." You get the idea. Sung to a simple tune, this became one of the children's favorites. Or, translate one of your favorite songs. The children loved singing "Friends, Friends, One, Two, Three" in English and then repeating the song in Spanish.

Around the Classroom

Along with naming the didactic materials throughout the classroom, take advantage of daily classroom activities to encourage language use.

Sitting at the Snack Table Can be More than Social Time

Snack-time is also a wonderful time to enhance language skills. Snack-time presents a great opportunity for children to discuss what is happening in their lives. As teachers, we can join the children at the snack table and guide the conversation, introducing new vocabulary.

Talk about the food. "This cheese tastes delicious. Cheese is high in protein. It's important for us to eat protein." Or talk about weekend activities. "I went hiking this weekend. Many of the trees were covered in lichen."

The Peace Table Helps Children Express Their Feelings

Expressing how they feel requires children to use words: Angry, frustrated, hurt, sad, disappointed, nervous, anxious, happy, worried, relieved, calm. Guiding children through a process to resolve conflicts helps them find the words they need. "I felt angry when you knocked my work over..." What a great sense of accomplishment we all feel when children utter the words, "Peace is declared."

It's Time for a Story!

We all have our favorite books that we read every year. Maybe it is Caps for Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina. The children love the repetition of "Caps! Caps for sale! Fifty cents a cap!" Perhaps Jambo Means Hello is a must-read. What a joy it is to hear the children greet each other with "Jambo rafiki!"

Children will ask you to read books over and over again. Have you ever sat in the book corner reading to one child and before you knew it, a small group assembled at your feet? Again, we are witnessing their love of words. When the children in the classroom are normalized, it is possible to read to a small group during the work period.

Tell stories too. This tradition started so long ago around the campfire. We can carry it out in the classroom as well. Tell personal stories or stories that relate to the children's experiences. The children in my class loved to hear the story about Freckles, the beagle that I got for my seventh birthday.

You and the children can make up stories. Let the children fill in the blanks. "There once was a boy named _______ and a girl named ________. They lived in _____. One day, they took a trip to _________, where they ate ________." Continue the story. The children will learn how to structure the story with a beginning, middle, and end and use many words to complete it.

Sharing Day: The More Words the Merrier!

Children look forward to sharing objects or experiences. This is another excellent opportunity for language development.

Some children might need a little prompting from you. Ask open-ended questions to get them started. "Where did you find the acorn?" "What is your hamster's name?" Encourage discussion: "Please tell us what colors you used in your painting." "Tell us how you felt when you went sledding."

Allow time for the other children to ask questions and make comments. Think of "Sharing Day" as the children's introduction to public speaking.

Talk to the Animals

Model how to talk to the animals in your classroom. The teacher's soft-spoken, nurturing greeting to the class parakeet lets children know that not only our words, but also our tone of voice, is important when communicating with others.

Once they've received the "how to feed the animal" lesson, children can talk to their friends as they feed the animal. "Let's get the measuring cup. I'm measuring one-half cup of bird seed. Let's pour the bird seed into the bird's food container. Would you please check the water level in the water container? It's time to replenish the water."

Children love using words to identify the parts of an animal. The canary has a beak, wings, and so on. The Beta fish has gills. Children love classifying the animals. The Chinese water dragon is a reptile. The fire-bellied toad is an amphibian.

Nature Walk and Nature Table

Children love nature walks. When you return from your walk, children can place their treasures on the nature tray. Have a lively discussion about your finds. "This a palm frond." "Is the pine cone rough or smooth?" "Is the feather light or heavy?" "What kind of leaf is this?"

Talk about your senses. What did you smell while on the walk? "I smelled a fragrant rose! It smelled like cinnamon." What did you hear? "I heard a pigeon cooing." "I heard a woodpecker pecking the oak tree."

Encourage children to bring items to school that they find at home or on a trip. Talk about how birds gather sticks, leaves, and mud to make their nest. Again, the more words we use the better. Of course, remind them not to disturb nature. We would never take a bird's nest from a tree, but an old bird's nest that has fallen out of a tree is okay.

Time to Say Goodbye!

We've enjoyed our day with the children. It's time to say goodbye. We might gather at circle and talk about our day. Perhaps we read a book or recite a poem. Sing a goodbye song? Whatever we choose, we communicate through words. There are many opportunities throughout the day for us to provide a rich environment full of words.

And, tomorrow is another day full of curvilinear triangles, rectangular prisms, incisors, peninsulas, and crustaceans!

—by Pamela Personette, M.Ed., Montessori Educational Consultant, for Montessori Services. Fully committed to Montessori education, Pamela earned an AMS Montessori Primary Credential and a Master's of Education in Early Childhood, Montessori Education, from Notre Dame de Namur University. Pam's passion for Montessori has taken her from head teacher for more than a decade to a unique consulting business that uses Montessori principles to teach the art of superior customer service to adults in the retail trade. Pamela continues to serve children by teaching at Montessori schools.

—Originally Published 2011

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