Observing carefully and speaking clearly

When parents visit a well-run Montessori preschool classroom, they often are amazed to see the preschool teachers engaged in two activities not common in other preschools settings:

  • Observation. A Montessori teacher regularly steps back from interacting with the children to observe. Dr. Montessori likened the teacher’s role to that of a scientist, one who identifies salient facts about each child, strives to understand where that child is in his development, and then, on that observational basis, tailors her lessons to the child’s abilities and interests.
  • One-on-one lessons. While most preschools are primarily group environments, Montessori teachers in the preschool years deliver most of their lessons one-on-one. They tailor what they teach to each child, and to each particular moment in time, observing and responding to the child’s interest at that instant to make learning enjoyable and meaningful.
  • Recent research suggests that these two factors—observing the child and then providing language in response to the child’s interests in the moment, rather than just blanketing the child with verbal input—is the differentiating factor between children who speak early and well and children who lag in their verbal development.

    While prior research had pinpointed the importance of the volume of verbal exposure by contrasting children from language-impoverished families to those of professional parents, Dr. Catherine Tamis-LeMonda of New York University aimed to understand why children of affluent, well-educated parents differed widely in their rate of language development.

    In Dr. Tamis-LeMonda’s study, researchers analyzed how well-to-do New York parents interacted with their babies as they played with common toys and interacted over meals, then followed up over the next year, to track children’s language development.

    Even in this homogeneous group of educated, well-off parents, all of whom provided a rich verbal environment to their children, language abilities diverged significantly by the end of the observation period.

    Here’s how the results of the study are summarized in the book NurtureShock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman:

    The variable that best explained these gaps was how often a mom rapidly responded to her child’s vocalizations and explorations. The toddlers of high-responders were a whopping six months ahead of toddlers of low-responders.

    Remember, the families in this sample were all well-off, so all children were exposed to robust parent vocabularies. All the infants heard lots of language. How often a mother initiated conversation with her child was not predictive of the language outcomes—what matters was, if the infant initiated, whether the mom responded…

    “I couldn’t believe there was that much of a shift in developmental timing,” Tamis-LeMonda recalled. “The shifts were hugely dramatic.” She points to two probable mechanisms to explain it. First, through this call-and-response pattern, the baby’s brain learns that sounds coming out of his month affect his parents and get their attention—that voicing is important, not meaningless. Second, a child needs to associate an object with a word, so the word has to be heard just as an infant is looking at or grabbing it…

    This variable, how a parent responds to a child’s vocalizations—right in the moment—seems to be the most powerful mechanism in puling a child from babble to fluent speech.

    Other studies have verified this mechanism: careful observation of young children, followed by verbal interactions that build upon the child’s interests, are the most effective way to stimulate language development.

    This is exactly what we do in our Montessori classrooms.

    In a Montessori classroom, teachers observe first, then provide lessons which tie language to specific objects or actions the child finds engaging.

    Take the Pink Tower. In this activity, a teacher will present to the child a series of ten pink, graded cubes, which the child builds into a tower. It’s an activity that our three-year-olds delight in. It allows them to move about the room; to learn to walk gracefully as they carry the individual blocks; to practice fine motor skills as they carefully balance the blocks to build the tower.

    The Pink Tower is a motor-skill activity, usually associated with the development of gross motor skills. But what’s interesting here, when we are concerned with verbal skills, is the way this activity is also an opportunity for language development!

    Here’s how: the teacher may observe a child building the tower. When he is done, she may quietly sit down next to him, and give a lesson on vocabulary related to classifying and comparing things by size. As she points to the tiny one centimeter cube the child has just proudly placed at the top of the tower, she says: “This is the smallest.” Pointing to the biggest one at the bottom, she says: “This is the largest.” Pointing to the block one up from the bottoms: “This one is smaller”, and so on. The child may take apart the tower, and the lesson may continue: “Can you put the smallest one over here?” and “Bring the largest one back to the stand first.” The teacher may complete the cycle by pointing to the tiny cube and ask: “Which one is this?”, to which the child excitedly responds, “It’s the smallest one!” The child thus learns important vocabulary in a moment when his own interests have primed him for such learning.

    This lesson is a perfect example of a teacher observing a child, and offering language that is tied to that individual child’s activity and interest, in the precise moment when the child is fully attentive.

    Contrast this with how language may be taught in a traditional preschool or school setting, where a teacher may collect a group of children to learn about vocabulary related to size. She may use similar graded blocks, and use similar words. She may be engaging, and the children may repeat after her in a chorus. No one would deny that language instruction is happening here. But notice that the learning is adult-initiated and adult-led, and the child’s ability to absorb language is not optimized. Group-based instruction of this type misses the key ingredient of responsiveness, which the research shows is essential in optimally fostering language development.

    Parents are often surprised at how quickly their children’s language skills blossom when they enter a Montessori toddler or preschool classroom. They are astonished that our preschoolers learn to read and write before they enter elementary school.

    We don’t do achieve this rapid verbal skills development by drilling children in group language exercises and forcing them to repeat vocabulary in rote ways. Instead, we do what we’ve now discovered is consistent with the guidelines of the most up-to-date research: we individualize our instruction to each child and the things that fascinate him in the moment.

    It’s all part of the Montessori “follow the child” approach. And as this research shows, it’s also something you can also try at home!

    Heike Larson