Elementary: Using language to understand the why and what for so children can find excitement in the broader world around them
Montessori students who enter first grade after completing the full Montessori Primary Program are typically able to make a fast transition from learning to read to reading to learn. This advanced reading ability opens up the world for them: Montessori elementary classrooms are full of rich curriculum, and children read widely, across all subjects.
For example, a second-grader in one of our classrooms, became fascinated by India after being given some colorful pieces of Indian clothing. Her teacher supported her fascination, and she eagerly spent time over several months reading about Indian history, exploring food, clothing, and shelter found in India today and through the ages, making maps of the geography of India, and learning about the different religious and spiritual traditions in India. Her teacher further integrated this exploration of one country into the broader Montessori curriculum—introducing her to the Fundamental Needs of Man materials, and leveraging her work into talking about time periods and history. This second-grader’s interest fueled her reading, and she tackled texts and materials that typically wouldn’t be introduced to students until 4th grade or even later. In turn, her wide reading helped her acquire what we call background knowledge—the content that is needed for students to readily be able to comprehend the more advanced text they will encounter as they progress through elementary and into junior high.
Research has shown that once children reach a certain level of basic decoding skills (typically, by 4th or 5th grade in traditional public schools, but often much earlier in Montessori), it is the knowledge they bring to the books and texts they read that set apart the strong readers from the weaker ones.
Dr. Daniel Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virgina who focuses on the application of cognitive psychology to K-16 education, has written widely on the importance of knowledge to help children read well. He decries the focus of many schools—driven by Common Core and other standards—on just language arts and math, pointing out that by eliminating the content subjects such as history and science, we not only create children who lack knowledge in these important subjects, but also children who cannot read as well as they should.
“[Elsewhere], I deplored the lack of time devoted to science in early elementary grades [which in one study was just 4% in 1st grade, and 5% in 3rd grade]. Well, if kids aren’t spending time on Science, what are they doing?
They are spending a great deal of time on English Language Arts. According to the papers I cited, 62% of classroom time for first-graders, and 47% for third-graders.
The irony is that, by failing to include more time for science, history, geography, civics, etc., we are very likely hurting reading comprehension. Why? Because reading depends so heavily on prior knowledge. …Once kids can decode fluently, reading comprehension depends heavily on knowledge. By failing to provide a solid grounding in basic subjects we inadvertently hobble children’s ability in reading comprehension.
As I have put it elsewhere, Teaching Content IS Teaching Reading.”
-Dr. Daniel Willingham, School Time, Knowledge, and Reading Comprehension, on his blog
This is precisely where Montessori elementary excels. We seamlessly integrate science and history into our reading curriculum. Students practice reading—by researching scientific topics the teacher introduces to them, or that they find fascinating. They explore how humans satisfied their fundamental needs across cultures and ages (in the early history curriculum), by reading carefully crafted materials that build their knowledge and vocabulary concurrently.
As children learn more (driven by their interests and interesting questions raised by their teacher, or activities they see their often older peers pursue), we stoke that fire by encouraging them to reach beyond the classroom, into the broader world, to satisfy their thirst for knowledge. The student who became fascinated by India, for example, might organize a trip to a local library to gather research books that go beyond the classroom library, or interview the grandparents of a classmate from India about their experience, or organize a visit to a museum with an exhibit about Indian art.
“When the child was very small it was enough to call him by name for him to turn around. Now we must appeal to his soul. To speak to him is not enough for this; it is necessary to interest him. What he learns must be interesting, must be fascinating. We must give him grandeur. To begin with, let us present him with the world. …
Instruction becomes a living thing. Instead of being illustrated, it is brought to life. In a word, the outing is a new key for the intensification of instruction ordinarily given in the school.
There is no description, no image in any book that is capable of replacing the sight of real trees, and all the life to be found around them, in a real forest.”
—Dr. Maria Montessori, From Childhood to Adolescence
Children who are capable learners (strong readers) and who are enthusiastic about what they study, learn a truly astounding amount. This is how Montessori elementary excels at graduating eager learners with tremendous skills and the knowledge to live life to its fullest!