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Books Children Love – LePort 2013 Suggested Books for Toddlers, Preschoolers and Elementary Children

books

Colder, shorter days are upon us, and the outdoors are not quite as welcoming. But as the dark comes early, so does the opportunity to cuddle up with our children in a favorite spot and explore the timeless treasure of great books.

At LePort, we are big believers in the power of literature. Beautiful, inspiring literary works help children become voracious readers who look to books for enjoyment as well as education. Whether it’s a 3-year-old enraptured as a teacher reads to her, a 5-year-old reading to a younger child, or a group of 8-year-olds engaged in animated discussion about a read-aloud character, we love seeing our students discover the joys that await them in the pages of a good book.

As a parent, you can help your child discover the joys of reading. In looking for that perfect gift this holiday season, we offer up the list below of favorite books, from simple picture books for toddlers and younger preschool children, to more elaborate stories for older primary students, and beginning chapter books that elementary students can read by themselves, or that you can read to your five-year-old.

This is our fourth holiday book list, and we plan to make it a yearly tradition! You can help us by sharing your favorite books for this age group in the comments; maybe you’ll see them in next year’s list.

P.S. If you aren’t yet sold on reading out loud daily to your child, or want an even broader range of book recommendations, check out reading advocate Jim Trelease’s web site. He has free excerpts from his Read-Aloud Handbook with helpful advice, and lots of ammunition on why reading aloud is so important.

Click sections below to view books.

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While we will continue to recommend only products we personally use with our own children or in our classrooms, LePort is piloting an affiliate program with Amazon.com. Items placed in your Amazon cart directly from the above links earn LePort Schools a commission of up to 8%, which we donate to our Support LePort scholarship fund. We hope to offer a similar program from other vendors in the future. To learn about other ways you can contribute – or how to apply for a scholarship for your child – please click here. Together, we can spread Knowledge for Life to children across America.

For more book ideas from our 2012 holiday book list, click here.

Applying Montessori Ideas When Reading With Your Child

Part four of four of our reading aloud blog post series

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While the "why" of reading aloud to children is discussed everywhere, the equally important "how"often receives short shrift. That’s unfortunate, because as valuable as it is to know why reading together is important, it is getting better at reading with your child that will actually ensure that the experience is mutually joyous, and help you build it into your routine.

Here are some Montessori-inspired ideas to implement as you read with your child:

  1. Embrace and celebrate repetitive reading. Most preschoolers love to read the same books, over and over again, just like they go back to favorite activities in their Montessori classrooms. This need for repetition is a wonderful opportunity for learning during read-alouds: it is often when we read a story the 5th or 10th time that children begin to use its words, or remember its moral lessons. And it’s only during the preschool, picture book years that we have this audience eager to read the same book over and over again! Make the most of these few years by reading books at different levels:
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    • Read for the story during the first take. Get caught up in it, and read through with limited stops, maybe just to explain a key term here and there, and to answer a brief comprehension question. Talk about the story afterwards.
    • Become progressively more interactive on subsequent reads. Stop to give short definitions of vocabulary terms ("An dwelling is a house, a place someone lives. Our dwelling has green walls, and a big garden around it.") Point out interesting things in the illustrations. Talk about why the events happen, how the people in the story feel, how the setting compares to the world your children live in. There are some good articles out there detailing how to implement interactive reading, but the general principle is to guide your children to be interactive explorers of the books they read!
  3. Integrate ideas across books and into your child’s real-world experience. When we study literature in the upper grades at LePort, we explicitly highlight the ways in which books are guides for better living: we discuss the moral lessons books offer, and help children draw on literary experiences to illuminate the choices they make in their own lives. While we’d not suggest quite such an abstract approach for preschoolers, there are many ways you can connect the reading you do to your children lives, even at age 3 or 5:
    • Consciously use a book’s vocabulary in your daily conversations. ("I’m exasperated right now, Max, because your crayons are all over the floor!") Repeating and using the vocabulary from books will reinforce the learning, and help your child comprehend the new words and use them actively in speaking and writing.  It also develops an implicit awareness in your child that the language in a book can be extended to life as such.
    • Highlight how your child’s experiences relate to those of characters and settings in books. ("You found a creative solution here, instead of giving up, just like Sadie did in Sadie and the Snowman!" "I know this flu shot hurts, but it’s better than the prospect of sending you away for months, like Marvin’s parents had to do in the book we read.") Engage in real-world activities that relate to the books you read: go to a park to look for butterflies after reading Where Butterflies Grow; bake bread after reading Sunbread; re-read Hello Oceanbefore a trip to the beach.
    • Make connections for your child between different books. Highlight similarities and differences, and tie them to your child’s experience.  ("See, the family in When I Was Young in the Mountains has to heat their house with a wooden stove, just like Laura’s family did in The Little House on the Prairie! We don’t need to cut wood today, or light a fire, or clean a messy stove; we have gas furnaces that work at the flick of a switch.")

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  4. Let your child choose books. While you need to do the initial selection, especially for those books you buy and expect to read over and over again, let your child choose from the books you selected. It’s fun to discover which books your child likes—and a great starting point for conversation about values and choices we make: why is this book a favorite? Why doesn’t he like that one? Once they are older, let children pick library books, even those you may not love: it helps to have an occasional not-so-exciting book to highlight the special joy we get from better ones!
  5. Provide firm guidance around reading behavior. In our house, my son loves books, and he’s a born story-teller. Often, he’ll take the first opportunity during reading time to launch off into a story of his own. Sometimes, when it’s just the two of us, I’ll follow his lead, and reading morphs into 20 minutes of my 4-year-old spinning his own yarns. At other times, when we read with his sister or visiting friends, he has learned that he needs to raise his hand or put it on my arm to let me know he has something to say when we get to a stopping point in the book. Making reading interactive does not mean anything goes: interrupting constantly, talking with dolls, or running around usually means the reading stops, until the children choose to pay attention again. It’s the same "freedom within limits" approach your child experiences in our Montessori classrooms, and it can work just as well at home!
  6. Never tie rewards or punishments to reading. While there are many programs that offer incentives for children to read (free Pizza, anyone?), we recommend never tying reading to any rewards or punishments. Don’t reward reading; don’t offer reading as a reward; don’t withhold reading as a punishment. Extrinsic rewards or punishments debase the activity they are tied to, and reading is just too important an experience to risk!

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If you can make reading something you and your children treasure, infuse it with meaning by selecting great books, and make it a pleasant, interactive experience, you’ll do something amazing: you’ll lay the foundation for a love of reading in your child—and create a storehouse of wonderful, shared memories.

Selecting Read-Aloud Books, the Montessori Way

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Part three of four of our reading aloud blog post series

Great books are essential if reading with your child is to be a joyful, replenishing experience, a highlight of the day.

When I first set out to find books for my two children, I quickly discovered that choosing outstanding children’s books is a challenging task. Our local library has an extensive picture book collection. I headed there, and asked a few of the librarians for advice. One handed me a somewhat helpful trifold booklet of 25 favorite books; another one suggested some well-known classics (The Hungry Caterpillar, Goodnight Moon, The Big Red Barn.) It was a start, but few of the books really got me excited, and much of what was suggested just didn’t seem right for my vision of reading.

Over the past five years, as my children have grown older, I’ve discovered many good resources, approached Montessori-inspired friend and LePort teachers for ideas, and built a library for our family that we treasure, filled with picture books all of us love to re-read many times, along with an ever-growing list of books we put on hold and pick up at the library.

If you want some guidance on selecting books that are in line with your child’s Montessori education, books that you might enjoy reading as well, here are some principles to keep in mind on your library trips:

  • Find books that "are real or could be real" for your younger reader. To a toddler or young preschool child, the real world is full of mysteries. A three-year old is fascinated by how different animals live, how things work, what the world looks like, why people act the way they do. Because young children do not yet have a clear conception of the difference between reality and fantasy, they are best served by books that either are about real things (non-fiction books) or stories that could be real (events that could actually happen, even if they are fictional). So when you select books for children younger than 5 or 6 years old, make sure you pick a preponderance of books about the real world. If you choose to share some occasional fantastic stories (of which there are some great ones, e.g. of the type that includes talking, anthropomorphized animals), make sure you help your child to understand what is real, and what is just pretend. ("Do animals talk? No, they don’t: this book is a fantasy book.")
  • Read up to your child, not down. Toddlers and preschoolers are in what Montessori calls the sensitive period for language: like little sponges, they absorb effortlessly the language around them. Preschool children can readily learn big vocabulary words, when the words are introduced in an accessible way. By selecting books with appealing and appropriately complex language models, you greatly aid your child’s language acquisition. Many children’s books unfortunately use very short, choppy language, and are overly simplistic. My rule of thumb is to buy up, not down: I’ve always picked books that had bigger words, longer sentences, more elaborate constructions, than most people would think appropriate for a 2- or 4-year old. In most cases, my children were engaged—and I was surprised and delighted to hear them pick up and use the language of the books. ("East sky purples, sun is coming", my then 3-year-old daughter echoed after Bats on the Beach. "Mama, we don’t need to dread this knight: he’s extinct, like the dinosaurs", explained my 3-year-old son as we read Cowardly Clyde.)
  • Search for beauty and don’t settle for less. In Montessori, we surround our students with beauty, from the clean lines of our natural wood furniture, to the delicate porcelain bowls in the Practical Life area, to the art work hung at child’s height in class. Let the same sense of beauty be your guide as you choose books: look for illustrations that are realistic and detailed, not cartoonish and simplified. For a 2- or 3-year old, much of the learning from picture books comes from the pictures. Real art illustrations or beautiful photography will add to your enjoyment of the books you read, and, over time, will elevate your child’s taste, too. We’ve put together a collage of favorite picture book pages here, so you can get a feeling for how visually pleasing these carefully chosen books can be.
  • Broaden your horizon. While I select individual books based on their unique appeal, over the years I also strive to expose my children to the world via books. We read about different settings (cities, beaches, forests, mountains, space, the US, China, Japan…), times (pre-history, ancient times, the past century, today), different beings (animals, plants, human beings in different societies and of different ages), different types of stories (historical fiction, non-fiction, poetry). These virtual journeys around the world give us a lot to talk about—and, without an explicit effort on their part, provide children with a wonderful bounty of vocabulary and background knowledge they will draw on later in their lives.
  • Make sure you enjoy the books you buy. I saved the best for last: when you preview a book in the store, via Amazon or in the library, make sure it appeals to you! If you don’t enjoy it, you won’t like reading it over and over again. I’ve made the mistake to buy books I didn’t like (usually books that violated one of the first three points above!), and found myself reluctant to read them. And, yes, I’ve even hidden away some of these books, to avoid feeling reluctant when my children bring them to me to read!

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Following these guidelines, I’ve put together two starter book lists, one for toddlers and younger preschoolers, and one for older preschoolers and younger elementary children. These books are personal favorites in our family, collected over time and based on recommendations of many knowledgeable teachers and parents: they are books we treasure and couldn’t imagine not having read to our children. 

Enjoy!

LePort Blog: A Prepared Reading Environment

Part two of four of our reading aloud blog post series

Just as a piece of land has to be prepared beforehand if it is to nourish the seed, so the mind of the pupil has to be prepared in its habits if it is to enjoy and dislike the right things. Aristotle

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In Montessori classroom, much of the magic happens because children act within a carefully prepared environment. Activities are displayed beautifully, always in their proper spots, always ready to use. The children’s time and space to explore is respected for several hours each day. The Montessori guide is an expert at observing, and only stepping in when she finds a child ready for a new lesson, or in need of someone to make a point of interest with a material.

The Montessori prepared environment makes it possible for three- or four-year-olds to enter a classroom, take off their outside clothes, choose an activity and work with focus. It’s an environment that instills a lot of good habits: respecting other’s space, developing a pro-work attitude, using inside voices and walking, not running, in the classroom. If you’ve seen your super-active, noisy, goofy 4-year-old enter his Montessori classroom and be transformed into a serenely joyous, responsible, focused Montessori child, you’ve experienced the power of the prepared environment at work!

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In the book The Power of Habits, Charle Duhigg explains that much of what we do happens on auto-pilot: we receive a cue (entering the classroom), which triggers a routine (calming down and picking an activity from a shelf and working on it), which in turn leads to a reward (the feeling of accomplishment of having mastered a new skill.) To instill any habit, Duhigg argues, we need to put in place a cue-routine-reward system that supports the change we want to make in our life. The prepared environment, in Montessori, functions as such a system, and supports what we call the childhood choice to learn. Duhigg’s idea of a cue-routine-reward framework is something we can also apply at home to enable our children to develop good habits.

Take, for instance, reading aloud. As we discussed elsewhere, reading can and should be a joyous, daily experience shared by a parent and a child—but for it to be so, certain conditions must be met. If you are already experiencing your own Bed Time Book Club, congratulations! If not, read on for some ideas on how to prepare your home environment to facilitate a habit of reading together.

 

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    • Create cues for reading. Cues can be certain times of day: right after you come home from picking up from school, first thing in the morning before getting out of bed, right before bed at night. Cues can also be certain areas of the house that invite reading: you can place a book basket by the sofa, out books on the nightstand next to your bed, or upon a low shelf or magazine rack next to your child’s bed. Finally, cues can be certain other activities: why not put a few books in the car, and make it a habit for one parent to read, while the other is driving? Or place a book in your purse—as a reminder to take it out and read when you are waiting anywhere with your children! (iPads and Kindles are great for this: just make sure you always have a book to read to your children at the top of your favorites section—another cue to think about reading, whenever you turn on your device!)

 

    • Make it a routine. Your toddler or preschooler is your best ally here: 2- or 4-year-old children love consistency, so if you want to instill the habit of reading, start by making reading at certain times and places an expected, recurring event. In our house, we always read at bedtime—and there is no way our children would ever let us get away without doing it: even when we come home late from a trip, or an evening out, we still have to read at least for a few minutes, or risk the major drama that is a preschooler whose favorite routine has been interrupted!

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  • Ensure reading is a rewarding experience. By this, we emphatically don’t mean offer rewards: research shows that extrinsic rewards, such as stickers, sweets or even praise, devalue the activities associated with them. Instead, make the reading itself a time you and your children treasure. Cuddle up somewhere comfortable. Have the books close by, so you don’t need to walk to another room to get them. Shut off all electronic distractors, from phones to TV. Be fully present—and really engage in the wonderful worlds you encounter together in the books you read. Importantly, the pleasure of reading needs to be felt by both the children and by you, the parent: the goal is to make you crave reading time just as much as your children do, so you won’t want to miss it, ever! For me, no matter how tumultuous a busy evening is, no matter how many limits my 4-year-old tested that night, reading has become a healing factor: when we cuddle up with our books, we feel a comforting bond, a calm and connection that brings us back together as a family at the end of every day.

A reading habit is a powerful habit to instill in our children—and a rewarding way to feel connected to them, every day.  Do you have a favorite way of fostering reading with your children? Please share with us in the comments!

Beauty in Words and Pictures: A Visual Tour of Favorite Picture Books

Note that each photo is linked to the book on Amazon.com, to make it easy for you to buy books that appeal to you.





LePort Blog: Reading for Happiness

Part one of four of our reading aloud blog post series

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Much has been said about the benefits of reading with your child. Reading together regularly helps your child develop basic literacy skills, such as the left-right progression of words and the connection of print to the spoken word; it enriches his vocabulary; it offers her the background knowledge essential to understanding written content, once the progress beyond decoding simple books. Perhaps most importantly, by reading with your child you model the practice of turning to books for information and entertainment, rather than defaulting to TV and video games. Children who acquire a habit of reading for fun consistently show higher academic achievement, both in school and in college.

All these are valid reasons for reading with a child. And they are certainly true: in our classrooms, we can readily tell which children have a strong literacy environment at home. They are the ones who listen attentively when we read aloud, the ones who ask the best questions, draw the most creative pictures, and can’t wait for both silent reading time and the opportunity to write their own stories.

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As a parent, however, these concrete educational benefits are not why I read to my two children every day.

I read with my children because sharing great books brings joy to us. We devour books because reading is a personal value, because I love doing it, and because sharing this value with my children, and seeing the pleasure they derive, is a highlight of every day.

My children, in turn, can’t wait to cuddle up next to me with a good book. They are excited when we go on our bi-weekly library trips, which usually end with us sitting amidst a pile of book when we get home, forgetting all about making dinner or cleaning up the family room, losing ourselves in story after story. When I come home from work, they often greet me excitedly holding up an Amazon package that arrived in the mail, eager to open it and discover a new favorite book.

In Montessori, we distinguish between the direct and the indirect lessons a child learns from an activity. The direct lesson—tying laces, preparing and serving snack, creating art with the Metal Insets—is often what interests and motivates the child. The indirect lesson—finger dexterity, following multi-step processes, impulse control, pencil grip—are inherent in the design of the activity, and a key pedagogical reason for offering it to the child. Yet they usually hold no motivational value to the child.

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A 4-year-old does not draw dozens of Metal Inset in order to improve his pencil grip, so that he’s ready for handwriting later on. No, he is drawn to the Metal Insets because of the pleasure of working with it, and the pride he takes in seeing the picture he has created. The power of a Montessori environment is that a child’s direct, inner motivation and joy is what fuels the motor driving his development forward.

Similarly, when we read with our sons and daughters, our direct motivation should not, and cannot, be the academic benefits that result, no matter how important and real they are. To the extent we view read aloud as a mere educational tool, a “should do” rather than a “want to”, we’ll find it hard to fit it into our busy days, where another “to do” is the last thing we need. We’ll feel guilty if we don’t read, because we know its good for our children, but it just won’t happen as often as it “should”. When we do squeeze reading in, we are tempted to make it a lesson. Our children will notice, balk at being made a means to an end (even if the end happens to be their own future), and resist engaging fully.

If, instead, we manage to make reading a want, something both we and our children crave, if favorite picture books become, as one dad reminisces, “evocative of some of life’s best things — wet hair, clean pajamas, the end of working days”, then reading with our children will not be yet another imposition on our time, but instead a treasured moment we will protect jealously.

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At LePort we believe that education and parenting is all about facilitating a child’s quest for his personal happiness. For us, this means not just helping a child become a successful, fulfilled adult many years down the road, but just as importantly, making childhood and the process of learning a joyous experience. At the deepest level, we reject any dichotomy between these two profound needs.

If you find it challenging to fit reading into your daily routine, if you’d like to read more, but can’t seem to find the time, if reading seems like a “should do” rather than a “want to” at the end of a busy day, I’d encourage you to reframe your purpose: think less about how reading will help your child succeed in the future, and focus instead on how fun it will be to share a story with your child today in the here and now. Approach reading a book with the same attitude that you would approach going out for ice cream or throwing a football or playing a board game—not a necessary means to a future end, but a treasured and cherished end in itself.

Happy reading!

How to lay the foundations of literacy in preschool

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What differentiates a child that learns to read joyfully, becomes a voracious reader and succeeds academically, from one that struggles to read at grade level, and falls behind?

Decades of research provide a clear answer: for a child to become a reader, he needs three things (1) instruction in phonics, (2) a systematic way of building a store of "background knowledge" to help him make sense of what he reads, and (3) an early start to reading, definitely during his first six years before he enters Kindergarten.

Our preschool program at LePort provides your preschooler with all of these. We start pre-reading skills in our toddler program, and throughout make learning to read enjoyable for your child, so he will become a capable, eager reader by the time he graduates from the 3rd year in preschool/primary (the equivalent of traditional Kindergarten.)

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What makes the Montessori approach to learning to read and write so effective? And why and how is it different from the way literacy is approached in other preschools and elementary schools? Here are five key highlights of what we do at LePort:

  1. Teach "phonemic awareness" early and playfully. Research tells us that one fundamental difference between children who learn to read easily and those who don’t is that "the former can discern individual words in sentences and sounds within those words. … The ability to discern sound seems to reflect some basic difference in neurological wiring." The good news is that these critical phonemic awareness skills can be taught. At LePort, toddlers play "sound games", where the teacher guides them to isolate the "d" sound at the beginning of "dog." Slightly older preschool students pick out an object from a tray based on its beginning sound. And preschool children as young as 3 or 3 ½ year old learn to associate these sounds with the corresponding letters, as they say the sounds while they look at and trace "Sandpaper Letters." (This sound-focused approach is in sharp contrast to most preschool programs, which teach letter names, a la the ABC song, which do not help children learn to read!)
  2. Break skills down into a careful sequence of steps. A key success factor for teaching preschool children is to make the process of learning rewarding. In our preschool classrooms, children have many opportunities to learn component skills of writing and reading through activities they enjoy. They learn to control a pencil as they create artwork by coloring in geometric shapes with the "Metal Insets." They sit down on the floor and "build words" using the "Moveable Alphabet." They take a box of small objects, and engage in independent reading, by decoding little labels and placing them next to a fan, a cup or a dog as they work with the "Phonetic Objects Box." No worksheets here, no boring drills, no rewards or punishments; just joyous, child-chosen, purposeful learning!
  3. Teach writing first, then watch for the "explosion into reading." Writing is putting symbols together to form words, and it is a more natural process than reading, more akin to speaking, where we put sounds together to make words. That’s why, in Montessori preschool, students build words with small moveable letters, before they read. Then, usually between age 4 and 5, comes a moment of beauty, when the child discovers he can make sense of the black scribbles on paper: he "explodes into reading", in a joyful, natural discovery of his own capabilities.
  4. Immerse children in a language-rich environment. Study after study show that a strong vocabulary at age 3 or 4 is a predictor of reading success later on: "The three-year-old test subjects who had the highest rates of vocabulary growth turned into third graders with the strongest language skills and highest reading comprehension." That’s why language development is everywhere in our classrooms: teachers read aloud to students daily, and students learn vocabulary in carefully structured "three period lessons" all over the classrooms, from colors to shapes, from naming dimensions, to learning the names of animals for toddlers, and the names for the parts of animals later on.
  5. Guide children carefully from decoding to reading for meaning. English is a complex language: the 26 letters of the alphabet are used to represent 44 different sounds, which can be spelled with over 70 phonograms, or multi-letter combinations, such as "ck" or "oo" or "igh." Because of this complexity, children need explicit instruction in deciphering the "advanced code", as well as appealing, yet deliberately controlled reading materials that allow them to enjoy reading as they gain practice. That’s why our Montessori program offers many ways of practicing reading "phonogram words". It’s also why we have recently invested tens of thousands of dollars in designing and implementing an outstanding reading program called Books to Remember to all of our primary classrooms, going much beyond what even other high-quality Montessori programs offer.

Does it work? Here’s what one LePort preschool parent says:

Every day at preschool is a learning process: my children are never bored. Early on, my daughter came home all excited about the sandpaper letters – and I didn’t even know what they were. But now, with the help of the sandpaper letters, my daughter writes in beautiful cursive: she writes all the birthday and thank you cards for the family, and she’s just 6 years old!

This summer, before my daughter started in 1st grade, she was reading the Wizard of Oz by herself. She would stumble over some of the big words, of course – but she read the whole book! And it’s not just that she reads, and how advanced she reads: it’s the way she reads, her clear pronunciation, the expressiveness of her reading: it’s almost perfect. And I think a lot of it is due to the Montessori Method: they learn the letter sounds, not the letter names. At first, I was concerned that she didn’t know that "A" is called "Aye"- but when they start reading, it really makes sense to just do the phonetic sounds. It’s hard to believe: my daughter is reading real books, fluently and with expression – and she just turned 6 in April!

Preschool Parent

The most exciting part of this, of course, is that it is also possible for your child.

A Surprisingly Non-Academic Approach to Strong Academics

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When parents tour our Montessori schools, we often hear questions about academics: when will my child read? How do you teach math? Will your program get my child ready for Kindergarten? In this competitive world, parents of toddlers are rightfully concerned with future academic success. And research supports this concern: children who start elementary school poorly prepared have a hard time catching up and diagnoses like ADHD have grown exponentially, even in the youngest students.

But does this mean you need to subject your toddler to programs like preschool prep or Baby Einstein, and enroll your preschooler in Kumon or similar preschool academics programs?

We think the questions and concerns about early academics are legitimate: a child’s experiences in his formative toddler and preschool years can have a significant impact on his future academic and life success. Poor preparation can, in fact, leave children behind, making it harder for them to achieve their full potential.

Montessori preschools do an exceptional job preparing children for academic success. Montessori children start their elementary career ready to flourish: most learn to read in our age 3-6 classroom, and solve arithmetic problems into the thousands. But the important point is how. Montessori children do not learn by drill-and-kill memorizing of flash cards, or repeatedly watching academic videos, or completing endless worksheets. 

Montessori schools approach academics in a surprisingly non-academic way, laying strong foundations for self-motivated, successful learning as early as in the toddler program. Much of what we do is what Maria Montessori called indirect preparation: toddlers and younger preschool students engage joyfully in activities that impart a wide range of prerequisite skill which then, down the road at age 5 or 6, enable an almost explosive growth in academic achievement. Here are some examples of this indirect preparation for academics:

  • The ability to concentrate. ADHD diagnoses have grown by over 5% per year in the past years; about 12% of all boys ages 5-17 have at some point in time been diagnosed with ADHD, which can severely impact a child’s ability to function in life and in school. While there is no consensus on what causes the disorder, ADHD symptoms include an inability to sustain focus on a task for extended periods of time. Treatment often includes programs that help children learn better executive function skills. Learning to concentrate on an activity, to immerse oneself fully in a chosen task, is one of the most important goals for a child who enters a Montessori preschool or toddler class.   In Dr. Montessori’s words, “The first essential for the child’s development is concentration. The child who concentrates is immensely happy.” When your child joins the Montessori toddler program, we offer him activities that appeal to him, and then give him the freedom to work with a chosen activity for as long as he likes. In this environment, even 18-month old children regularly focus for 10, 15, even 20 minutes on one task. As your child progresses through the Montessori preschool sequence of activities, he’ll tackle increasingly more challenging, longer tasks. It’s not at all unusual for a 5-year-old Montessori child to spend an entire 3-hour work period engaged in one chosen task, such as tracing, coloring and labeling a map of Africa, for example.

  • Developing executive function skills. A recent article in the New York Times explored the question of what really drives life success. One surprising discovery: being able to set goals, to self-motivate, to make mistakes, learn from them, and persevere in the face of challenges may well be more important than scores on academics or intelligence tests. Unfortunately, those are skills rarely taught, not in school and not in most preschool programs. Montessori is different. As early as the toddler program, Montessori children choose their own activities. However, there’s usually only on of each activity, so children learn to patiently wait their turn (no adult-enforced sharing happens in Montessori classrooms.) Children are free to make mistakes—indeed, Montessori encourages us to “become friendly with error.” Further, it’s usually the activity itself that shows them their mistake—water spills, a porcelain plate breaks, a tower doesn’t stand—and the children learn to pay attention to mistakes and learn from them (as against avoiding them for fear of being criticized by a teacher.) And as tasks get longer and more challenging, students learn to keep at it, often working on the same projects for several days at a time, not because a teacher instructed them to, but because they chose to do so. This internal discipline is precisely what life success requires, and what Montessori teaches so beautifully!

  • The discipline that we are looking for is active. We do not believe that one is disciplined only when he is artificially made as silent as a mute and as motionless as a paralytic. Such a one is not disciplined but annihilated. We claim that an individual is disciplined when he is the master of himself and when he can, as a consequence, control himself when he must follow a rule of life. Dr. Maria Montessori, in The Discovery of the Child

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  • Strong motor skills. Handwriting is an important skill a child needs to master to succeed in elementary school and beyond. Children who cannot write well often under-achieve against their potential. Motor skills (and several other skills, such as visual-perceptual skills) are supremely important in learning to write. Montessori toddler and preschool purposefully develops these foundational gross and fine motor skills. Scrubbing a table or cleaning the blackboard strengthens shoulder and arm muscles. Peeling an egg, scooping beans, pouring water from a small pitcher, making orange juice, squeezing a sponge: these all strengthen wrist muscles and control. A series of activities, from the Knobbed Cylinders to the Metal Insets, from pinning activities to puzzle maps, help children strengthen their fingers and develop a proper pincer grip for later pencil use. 

  • Oral language skills. A strong vocabulary and elaborate language is an important predictor of future success in literacy tasks. The Montessori toddler program builds these skills systematically. Children learn much vocabulary with matching object/card sets. Our highly educated Montessori teachers consistently use elaborate (age-appropriate) language. They may say things like “Sarah, I notice your pants are wet. They must feel very damp and uncomfortable on your skin. Shall we go and find you some dry, cozy pants to change into?” rather than “Oh, you had an accident. Time to change!” Of course, we read many stories, sing songs, and discuss daily events with each other. We also introduce toddlers beginning phonemic awareness skills: a teacher may hold up small objects, like a cat, a pan, and a mop, and have children identify the beginning sounds.

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  • Earned self-confidence. In today’s age, many people talk about fostering children’s self-esteem. All too often, that means lavishing praise upon toddlers for every action they take. Unfortunately, research has shown that empty praise not only fails to foster real self-confidence, it in fact can inculcate an anti-effort mindset. In Montessori, we don’t play this game. We are convinced that self-confidence must be earned by real personal achievements, resulting from sustained effort. That’s why we present lessons step-by-step, and set our students up to explore, practice, and earn mastery. When they do succeed, we don’t offer empty praise. Instead, we help them appreciate their real-world achievement by offering up what Montessori calls a point of interest: “Notice how when you put the cup down slowly, without making a sound, the water stayed in it”, or “See how straight the mat stands in the basket when you roll it tightly?” When this is repeated frequently, over a child’s years in the Montessori toddler, preschool and elementary school programs, children learn that with effort, they can master tasks. They come to enjoy the struggle to master tasks, and don’t fear the natural failures that are part of the learning process.

    Self-esteem doesn’t contribute much to success. But success contributes mightily to self-esteem. Kids have to “do” something, and do it well, to get a self-esteem boost. Madeline Levine, PhD, in Teach Your Children Well

    Just imagine your child, at the end of his third year in Montessori preschool: he’ll be able to look around the class and all the materials in it. He’ll know that when he first entered the class, all these activities were strange, challenging, and maybe even a bit intimidating. But now, as a 6-year-old, he knows he has mastered them. Can you see the earned pride in his eyes—and the confidence that this real achievement will give him as he enters elementary school?

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Books Children Love – LePort 2012 Suggested Books

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Colder days are upon us, and the outdoors are not quite as welcoming. But as the dark comes early, so does the opportunity to cuddle up with our children in a favorite spot and explore the timeless treasure of great books.

At LePort, we are big believers in the power of literature. Beautiful, inspiring literary works help children become voracious readers who look to books for enjoyment as well as education. Whether it’s a 3-year-old enraptured as a teacher reads to her, a 5-year-old reading to a younger child, or a group of 8-year olds engaged in animated discussion about a read-aloud character, we love seeing our students discover the joys that await them in the pages of a good book.

As a parent, you can help your child discover the joys of reading. In looking for that perfect gift this holiday season, we offer up the list below of favorite books, from simple picture books for toddlers and younger preschool children, to more elaborate stories for older primary students, and beginning chapter books that elementary students can read by themselves.

This is our third holiday book list, and we plan to make it a yearly tradition! You can help us by sharing your favorite books for this age group in the comments: maybe you’ll see them in next year’s list.

P.S. If you aren’t yet sold on reading out loud daily to your child, or want an even broader range of book recommendations, check out reading advocate Jim Trelease’s web site. He has free excerpts from his Read-Aloud Handbook with helpful advice, and lots of ammunition on why reading aloud is so important.

 

Books with shorter text and generally simpler vocabulary, perfect for younger primary children. Some of these books are also accessible for older toddlers.

Gentle Giant Octopus—by Karen Wallace
This title in the Read and Wonder series follows a mother octopus on her journey to find a place to lay her eggs. Written in simple language and beautifully illustrated, this book will introduce a strange and different creature to a child’s life.

The Lotus Seed—by Sherry Garland
Ba, a young Vietnamese girl, witnesses the fall of the Vietnamese empire, and picks a lotus seed as a memory. Many years later, after Ba emigrates to the US, her grandson loses the treasured seed! Still, a happy ending awaits…

Little Elephant’s Trunk—by Hazel Lincoln
Follow a young elephant in his native African savannah as he discovers the many uses of his initially annoying trunk.

Apples to Oregon—by Deborah Hopkinson
How did apple trees come to the west? This silly story follows a farmer and his family on their adventures as they move with a wagon full of little trees across the entire US. Fun reading, esp. when taking a road trip across the country!

Library Lion—by Michelle Knudsen
There are rules we must obey. But are there reasons to occasionally violate rules, even in the library? What if a lion comes to the library, and is the only one to help the librarian in distress?

Christmas in the Big Woods—based on the book by Laura Ingalls Wilder
This series is a sweet picture book adaptation of the famous Little House books. It’s a good introduction to life in America in the 1800’s, and a great first step toward reading the Little House chapter books series with your child later on.

Zin! Zin! Zin! A Violin—by Lloyd Moss
This short, rhyming book cheerfully introduces the instruments of a classical orchestra, in a way even the youngest children can enjoy.

Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site—by Sherri Duskey Rinker
Sure to please all truck-obsessed boys (and girls), this beautifully illustrated story in rhyme follows the diggers, dump trucks and cranes as they finish up their fun work and settle down for the night.

Niccolini’s Song—by Chuck Wilcoxen
A night watchman at a rail yard discovers the power of his lullabies to help the trains sleep. When a strong wind wakes the town’s children, the trains help him in return. Great good night book for all train lovers!

Madeline—by Ludwig Bemelmans
This first book in the classic series, a Caldecott Honor book in 1940, takes children on an exploration of Paris, along with the spunky Madeline and her eleven friends.

These books have more advanced vocabulary, longer texts and more involved content.

A Street Through Time—by Anne Millard
In a series of fourteen intriguing illustrations, the award-winning A Street Through Time tells the story of human history by exploring a street as it evolves from 10,000 BCE to the present day. This book can be fascinating for 3-year-olds to use as an “I Spy” book – and children can come back to it in elementary to support their study of history and fundamental needs of man.

Pilgrim Catby Carol Antoinette Peacock
This picture books tells the story of the first Thanksgiving from the perspective of a young Pilgrim girl and the stray cat she adopts on her long, arduous journey to the new world.

The Gardener—by Sarah Stewart
Set during the Great Depression, this book follows a young country girl sent to live with her uncle in a time of need. It’s told through the letters the girl writes back to her family—a great opportunity to encourage older primary and lower elementary students to embark on letter writing on their own!

Mercedes and the Chocolate Pilot—by Margot Theis Raven
During the Russian blockade of Berlin, the children were close to starving, and candy was an unheard luxury. Then an American pilot flying one of the “raisin bombers” begins to shower chocolate bars on the waiting children. This retelling of a true story follows the relationship between one little girl and her Chocolate Pilot, from their letters during the blockade, to their reunion decades later.

Story of the Orchestra—by Robert Levine
This book-CD combo is a very accessible way to introduce older preschoolers and elementary children to the instruments of a classical orchestra. Load the CD onto your mp3 player, to make it easy to play a specific track as you browse through this book with your child!

Snowflake Bentley—by Jacqueline Briggs Martin
As winter comes, this is a great story of science to share. A young farm boy in Vermont falls in love with snowflakes, and pursues his passion to become a world-renown expert and snowflake photographer.

Because I Could Not Stop My Bike—by Karen Jo Shapiro
This collection of funny parodies of famous poems will delight children and adults alike. The poems explore day-to-day topics – such as a dawdling daughter, a messy room, and macaroni and cheese – all in whimsical rhyme. Great read-aloud!

Emma’s Rug—by Allen Say
A young girl is an inspired artist, drawing beautifully. But what happens when her mother accidentally washes her inspiration rug?

These are books that 1st – 3rd graders can tackle on their own. Some are also good read-alouds to introduce younger children to chapter books.

A Dog on Barkham Street—by Mary Stolz
Edward is desperate for a dog of his own—and also desperate to be rid of the neighborhood bully.  This is a much-beloved story with a satisfying ending.

Caddie Woodlawn—by Carol Ryrie Brink
Growing up in Wisconsin during the American Civil War, Caddie gets into all kinds of adventures with her brothers, befriends the local Indians, and would rather run free outside than learn to bake and sew indoors.

A Lion to Guard Us—by Clyde Robert Bulla
What’s it like for three siblings to travel across the Atlantic by themselves in search of their father, in 1609?  Clyde Bulla has a talent for communicating engaging stories with simple narratives – perfect for the beginner reader.

The Sword in the Tree—by Clyde Robert Bulla
This is another straightforward Bulla story, set during the time of King Arthur’s England.  This is a page-turner whether you’re 7 or 47!

Thimble Summer—by Elizabeth Enright
This book is written with warmth and simplicity that is reminiscent of simpler times.  After 9-year-old Garnet Linden discovers a silver thimble, things start to happen:  the local draught finally ends, an orphan boy comes to live with her family, and her pig wins a ribbon at the county fair.

Mimmy and Sophie All Around the Town—by Miriam Cohen
Mimmy and Sophie are two sisters who are always there for each other as they find treasure, play in mud puddles, or otherwise explore their neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY, during the Great Depression.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz—by L. Frank Baum
A classic of American literature, this imaginative tale is accessible to a strong young elementary reader.  Join Dorothy and Toto as they make their way to the Emerald City in the land called Oz.

Socksby Beverly Cleary
Socks is one happy cat until his owners, the nice young Bricker couple, bring home their new baby.   Beverly Cleary at her best!

The Family Under the Bridge—by Natalie Savage Carlson
This is an unusual story about a crabby homeless man in Paris who acquires a ready-made family when three young children befriend him.

Follow My Leader—by James B. Garfield
After Jimmy is blinded by an accident with a firecracker, he has to relearn all the things he used to know.  With the help of a therapist, he learns to read Braille and to use a cane.  Then he’s given the chance to have a guide dog.  Learning to work with Leader is not easy, but Jimmy tries harder than he ever has before.

 

 

 

Selecting Early Readers For Your Child

As a parent of a new reader (my daughter is 5½ and will start the 3rd year of Primary this fall), I recently browsed the “early reader” shelves of my local bookstore. As much as I love bookstores—and browsing Amazon after the children are asleep—this particular excursion was not a pleasant experience.

Too many of the early readers available are plainly not suited for children who are just starting to read!

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In Montessori Primary, children usually learn to read phonetically quite early. They become proficient at sounding out phonetic words, that is, words that can be decoded using the basic sounds individual letters make. They also learn 2-3 dozen puzzle words or sight words (such as the, was, one, they, to, do, he),words that appear frequently and can’t be decoded.

Following this work, students are introduced to English phonograms: those tricky letter combinations (such as <ch>, <ir>, and <aw>) that make English such a challenging language to read and write.  There are more than 40 phonograms in English! 

This is a big task for a new reader.  It can take many months for a child to master enough phonograms to give her the fluency to tackle regular books.  Within the Montessori prepared environment, a child has a variety of materials that help her to practice phonograms.

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But where does that leave parents—who naturally want to provide their child with things to read outside of school?

If you turn to the commercially available early readers, such as the Ready-to-Read series or the I-Can-Read series, you’ll find that your Montessori emergent reader will struggle.  Why? 

These books define themselves as “early readers”, not by introducing a carefully sequenced progression of phonetic skills, but by using short sentences, 1- or 2-syllable words, and big print. The biggest problem is that a child cannot sound out many words in these books using basic letter sounds—and the phonograms that they do use are so frequent and mixed, that your Montessori child will flounder.  (The idea behind these books is that children are supposed to learn to recognize words by sight through repetition.  This sets a dangerous example to a young child that reading means memorizing whole words.)    

Here are a few random example sentences, with the non-decodable letter combinations highlighted:

“Class, don’t forget!”, Ms. Glass says. “Tomorrow is…” “Pajama Day” we shout in unison. (That’s a fancy word for all together.) –from Fancy Nancy: Pajama Day, a Level 1 I-Can-Read book.

He could ride him in a circle without knocking over the chair or the dresser. from The Horse in Harry’s Room, a Level 1 I-Can-Read book

It was almost school picture day at Robin Hill School. “There will be many empty spaces in our picture,” said Mrs. Connor. “Look at the Tooth Chart.”—from A Tooth Story, Ready-to-Read, Level 1

Ironically, almost every one of these highlighted sounds are standard English phonograms.  They are predictable letter-sound patterns that should become a central part of a child’s arsenal of decoding skills—if they’re presented to him in a sequential manner that provides sufficient repetition and review. 

But don’t despair: there is an alternative available: Flyleaf Publishing’s Decodable Literature Library. These books, written by former Montessori teacher Laura Appleton-Smith, are a treasure of decodable literature for Montessori preschool students who are becoming fluent readers.  That’s why we’ve invested in a full set of these books for each of our Montessori Primary and Lower Elementary classrooms.

Flyleaf Publishing’s books outshine the alternatives. It’s the one series we have found that enables our students to read independently and joyfully, and to acquire fluency and phonogram knowledge in the process. Here are just a few reasons why this series is the best early reader library that we have found in years of perusing offerings:

  • A focus on offering decodable text.  Reading Series 1 is over 95% phonetically decodable!
  • A careful progression through phonograms, providing lots of practice along the way.  Take a look at this excerpt from Frank the Fish Gets His Wish, with the phonogram highlighted:

Frank would sit in his pink shell and wish his wish, “I wish that I had a pal to swim with; to splash and swish and jump with. I would swim the rest of my swims in a dish if I just had a pal to be with.”

What’s more, Ms. Smith is a master at introducing many words with these phonograms, without sacrificing the quality of the prose!

  • A slow build on length and complexity of stories.  Children move gradually from short, simple sentences to longer sentences with more on the page, and more complex stories to follow. 
  • Great, engaging, fun stories. While many early readers are contrived constructions that are of low interest, this series offers wonderful stories children can relate to, and which are fun to discuss with our young readers.
  • Elaborate, beautiful language. In place of the choppy, repetitive sentences found in other early readers, these books have interesting vocabulary. This list of words is just a random selection from Pearl Learns a Lesson, the book focused on the /ûr/ sound and its different spellings: flabbergasted, hurled, alert, respect, blurted, disturb, smirked, fungus, damsel, goblet, velvet, perplexed, dismissed, lavender, yearned…
  • Beautiful illustrations. While many early readers’ illustrations are cartoonish, these books feature beautiful art that wonderfully complements the story, bringing it alive and supplying context clues to help readers make sense of the stories they read.

If your child is enrolled in LePort’s Montessori program, once he or she reaches the stage of reading the Flyleaf series, you’ll notice that she’ll bring them home to read with you as part of our 3rd year Primary and early Lower Elementary programs. (If you aren’t a LePort family (yet!), you may want to search out these books for your emergent reader; they are sold directly from Flyleaf Publishing via their web site.)

We hope you enjoy listening to your child—and rejoicing in her achievement—as she reads to you from this special series!

Summer Travel: Should you “app” it? – Part 2

There is an ongoing debate on how much technology-based engagement is appropriate for very young children. (The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time prior to age 2, for example.) Whatever the answer, the extra time with our children we have during summer travels is an opportunity to be cherished. A healthy dose of skepticism towards technology-based entertainment is, we believe, appropriate.

That said, something that is undesirable in excess is not necessarily undesirable in moderation. There may be times when an electronic device is a useful and perfectly appropriate way to entertain your child (think 10 hour international airplane flights!) Many of us adults rightly love our iPhones, Androids, Kindles etc.: technology, used correctly, can be a great tool.

So what’s the best way to use portable electronics with children? What guidance can we as Montessori educators provide for parents who want children to use these gadgets the right way?

Use gadgets purposefully and responsibly.

  • Beware of obsessive use. While it’s ok for a child to occasionally enjoy screen time, make sure that your child doesn’t become obsessed with your iPhone. One warning sign: if the child regularly prefers time with the gadget, over real-world experiences with you, you likely need to cut back on screen time.
  • Use technology as an enabler. There are great tools out there, from wonderful videos that explain the world (the show “How It’s Made” is one of our favorites!), to great tools (dictionary.com or a similar application should be on all parent’s smartphones!) Plus, not all content on the device has to be games or video: fill your device with chapter books that are great to read aloud, audio books, and music.
  • Don’t overestimate educational value. Games can be fun for children, and keep them busy. Just don’t overestimate how much learning goes on between a preschooler and a gadget: focus on the fun, and take any educational value as a bonus. That way, you won’t be tempted to give too much screen time, because it’s so educational!

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Select the apps you use carefully, with eyes wide open.

Technology has wonderful potential: It can provide a built-in control of error, enabling children to independently learn from their mistakes. It can combine audio and visual inputs, helping children, for example, to identify letter sounds, or to spell from dictation. It can individualize, for example by repeating letters or spelling areas that children struggle with.

Unfortunately, many educational apps and games are made by programmers, not educators. As a result, many apps have questionable pedagogical approaches. You as a parent need to be aware of these shortfalls. Be on the lookout for a few common errors, and you’ll be able to more easily weed through the huge number of apps out there to select the better ones for your Montessori child.

      • Beware of sticker shock. No, not in the sense of prices, but in the sense of sticker-like artificial phrase. Mindless cheers (“You’re awesome!” after every move!) or smiley faces are not a good source of motivation. Research repeatedly shows that internally motivated learning is much better than activity motivated by rewards. Good apps are inherently motivating, as the player progresses through levels and completes challenges. They should not require, on top of the challenge, constant clapping, cheering and stickers. Unfortunately, while many games aimed at adults recognize this, most apps for children fall into the fake-praise trap.
      • Avoid the clutter. Think Montessori classroom: simple, zen-like games that focus attention on the learning objective are much better than those that are full of clutter. Why do numbers have to swim in an aquarium, anyway?
      • Don’t go for boring stuff. Many apps are nothing by glorified flash cards. Flash cards don’t work in real life. Why would they work on a gadget? (No big danger here, though: your child will just not be interested, and the only damage will be to your pocket book!)
      • Beware of any “learn to read” app. Most are full of pedagogical errors and potential conflicts with your child’s Montessori experience. Here are just a few of the most common problems, which afflict almost every single reading app I have tried:

 

        1. Using letter names. In Montessori, we teach letter sounds, not names, because only letter sounds matter in learning to read. What does this mean: “kayayetee”? Can’t figure it out? It’s “CAT”, spelled using letter names. You can’t read that? Neither can your child! Yet most apps that teach letters use letter names. You’ll see a yak, a cow and wasp appear on the screen, and the child is ask to touch the animal that starts with “why” or with “double you.”
        2. Mispronouncing letter sounds and applying phonics wrong. Many applications that do try to teach phonics mispronounce sounds, saying “kuh” for the letter “k”, instead of just using the initial consonant sound. Other apps introduce phonograms incorrectly: for instance, they might show the word “pool”, and spell it out with the short letter sounds p, o, o, l, then say “pool”, without ever introducing the idea that “oo” has its own sound.  Confusing, not helpful!
        3. Using print, not cursive. Almost all apps use print letters, and often capital print letters. That’s not horrible if they are aimed at reading, but less helpful if they are focused on writing activities, such as tracing letters to learn their shape.
        4. Focusing on “sight words”, rather than decoding. Many apps follow the public school approach of teaching children to look at words as a whole to guess their meaning from their total shape, rather than sounding words out to make meaning. Memorizing decodable words or guessing at words is not a good habit for young readers to get into.

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So with all of these caveats, are there any apps that a thoughtful Montessori parent can use? I’m no expert on the app world, and as with anything parents buy for their kids, there is an element of personal preference. But after reviewing dozens of apps for my 3- and 5-year-old children, here are some that are better than the rest (although many still suffer from some of the issues outlined above):

      • Kids Finger Painter. This is a free-form painting app, and about as creative as you can get with a gadget. Kids select different colors and brush width, then create art work on the screen. They can even save the artwork when done!
      • My First Tangrams. This is a simple geometry app, best played on a larger screen, which simulates physical tangrams, where children arrange simple geometric shapes to make more complex figures.
      • Bugs and Buttons. This is an app with an adult game feel (high quality animations, nice background music), with several games that teach different skills (sorting things, making patterns, counting, fine motor control.) Very well made and not at all annoying!
      • Montessorium apps. Created by Montessori parents, these apps try to bring Montessori sandpaper letters, number rods and puzzle maps to the iPad/iPhone space. Quite well done, these apps are simple, use phonics, no cheering, and include materials familiar to your Montessori child.
      • SoundSeeker. This app is basically a sound game “I spy”, where children drag pictures to the letter that stands for their beginning sound. It uses letter sounds, but unfortunately has a heavy dose of cheering and sticker charts.
      • Montessori Crosswords. Nice app that simulates word building with the moveable alphabet. Offers a cursive option, works with letter sounds and correct phonograms. Has lots of options that go well with Montessori: for example, you can focus on specific sounds or phonograms to have your child practice.
      • PhotoTouch SightWords. This app simulates the 2nd period of a three-period puzzle word lesson. The child hears a word, sees between 3-10 different words on the screen, and has to touch the correct word. You can customize the difficulty from preschool – 3rd grade level, and even create your own items and lists (helpful for practicing phonograms, for example.)
      • CardDroid Math. This is a simple math facts practice app for Android devices. Nothing fancy, just math problems that children can do and self-check their work. Fully customizable problem sets: start with simple addition up to 10, and end with double-digit multiplication. You can even set a time limit, and challenge the (older) child try to improve against himself in math facts speed.
      • MontessoriTech apps. I haven’t had the chance to try these apps yet (they require an iPad, and I don’t own one), but from the description and screen shots, these sound like great apps for older primary and younger elementary students. They include the Stamp Game, compound words, and math facts with Montessori beads.

Have you found any apps that meet the criteria we discuss here? We’d love to hear about them in the comments, or just post them on our Facebook page, in response to the link to this blog post there.

Heike Larson

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

    Just not good enough: why your child deserves a better curriculum

    If you attended Elementary Curriculum Night, you had a sneak-peek into LePort’s unique approach to education. [See the videos at the bottom if you weren’t able to attend.]

    In this newsletter, I’d like to offer you further insight into what makes LePort’s curriculum different. How does LePort’s approach, which we call “Knowledge for Life”, compare with the California Standards?

    Almost everyone agrees that there’s something wrong with “teaching to the test”, the practice of focusing in school on memorizing and drilling for standardized tests. But this practice is based on the California Standards—the textbooks, lessons and outcome measures approved by State education committees.

    Read more

    Choose Prevention, Not Treatment

    Two weeks ago, I read the following urgent requests for help on our local parenting resource, Berkley Parents Net’s “Advice Wanted” newsletter:

    Kindergartener’s writing skills not great – repeat?
    … The main issue we’ve had though has been his fine motor skills – particularly his writing. He’s doing ok but definitely in the lower part of the class, in terms of writing skills. … his writing is shaky and messy. When he rushes through it, it just isn’t super clear. He isn’t one to sit quietly—he likes to move through things quickly and I feel that is part of the problem. … I know that there is only more writing to come in first grade and I wonder what I can do to help him through this besides just practicing with him? How do I get him to slow down more and concentrate?

    Nonverbal Learning Disorder
    …  My [3rd grade] son scored exceptionally high for verbal, fine for math and very low for non-verbal [on testing in school.] His handwriting has always been awful, very poor fine motor skills, clumsy and poor gross motor skills, voracious reader, meltdowns at homework. No problem getting social cues or getting sarcasm and humor. I have now read just about EVERYTHING about NLD, especially the oft-repeated line about NLD has the highest suicide rate for all learning disabilities!

    9 year old twin with reading problems
    … one [fraternal twin] is struggling with reading and falling behind. They are in 4th grade, but she is still having trouble recognizing simple words that she has seen and heard many times. Three years ago she went through the public school’s individual evaluation process. They determined her reading skills were developing slowly, but that she did not need special attention. Now we believe she DOES need some help, and we are wondering where to turn.

    Three children, three sets of problems – but, in my view, one common denominator: an inadequate education system that does not properly, sequentially teach the skills children need to succeed in school and in life. While better schooling obviously cannot prevent all problems—some children of course do have real, inborn learning disabilities—I can’t help thinking that with better schooling, we would not see academic learning issues appear with such frequency or in such severity.  I can’t say that for sure, but reading these tragic commentaries left me wishing that more children had the opportunity to experience a Montessori preschool and elementary education, so that more people could evaluate the difference.

    Take the first case, poor handwriting skills, which appear to be in part due to an inability to concentrate on a piece of work for an extended time. The common assumption is that a child should naturally be able to concentrate. But in fact, being able to focus, i.e. to fully engage in a task for an extended period of time, is a learned skill. Not all adults are automatically able to focus on a task, and among those that can, there are radical differences in how well they can do it. Focusing is a skill that children must acquire at an early age, and the extent to which they acquire it depends on the quality of their educational experience. In a Montessori classroom, children get introduced to a wide variety of captivating materials that engage their curiosity, and with which they then practice for 30, 45 or even 60 minutes, during the long, uninterrupted work periods. Such materials are designed to help introduce a child to the process of sustaining attention over time—they are optimal for developing the capacity to focus. Whatever the precise impact such an environment makes, it is a known fact that Montessori students often persist in one task for hours at a time. Just anecdotally, my barely 4-year-old daughter just spent four hours at school a couple of days ago drawing a large map of the world with the outlines of all the continents, then coloring in the continents and oceans and labeling them by cutting out small pieces of paper with their names, and gluing them carefully on the map. Because of her Montessori experience, I am quite confident that she will not have issues concentrating on her handwriting, come Kindergarten…

    The second child’s struggle has to do with deficient motor skills. Again, motor development can be assumed to be automatic, or can be treated as a learned skill. In a Montessori classroom, motor development is something children work on sequentially over time. 3-year-olds begin with simple pouring exercises, which help with hand control and coordination; they may strengthen their pincer grip by transferring small objects from one container to the next. 4-year-olds may string small beads, us droppers to transfer water, or work with the Metal Insets to slowly build the finger and hand control needed to properly hold and control a pencil. Children learn to carry trays with materials, carefully navigating the obstacle course of mats, chairs and children around a Montessori classroom. In the process, they learn to control their bodies, strengthen their gross motor skills, and move purposefully.  While it is true that to greater or lesser extents fine and gross motor skills may just develop naturally, a Montessori preschool ensures that children develop these skills early and fully, before the lack of motor control becomes an issue in elementary school.

    The last child’s struggle with reading is somewhat harder to evaluate. No doubt, there are clear, defined reading problems that are not a result of a child’s educational environment. Still, what makes me suspect that a wrong educational approach may have something to do with this case is the mom’s concern about her daughter not being able to read words she has seen and heard frequently. Too many public schools still use the “whole word” method for teaching reading, where children are expected to memorize whole words on sight, as though English were Chinese, and words were irreducible symbols that had to be recognized whole. Nothing could be farther from the truth: English, as we know, is an alphabetical language, where letters or letter combinations stand for certain sounds. Montessori schools embrace this fact, and teach letters and sounds starting in preschool. With careful, sequential instruction that proceeds from individual letters to multi-letter phonographs such as “oo” and “sh”, and which includes a wide variety of materials, such as the moveable alphabet to build words, and the command cards to act out simple written instructions, our students internalize the sound-letter correspondence. They also learn common sight words as an adjunct to their phonetic development, but the emphasis is on decoding, not memorizing strings of symbols. This is why, by the end of their 3rd year (the Kindergarten equivalent), Montessori students know not only to read a short list of words they have seen many times before, but acquire a systematic approach to reading any word they encounter. The whole written world is thus opened to their exploration.

    My advice to parents, based on my experience working in education and my observations of my own children, is to proactively think about preventing such common problems as low attention span, poor motor skill development, or whole-word/guessing approaches to reading. Prevention works better than treatment. And, even more importantly, children who learn crucial skills naturally in preschool are much more likely to acquire and retain the love of learning that so often atrophies when children struggle unnecessarily in the early elementary grades.

    Heike Larson

    Learning to Write Right

    Should Children First be Taught Cursive Handwriting?

    Cursive handwriting is one of the most polarizing topics in early education. Some argue that it is a core component of language arts training that every child should master. Others that it’s an outdated practice made obsolete by computer technology. The Wall Street Journal recently joined the debate. Author Gwendolyn Bounds published a fascinating article titled How Handwriting Trains the Brain. Bounds quotes recent research using advanced imaging technology that shows that “writing by hand is more than just a way to communicate. The practice helps with learning letters and shapes, can improve idea compositi­­­­­­­on and expression, and may aid fine motor-skill development.”

    At LePort, we fall squarely on the side of those who argue that learning to handwrite in cursive is an important skill. The benefits of cursive, in our view, go far beyond being able to produce beautiful script. Cursive minimizes errors involving letter reversals, and so facilitates reading development; it helps students distinguish separate words more clearly in their own writing, and helps visually internalize the word as a grammatical unit; it strengthens the fine motor skills involved in a smooth, prolonged motion.

    Learning To Write RIghtBut in order to fully evaluate whether teaching cursive is a value, we think it’s equally important to consider the question of when it is to be taught. What is the proper time in the educational process to  introduce children to cursive handwriting?

    According to Maria Montessori, children should learn cursive right from the start, before they learn to print.  Montessori points out that the motions involved in cursive writing come much more naturally to a child. Because cursive handwriting results in a much smoother and rewarding learning process, and because it facilitates subsequent development of reading and writing skills, it makes sense for it to come first.

    Students at high quality Montessori schools usually begin writing in cursive at ages 4 or 5, using a special, tactile material called the Sandpaper Letters. Individual letters made of sandpaper are mounted on beautifully painted wooden boards, and children trace them with their “writing fingers”, as they listen to and say the sound the letter makes. Naturally, step by step, they transition to paper and pencil. This multi-sensory, active method of teaching writing works: 5-year-olds at such schools typically write full sentences in beautiful cursive, learn to read fluently at the same time—and thoroughly enjoy the learning experience.

    montessori preschool

    This is in stark contrast to the traditional method of first starting with block letters, and then retraining 3rd graders to write in cursive afterwards. As the Journal mentions, parents routinely balk at the idea of their children spending time learning cursive: “I can’t believe you are wasting a minute on this.” Given that their children are in elementary school (as opposed to preschool), these parents are right to complain. A major justification of teaching cursive is that it makes subsequent reading and writing easier to learn. Retraining cursive after learning print defeats that important purpose, and does indeed render cursive training both a source of frustration, and a waste precious classroom time and resources.

    How much better to learn cursive from the start, with a method that is enjoyable for the child! Done in this way, a student gets all the direct and indirect benefits from fluent, beautiful handwriting, with none of the pain of learning it at the wrong time.

    Ray Girn