Literacy is one of life’s most important achievements, and it is best honed primarily during the elementary years. Reading and writing are critically important—as key means for accessing the entire world of human culture, self-expression in an enduring way in almost any context, and the practical work of performing virtually any complex job or task.
And, more fundamentally, reading and writing are tools of thought. It is by learning to read and write well that we learn how to, for example,
- Make a thought precise – from word choice to sentence structure to paragraph to multi-page work – in a way that is difficult or impossible without the written word;
- Identify what is important and essential in the midst of a sea of information;
- Apply objective thinking and reasoning to any domain, producing and evaluating structured arguments, justification, and rationales for conclusions;
- In our elementary program, students learn to read and write – to analyze and understand written works and to express themselves – and they do so in a way that is constant with learning how to think.
Our Language Arts Pedagogy
Our elementary program approaches literacy in a systematic way, integrated across the whole curriculum. Elementary students are motivated by their newfound capacity for intellectual work, to know causes and reasons for things, to understand and imagine things beyond their immediate experience, and to do all of this with their peers via the medium of language. What students read and write about is thus the entirety of their learning—their academic work in science, literature, history, and even math, their outside-of-school field trips, their goings out, and more.
Because literacy is so important, substantial reading and writing occur every day in the classroom. Our elementary classrooms foster a culture of literacy, where students write frequently, read each other’s works, receive continuous individualized guidance and feedback from teachers on their writing, and challenge themselves and each other to take risks, reading difficult works, and articulating their most complex thoughts and feelings in writing. Beyond the integrated, motivated approach described above, our elementary programs teach literacy systematically, area by area:
A robust understanding of grammar enables children to express themselves through the written word with sophistication and clarity. When children learn about grammatical concepts, this knowledge can be integrated into the writing process—particularly the revising and editing stages—helping students to see the relevance of grammar to their own writing. The study of grammar also aids reading comprehension, enabling students to analyze the complex thoughts of others and to make sense of them.
The goal of our grammar curriculum is threefold:
To offer a concrete representation of the underlying structure of our language;
To foster a love of the written word and an appreciation of its power;
To improve children’s writing.
Grammar is initially presented as a multisensory, hands-on approach through Montessori learning materials such as the Grammar Box, Sentence Analysis and Verb Tense materials. Once children are presented with the materials and the essential knowledge required for each particular grammar activity, they can explore the grammatical concept by matching, moving, and manipulating words and symbols to create patterns and sentences. This provides an open ended and often playful exploration of grammar, that prompts children to think critically about language.
In the upper elementary environment, children transition from working with the hands-on Sentence Analysis materials to sentence diagramming on paper. Sentence diagramming is a formal, visual-pictorial representation of the grammatical structure of a sentence. Sentence diagramming allows children to move beyond the confines of the Sentence Analysis material, and allows them to parse every element of sentences of unlimited length and complexity.
Vocabulary and Word Study
Specific words are the instruments by which we do our thinking, and through which we understand the thoughts of others. Having an extensive vocabulary allows one to better understand the world around us—to follow someone’s thinking, to read between the lines, to question what others have to say, to find the word that denotes precisely and connotes most eloquently what one wants to express. And, critically, a rich vocabulary comes into play in the classroom in reading comprehension. Readers cannot comprehend the meaning of a given text without knowing what most of the words mean. A large vocabulary opens students up to a wider range of reading materials across all areas of the curriculum.
Students acquire vocabulary indirectly through exposure to a language-rich prepared environment, reading good literature, and conversing with adults and peers. The Montessori Word Study curriculum is a more direct approach to vocabulary, with lower elementary students examining, classifying and manipulating the properties of words: suffixes, prefixes, root words, compound words, antonyms, synonyms, homonyms, alphabetical sequence of words, rhyme, word families and so on.
In the upper elementary, students study Greek and Latin roots. More than half of the words in the English language have Latin or Greek roots, and this is especially true in content areas such as science and technology. This work helps children become more conscious of words and their origins, giving them keys which they may use to unlock the meanings of many words in their language. Emphasis is also placed on etymology across all areas of the curriculum, drawing children’s awareness to the fact that words have a history, and that both the form and meaning of these words can change over time.
To become good readers, children must develop phonemic awareness (an understanding of the sounds that make up spoken language), phonics skills (an understanding of the sounds that letters/letter combinations make), the ability to read fluently and accurately, and the ability to comprehend what is read. Some children enter the elementary classroom with phonemic awareness and phonic skills firmly in place. Others enter ready to learn phonograms and more advanced phonics with multi-syllabic words. Timely, individualized, explicit reading instruction is essential to ensuring children can access all subject areas of the prepared environment, and work collaboratively with their peers. Our approach to reading instruction is based on the following principles:
- Systematic and explicit instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics improves children’s reading and spelling skills.
- Guided oral reading helps students further develop fluency, decoding skills, recognize new words and comprehend what they read.
- Ongoing assessment of children’s reading skills are crucial to ensure mastery of the basics, the continuous challenging of each student, and to inform appropriate instruction.
Beyond the basic mechanics, more abstract reading comprehension skills are imperative across every area of the classroom. Without comprehension, words have no meaning and reading is simply sounding out the words on a page from left to right. Good readers use a variety of strategies to construct meaning from what they read, such as:
- Monitoring their understanding of content;
- Clarifying confusing parts of the text;
- Predicting what will happen next;
- Connecting what they are reading to their own experience or prior knowledge.
When children struggle to comprehend meaning from text, explicit strategies can be taught, modeled and practiced:
- Identifying the parts of the text they don’t understand;
- Asking questions before, during, and after they read to clarify meaning;
- Looking back or forward in the text for information that might help;
- Restating the difficult sentence or passage in their own words;
- Creating a visual or making a movie in their head;
- Making connections: text-to-self connection occurs when students are reminded of something that has happened in their own life; text-to-text connection reminds them of something they have read in another book or text; text-to-world connection happens when they connect with something occurring in the world;
- Making inferences by putting together clues from the text and making evidence-based guesses about character motives, the plot, the problem, the solution;
- Synthesizing the text by summarizing what has happened and stating the most important aspects of the text.
Teacher Read Aloud and Free Reading
Reading aloud to children plays an especially critical role in developing children’s vocabulary, their knowledge of the natural world, and their appreciation for the power of the imagination. Reading aloud also introduces the language of books, which differs from the informal language heard in daily conversations and in the media. Literary language is more descriptive and uses more formal grammatical structures. The value of reading chapter books to elementary children therefore exposes children to a linguistic and cognitive complexity not typically found in speech. Reading aloud introduces books and types of literature—historical fiction, poetry, short stories, biographies—that children might not discover on their own. History, science, and geography come alive through our elementary read-aloud selections, from Ancient Greece (Black Ships Before Troy: The Story of the Iliad by Rosemary Sutcliffe) to Medieval Times (Canterbury Tales, by Geraldine McLaughlin) to Shakespearean England (Cue for Treason, by Geoffrey Trease). Reluctant readers observe the joy their teacher and peers receive from reading and discussing literature, and can be motivated to pick up a book on their own.
We emphasize writing as an essential way to develop, organize, clarify, and communicate thoughts and ideas. As students attempt to write clearly and coherently about increasingly complex ideas, their writing serves to propel their intellectual growth. Children come to understand that writing is a process, not just a product, and that by using specific writing techniques, and following the writing process—prewriting, drafting, revising, and editing—they can produce consistency high quality writing. (Not every piece of writing the child produces needs to, or indeed should be subject to this process. Much writing in the elementary classroom is everyday writing, such as work journals, taking notes for a science experiment, and so on. Particularly in Lower Elementary, our teachers are cognizant of the balance between holding children accountable for using learnt knowledge and skills in their writing, and creating a culture of joyful self-expression, free of the pressure of constant correction and feedback.)
Writing is omnipresent in our elementary classrooms. Our approach to writing instruction is based on the following principles:
- The need to hone, step by step, specific aspects of the writing process. We offer students specific lessons on each stage of the writing process, from initial brainstorming all the way to the final draft. Writing is composed of dozens of more particular skills, and our job as educators is to analyze the process and determine a sequence that helps students most effectively and joyously achieve their mastery.
- The guide as a positive role model of writing for students. Through their passion and enthusiasm for writing, as well as their own writing practice, teachers can show students that writing is valuable and important.
- Connect writing activities to students’ knowledge and interests. Students enjoy writing about what they know. They also enjoy writing with real purpose for a real audience as a means of social engagement. Therefore, it is key to create authentic writing tasks for students, drawing from both academic and personal context.
- Create a writing climate in which all writers feel safe to make choices and take risks. Teachers model respect when talking about writing and about student work. Students are taught how to respond effectively and respectfully to their peers work.
- Find time for students to write every day. Improvement in writing does not happen overnight, nor does it generally happen very easily. Volume is important. Writing should never be an occasional activity. It needs to be something that is effected every day.
- Focus on each student’s writing strengths and needs to guide individualized instruction. Effective writing instruction is a scaffolded collaboration between teachers and students. Teachers need to know where students are at and what they can do, by collecting writing samples and examining them, assessing where children need support and planning appropriate instruction.
- Provide students with limited, constructive, and thoughtful feedback. It is important to provide thoughtful and sensitive feedback to students about their writing—to help them find and understand in their drafts both the diamonds and the rough.
- Encourage peer review. Elementary students often have difficulty revising their own writing even though this stage of the process is as important as drafting. Revising and editing a peer’s writing helps students develop a fresh perspective on the proofreading process, in turn helping them become more aware and reflective as they draft, revise and edit their own work for their intended audience.
Despite the inherent challenges in English writing instruction, the written English language does conform to predictable patterns, and more importantly, those patterns can be taught directly to students. Spelling instruction of reliable patterns enable students to analyze and categorize words, and to spell a high percentage of words without memorization. Our approach to spelling instruction is based on the following principles:
- Regular weekly spelling work;
- Differentiated lists to meet students at their instructional level;
- Lessons should focus on a single orthographic principle, such as a spelling pattern or phonogram;
- Activities should lead students to generalize patterns, not memorize “rules”;
- Lessons should balance explicit instruction and authentic reading and writing activities;
- Activities should be multisensory, engaging students in reading, writing, speaking and hearing;
- Student involvement in learning—through self-correction, personal dictionaries, and conferencing—is critical.
There are two main goals when we teach elementary students handwriting:
To help them develop legible handwriting to communicate effectively.
To help children develop facility, speed, and ease of handwriting.
In this early stage of elementary, our programs focus on reinforcing correct pencil grip and letter formation. (The early years of schooling are especially critical for handwriting instruction; once children have formed counterproductive habits in handwriting, such as poor pencil grip or inefficient letter formation, those habits can be difficult to change.) To ensure legibility and fluency for those for children needing additional support or remediation, it is imperative to implement individualized handwriting instruction and daily handwriting practice based on the following principles:
- Consistent formation of letters using a continuous stroke;
- Focus initially on learning motor patterns rather than perfect legibility;
- Teach similarly formed letters together;
- Separate reversible letters such as b and d;
- Integration of handwriting instruction with letter sounds (for beginning readers);
- In teaching cursive, explicitly teach connections between letters as well as formation of single letters;
- Once correct letter formation is perfected, aim for speed as well as legibility.