Montessori approaches to supporting Literacy skills and experiences with your child at home
-As tempting as the ‘ABC’ song is...Montessori deliberately introduces phonetics first so it is helpful for your child if you do the same at home.
The use of phonetics helps a child to more easily understand that the purpose of letters and words is to symbolise verbal sounds and speech. Non-phonetic words are not constructed or decoded until the child has already shown a firm grasp of building and reading phonetics.
Please note that encouraging phonetics does not mean ignoring the existence of the names of the letters (that is, the 'names' that are sung in the ABC song). If your child discusses the names of the letters rather than the sounds (such as "b" pronounced "bee" rather than the phonetic "b" as in "ball") then you can simply reinforce that the knowledge is accurate but that there is a different way of looking at it. Explain to your child “that is the name of the letter but the sound that the letter makes is….”. This redirects your child’s focus to the phonetic language without making them feel as though they were wrong.
-Help your child to create both visual and muscular memories of letters and words.
Muscular memory is very valuable as it creates a stronger recognition and recollection of the figure through the duality of body and brain! It also provokes a physical fluency in later creating that shape to form the letters when writing. At Pre-School we use the Sandpaper Letters to give this physical recollection of letters but similar sensations can be easily recreated at home. Encourage your child to draw letters in a tray or shallow plate of sand (or polenta). Show your child how to run a finger through the loose dirt in the garden to draw letter shapes! Alternatively consider creating your own version of Sandpaper Letters. By drawing letters on cardboard with glue and then dipping the wet glue into sand you can create a similar type of sensorial symbol.
-Use written language as much as possible around your child.
This will help to stimulate and encourage their natural curiosity about literacy. When you are reading to the child make sure they can see the words as well as hear them to reinforce the benefits of being able to read written language. In day to day life point out examples of where writing and reading are helpful. Let them watch you in simple tasks such as writing a letter or reading a recipe so that they can see how many possibilities literacy holds in life.
-Role model handwriting and reading books around your child (and ask older siblings to do the same to inspire their little brothers or sisters). Children are natural imitators - they are innately driven to absorb their culture and emulate their peers. So if you only ever type on a keyboard or read from a tablet then your child is going to absorb and imitate that! Make an effort to ensure that handwriting and printed books are seen as culturally relevant to your whole family so that they will be appealing to your child!
-Ensure that paper and pencils are always readily available for your child.
If possible it is preferable for these tools to be kept in a place where your child may access them independently. This means that even if you are busy or unavailable at the exact moment that they feel a desire to write their enthusiasm will not wane by needing to wait for you to be free. Instead you can be pleasantly surprised when your child presents you with their work.
-Remember that when your child presents you with their finished work or artistic creations it is useful to put an emphasis on your child’s sense of pride rather than your praise.
Rather than applying an adult value system by saying “good job” you can empower your child by asking “do you feel really proud of your work?”. This way they can build their own sense of personal, internal pride and achievement rather than only feeling that they have done a good job if you tell them that they have. Also focus on the process rather than the product. If your child has spent an hour on a drawing and then presents you with the final product then perhaps try saying “I noticed that you spent a long time working on that. It looked like it was really important to you and you put in lots of effort” rather than merely praising the outcome. This encourages your child to feel proud of each moment of their attempts rather than just their ending.
Focusing on the product or providing too much praise can instil a sense of pressure in your child. He or she can become so accustomed to that external judgement that it affects internal motivation. This can manifest in a few different ways but the most relevant to the development of Literacy is that a child who is accustomed to praise might avoid 'tricky' tasks because he/she wants to stick to things that are "easy" or that the child knows he/she is "good" at (*read more about why that happens below). Most aspects of Literacy are, undeniably, 'tricky'. They are acquired skills that require repetition, practice and gradual improvement. Writing does not just magically "happen" overnight, nor does reading (except for a very fortunate few). A child who is so addicted to praise that he/she avoids taking risks will find it extremely difficult to develop strong literacy skills in an enjoyable manner.
-Have fun - and be a parent not a teacher!
Of course you want to support your child's development but your #1 job as a parent is to love!
Love your child, love being with your child, love engaging with your child, love talking with your child.
You can absolutely introduce activities, play language games, read stories...but the minute it stops being fun (for you or your child) is the minute that it should stop! Take a break, take a step back and reassess. If your child is unhappy then you might accidentally be teaching the lesson that "language is boring and hard". If you're feeling stressed by trying to present activities then you might accidentally be conveying the message that you feel like time together it a "chore" not a joy. So simply release yourself from the pressure to teach and give yourself permission to just be with your child!
*Children who have become reliant on praise (through overexposure to it) can start to believe that a task is not worthy unless it results in rewards. More troubling is that the child can come to believe that he or she is not worthy unless being praised. This feeling drives the child to seek experiences that offer praise while avoiding those that don't guarantee it. The child therefore tends to stick to known tasks rather than attempting new ones (or remaining at one level instead of reaching for a higher goal). By remaining within the comfort zone of familiar tasks the child believes he/she will be guaranteed further praise. On the other hand, taking risks and trying new things becomes scary and unappealing because the child believes he/she will not receive automatic praise.
One common additional trap here is that as the child returns repeatedly to the familiar task, the parent becomes increasingly less impressed (simply because they have seen it a hundred times before) and so the praise becomes less enthusiastic. The child then becomes even more insecure because now the praise has suddenly stopped for something the child thought he/she was good at. This shakes the child's self-confidence and again makes them less likely to step outside of that comfort zone or to embrace challenges.
(Please note - some children respond differently to 'praise' and might appear to be very motivated to try new things because they like getting more and more awards or accolades. It is common, however, for these high-achieving children to suffer feelings of inadequacy, perfectionism and anxiety even when they are "succeeding". For a much more detailed analysis of how and why external rewards can be damaging I highly recommend the book 'Punished by Rewards' by the amazing Alfie Kohn.)