ENCOURAGING LANGUAGE DEVELOPMENT IN THE FIRST FIVE YEARS
According to Maria Montessori children from birth to six years are in the age of the absorbent mind. In relation to language, this means that children learn a language simply by being surrounded by it. I don’t know about you, but after living in Vietnam as a foreigner for almost ten years I wish this were the case with adults!
So how can we encourage language development with our little ones at home? And what does this look like as they get older? In this article, I will share some ways we have encouraged language development with our two daughters at home starting from birth and up through age 2. I will also share some methods and materials that are used in the Montessori classroom for the language development of older children and how to use them at home.
Birth through Toddlerhood
From birth throughout those first couple months, our little ones don’t need a whole lot besides their parents. With all of this time glued together, you have endless opportunities to speak to your little one. Talking and singing to your little one are perfect ways to surround your newborn baby with language. In Montessori, we believe in respecting our babies from birth - one way you can do this is by talking to your baby and explaining as you move their body. If you are familiar with Magda Gerber or RIE parenting, you may already be doing this. As an example, if you need to change your baby’s diaper, tell them what you are doing: “Okay, it’s time to change your diaper, you did pee and it’s wet. I’m going to pick you up now and lay you down here on your mat. Now I’m opening your diaper and lifting your little legs up - one, two - you have two legs.” Narrate what you are doing both to your baby and with your baby. In this way, your baby becomes an active participant in what is happening, and you begin to make it a routine to involve your baby in all actions that happen to them. As someone who talks aloud to myself anyway, this was easy for me! But if you don’t typically narrate your day aloud, it may take some getting used to, practice it and soon it will become second nature.
As your baby starts to make sounds remember that all those cute little baby babbles are your child trying to communicate with you. From the beginning, spend time face to face with your baby and make sounds by moving your mouth in different shapes, your baby will try to copy you. Always respect your baby’s intelligence by avoiding baby language and instead respond and speak in sentences. When your baby is babbling, your responses will stimulate their reaction with voice and they will continue to try to talk. Try having conversations with your baby throughout the day and especially in response to their attempts at communicating with you.
Books, books, books. Read books to your little ones, even from the very beginning! There are some great high-contrast books out there for those very young eyes. Reading books exposes your child to a variety of language uses, not to mention illustrations provide a great opportunity to explore even more language. As you read, talk to your child about the pictures in the book, talk about the characters or animals, the colors you see, count the objects, talk about the feelings of the book, really anything you can make a connection with to bring the book to life. Remember, your child has an absorbent mind at this age and everything you say is building their language development.
Nursery rhymes and poems are a fun way to develop language. Often nursery rhymes and poems rhyme- they help children develop their auditory skills by discriminating between sounds and listening for the music in words. Once your child begins to speak, the repetition of these simple rhymes along with the musical factor makes them fun and easy to sing. They help build mouth and tongue muscles and encourage articulation, once your child learns one they will want to repeat them over and over aiding in enunciation. Adding fingerplay and hand gestures is also a great way to engage your child in nursery rhymes, poems, or songs while developing auditory, visual, and tactile senses.
Play ‘I-spy’. If you have a child that has begun to show an interest in print and letters a great beginning game is I spy. Take an object, for example, a toy pig, and say “I spy with my little eyes something that starts with the sound ‘p-p-p’” The child will look at the pig and say “pig!” Together you can name other things that start with that same sound, of course with you guiding at the beginning. Emphasize the ‘p’ sound as you say each word “pig, puppy, potty, Papa.” Teaching first to hear the beginning sounds of words, then ending sounds, finally middle sounds. This is a great first step before leaping into letters and letter sounds.
Sound boxes are another great way to encourage an awareness of beginning/middle/ending sounds in words. You may place a basket with various items from around the house that all have the same beginning sound. Together with your child, discover the items in the basket and explore the sounds of each word. At first you will be guiding and making the connections by thinking aloud and eventually your child will start to join. If you wish to start an entire alphabet collection, you may place the objects into paper cups and collect the cups in a tray as you work your way through the alphabet- later you can label the cups with the written letter if you wish.
Perhaps you have seen the famous 3-part Montessori cards? They are a staple Montessori resource to aid in language development. These can be used early on to develop spoken language and later to help your child develop print recognition. These are, simply put, a picture card with a matching label that has an ‘answer’ card where the picture and label are attached. At the beginning a common use is to have the physical object to match to the object (picture) card - if you are learning farm animals you may have miniature farm animal figurines in a basket placed on a tray along with picture cards of those animals. Your child can learn the name of each animal as they match the figurine to the photograph on the card. Later, when your child has an understanding of the alphabet you can use the label cards to match to the object (picture) card and then compare to the third control card to check if it is a match.
If your child is showing an interest in text and print and has a solid foundation in recognizing spoken sounds, it may be a good time to introduce sandpaper letters. In the classroom, these are typically introduced around the age of four, however, you should always follow your child’s interests and abilities. Sandpaper letters are wooden tiles with each letter on one tile written out in very fine sandpaper. It is a tactile resource for your child to begin learning the phonetic sounds of the alphabet as well as the shape of the letters. The consonants are written on a pink tile while the vowels are on a blue tile. Letters are taught using a multi-sensory approach. By tracing the letters with their finger, your child will gain muscular memory of the shape of each letter while saying the phonetic sound- starting with the most common sounds first. As your child is learning by muscle memory the shape of the letters, it is important that your child traces the letters properly to develop a good pattern for handwriting later on. While these alphabets may be expensive to buy, they are a fairly simple DIY project with a little sandpaper, cardboard, and glue!
The moveable alphabet is a box of small wooden letters, multiples of each letter, used to piece together words. Children use their prior knowledge gained from work with the sandpaper letters and understanding of letter sounds from games like I spy or sound boxes to build words. I have seen quite similar resources around Ho Chi Minh City and bought some in the past-though they are often capital letters instead of lowercase letters which is preferred. If you choose to use these after introducing the sandpaper letters, the Montessori moveable alphabet follows the same color scheme as the sandpaper letters- blue for vowels and red for consonants. Again, children have a multi-sensory experience of physically building words while sounding out each letter sound. We typically begin by building short vowel words with objects and pictures. For example, if you are working with the short /o/ sound, you may have a few objects for your child from around the house such as a pot, top, or mop. Your child will name the object, isolate each sound, and match a letter from the moveable alphabet to each sound. (Note: We generally teach lowercase letters first as most environmental text your child will encounter is lowercase.)
Always remember that your little ones have a truly absorbent mind and for them to learn a language, they must be surrounded by language. Avoid thinking you have to simplify language for your little one- use rich descriptive language instead. For example, once your child knows the word ‘bird’, begin to use specific bird types when talking about birds in pictures or real life. Recently I was fortunate enough to have a long holiday at the beach in Mui Ne with my daughters. We spent a lot of time outside and bird watching became a favorite morning activity. My daughter, then 23 months old, showed real interest in birds. I followed her lead and researched some local bird names. Before long she was pointing to birds and calling them by their names, “See racket-tailed treepie” she would say, or “I hear it greater coucal” as we would take our morning walk. Language is never too difficult or too advanced for our little ones, with proper vocabulary building you can help make it attainable. Give their sponge of brain plenty to soak up!
We at Góc Montessori hope you found this article useful. Thank you.