As educators, the age-old adage ‘reading, writing, arithmetic’ either strikes a pleasant chord or strikes fear into our hearts. We want to make sure our children are capable, that goes without saying, and results show home educated children are very capable. But sometimes we feel the pressure and expectations on us as home educators. We may not like how we learned, or we may have doubts about how best to approach teaching our children. There isn’t just one answer to the many questions others ask about how we teach the 3Rs, let alone the questions we ask ourselves. But one of the beauties of home education is that we can dabble in a variety of methods – in fact, because of the diversity of our community we can find many options we might not have otherwise considered. Let me share just a little of one method I have used with my children.
Maria Montessori, physician and educator, had a philosophy best described as ‘following the child’ and those of us who are ‘delight directed’ or ‘natural learning’ advocates find many similarities in her philosophy. Even Charlotte Mason, Waldorf/Steiner and Suzuki have overlap with her pedagogy. However, the very structured nature and specific materials of some aspects of her method usually remain the domain of experts in Montessori schools which tend to be private, and therefore expensive, places to send children. My son was very lucky to attend a Montessori preschool for a year with the financial help of my parents (and my daughter was there the year after him since the age span of the ‘Casa’ is three years). This particular preschool held regular information nights for parents and was also very open with me, a former teacher with a strong fascination for the method, asking a million questions and setting up as much as I could in my home for the benefit of my children. This became very useful to me later when we began home educating my son at the age of seven and my daughter at the age of four. I fell in love with the method because I had worked as a remedial mathematics and language teacher and found, as Montessori had designed it, that making literacy and numeracy skills accessible and acquirable her way worked wonderfully well and I wished I had been more familiar with them during my career.
My son was (and still is) quite a reluctant writer. I’m glad to report that as a teenager he can and will write when necessary in a meticulously crafted print hand (we picked our battles when it came to printing/cursive, a debate I will leave open for your own opinion) and my daughter, who enjoys writing, writes copious amounts in both print and her own ‘curly script’ as she calls it.
Writing does not begin with writing, with a pen or pencil, in Montessori’s method. There are many tasks that support the skill of writing. Many ‘Practical Life’ and ‘Sensorial’ tasks help with the concentration and the physical skill necessary to write.
This activity was a lot of fun for my children. I found a website that explained various ways of lacing shoes, picked up a pair of very plain shoes from an op shop, labelled them left and right, printed off some instructions and laminated them, but you don’t need to go to that length, even just using your own shoes and reading instructions off a smartphone screen would be fine! This really helped my son with his pencil grip.
Similar activities help with writing skills, the pencil grip and the pin pointing accuracy and direction, such as threading pictures.
In this activity, my daughter is sorting and matching items, some of which are similar to others in either shape or colour, and then using tweezers to move them from one tray to an egg carton and then into their storage box when finished. This kind of task helped my son with his pencil grip among other things.
One of the iconic materials from Montessori is the Sandpaper Letters. I made my own set using scraps of mounting board from our local picture framers (a great source of free board of all sizes, they used to let me raid their off-cuts box regularly!). I simply outlined the letters, painted on glue and sprinkled on sand. I made mine italicised but not cursive, but I would recommend cursive if you plan to teach it – again a matter of opinion but in the case of my son he took to printing and never cursive and I put it down to the success of the sandpaper letters and wonder if I had made them cursive, or even had both, he might’ve had equal success. The children use these to learn how the letters are formed, by the directress – or parent – demonstrating how to trace the letter with two fingers, in the same manner in which we move the pencil. The child then copies what was demonstrated, and it is a self-correcting material as they will feel smooth board if their fingers stray off the sand. This is a wonderful activity, particularly for tactile learners.
The sandpaper letters are also used for what is called a ‘three period lesson’ in learning the names of the letters, many repetitive lessons in a very effective graduated method using a trio of letters at a time:
1st lesson – this is a, this is b, this is c
2nd lesson – tell me which is a? tell me which is b? tell me which is c?
3rd lesson – what is the name of this letter? What is the name of that letter? What is the name of the other letter?
Just as an aside, this ‘three period lesson’ is useful in many areas of learning, and it is even quoted by Karen Andreola in the Charlotte Mason Companion.
My daughter wasn’t quite ready for the Sandpaper Letters but she was so intrigued by them and also had begun learning her letters in Auslan (sign language) so I allowed her to match the letters on both sets of cards. She learned her letters as hearing-impaired people do, as a symbol and a sign without a sound.
The school my son attended for Prep used the Fitzroy Readers. Here, he is making sentences from the Fitzroy Readers using a set of letters I made from clear Lego windows, after Montessori’s material called the ‘moveable alphabet’. I recall having something similar in my first year at school myself, they were kits each student had in a pocket which hung on the back of our chairs and I remembered them fondly; even Scrabble letters and holders could be used, or purchasing some very small ceramic tiles and writing letters on them in permanent texta, or there are magnetic versions available commercially.
This helped him to concentrate on the words separately from the skill of holding a pencil. He loves Lego and enjoyed building the words. ‘A fat cat sat on … ’
Sometimes I would assist by giving him the correct length of grey ‘stand’ so he knew how many letters which helped with his spelling. Other times I would let him choose which ‘stand’ he needed (which was where he learnt to count by 2s!). In this photo, he had progressed to writing each word on the whiteboard after he had built it. ‘Dino Rhino looked at the clock. It was … ‘
In this picture, he has already used the Lego words, which have now been removed so he can see what he needed to copy into his book. I had never seen him so interested in writing or capable of writing such a lot of sentences! This was after 6pm and we had been able to sit together for over an hour and get this homework finished. He had struggled at school to do any creative writing of any sort, but with this, he had huge success.
‘We played LEGO in my room. I made an enormous car. Dino Rhino was driving it.’
This was enormous progress for him.
Fast forward six years since some of these photos were taken, and we have had most of my Montessori-inspired materials packed away while we moved house multiple times, but having moved into our forever home and being forced to stay home thanks to lockdowns, I got around to unpacking them and put them on display again. The fondness with which my now 13- and 10-year-old children rediscovered them and wanted me to remind them of the work we did with them was so lovely to see. The last month or so we’ve been reacquainting ourselves with our Montessori-inspired mathematics materials to support our current learning – yes many of the mathematical concepts introduced to three- to six-year-olds in Montessori classrooms extend into late primary and early secondary, including algebra and geometry.
Montessori deserves the name she has for herself in educational circles. If this has whetted your appetite, I can only encourage you to search for some resources on the internet as there are many instructional videos and informational websites which can help with how to use Montessori materials and the Montessori method.
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