by Angela Hardy, Guide and Parent
Much of Montessori theory involves the idea that the mind develops best through the use of the senses, particularly through the use of the hand. Through the senses, the mind acquires an in-depth picture of the world around it. Through the work of the hand, the mind begins to “sharpen” by having an even clearer picture of that world.
Although Maria Montessori observed this happening in children over 100 years ago, scientists are now able to see (using brain imaging) what happens to the brain when we use our hands to learn. The evidence is clear: those of us who use our hands in learning activities acquire more brain folds and more permanent grooves than those who learn in other ways. In the developing brain, these folds and grooves help to form the personality and self-actualization of the person housing that brain.
What does all this have to do with grammar? A lot, actually!
Dr. Montessori exploited the brain’s potential by providing as many concrete symbols of abstract concepts as possible: i.e., anything that could or should be learned must be placed in the hand first. When there wasn’t an easy answer to the question, What should the concrete symbol be? (a model of the earth perhaps, or a movable wooden letter), Montessori invented one.
Language is one of the most abstract things that we use in our daily lives. Each word, spoken or written, is a symbol that has meaning, ties together our thoughts, and allows us to communicate those thoughts to others. Even a written word, made concrete through its visual representation, is abstract: it has to bring a picture to your brain in order to have meaning. Dr. Montessori created a symbol for each part of speech, making a completely abstract concept as concrete as it can get.
Montessori grammar materials allow a child to touch parts of speech, move them around, and place them in relationship to objects, spoken or written words, and other grammar symbols. A child begins to understand language and how/why it works.
By using Montessori grammar work, children begin to use language differently. They begin to understand what they’re saying and why they’re saying it. They begin to see why language is so important when used correctly, effectively, and aesthetically. These ideas, and children’s understanding of them, will translate directly to writing and all forms of communication that they use.
Dr. Montessori thought that children should learn these things when they are most ready and eager to learn them (starting before age 6). Then, by the time they are ready to start thinking about the broader stories of the universe (our beginning, middle, and future), they will already have the tools to express and communicate their questions, insights, and unique ideas, all of which can and will help shape the future of humanity.
They will not have to be frustrated trying to communicate their thoughts. Their ideas can be expressed fluently and their personalities and “potential energy” will be free to develop in an unhindered way.
What are these magical symbols, you ask? Since children begin their language journey by naming things in their environment, the Montessori method starts with the symbol for nouns: a squarebased, black pyramid . Children recognize this symbol from having worked with geometric solids, so their hands are already accustomed to its shape. Its color is meant to stand out to the eye when placed on white paper (something on which they will place two-dimensional versions of the symbol later on), and its shape is also meant to recall a story from history: that of the Egyptian pyramids.
The ancient Egyptians built these enormous structures to hold their most important treasures: their possessions and their dead. When Egyptians looked upon a pyramid, they may have felt great pride, happiness, belonging, and perhaps sadness at the passing of their loved ones. This story, along with its symbol and the use of the word noun, can be presented to a child before she is reading. She can hold the symbol in her hand and “hunt” for nouns in her environment. You can imagine how a three-year-old might even participate in this activity!
Each part of speech, presented with a carefully chosen corresponding symbol, is taught in this way. As the stories unfold, children begin to seek out language with joy and enthusiasm. They look forward to these language “lessons.”
When they are ready to write and use stencils to color symbols above their own written words on paper, they do so with ease and a sense of satisfaction. Young children may even feel a sense of place and belonging in their world by participating in these activities: they are partaking in the ancient and well constructed story of language, laid out before them by their ancestors and which they are now communicating to the present and future world. They are part of the story but they also write it.
Now doesn’t that sound a little nicer than the traditional method of diagramming sentences?
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