“When Did I Learn How to Read?”
by Lisa VanDamme
When prospective families tour my school, they are often surprised to learn the following: With only a handful of exceptions over her 15-year career, our Montessori teacher, Mrs. Beach, has had every kindergartener reading fluently by Christmas. To me, what is even more surprising is that for those kindergarteners, the process of learning to read has been effortless.
I was reminded of the rapidity and ease with which children in her class learn to read when my own kindergarten son asked me a question in the car the other day.
Realizing that he could now read the subtitles in his favorite surfing picture book, he asked, “Mom, when did I learn how to read?”
This is something I tell parents all the time, and yet it came as a delightful reminder from the lips of my own child. Over the first several months of school, the kindergarteners do a sequence of activities, each satisfying and enjoyable in its own right, each building seamlessly on the one that came before, and then — one magical day — they can read.
For so many children, the process of learning to read is labored and unnatural. Why? Here are a few of the many reasons:
- The “sensitive period” for reading is missed, either because parents and teachers naively underestimate the child’s capacity for learning, or worse, because they see academics as somehow at odds with childhood joy.
- The proper order of learning is violated, because many educators have embraced the delusion that it is more efficient to bypass phonetic components and instead teach the “whole word,” depriving students of the decoding skills that put the whole world of words in their hands.
- The necessity of individualized instruction is evaded, because ever-larger classes, universalized standards, and rote practices encourage teachers to treat the class like a homogenous group. The result is that the students are homogenously bored, but for different reasons — some are under-stimulated, and others overwhelmed.
The Montessori approach by contrast — with its child-friendly materials, its logically sequenced steps, and its individualized method — works like seeming magic.
Here is a glimpse of the process by which a kindergartener learns to read, with no awareness that “learning to read” is what he is doing.
The sound boxes pictured below are like a tiny little academic fairy garden. The child learns the sounds of each of the letters in the box, and then pulls out delightful miniaturized objects. He identifies the initial letter sound of the object (“b — b — banana”) and then places it beneath the corresponding letter. Doesn’t your inner child long to use this material?
Once all the letter sounds have been mastered, the child is ready for the moveable alphabet. Simple, short-vowel, three-letter-words are pictured, and the child sounds each one out slowly, finding the letter that corresponds with the sound, and spelling the word. (Note: The child is able to spell words long before he can write — and the moveable alphabet is a brilliant material that recognizes and facilitates that ability.)
As the child masters particular phonetic components, he is ready for readers that center around that skill. These readers are carefully ordered and incremental, with each new skill adding to and building upon the last.
Mrs. Beach recalls the life-changing moment when, after obtaining a BS in Early Childhood Education and being hired to teach in a St. Louis public school, she walked into the classroom, looked at the bright eyes of her students, and faced the panicked realization, “I have no idea how to teach these children to read.” That was the beginning of the journey that led her to training in the Montessori method, and later, to VanDamme Academy.
The activities described above are some of the cornerstones of the method she learned. If these activities are presented at the proper time, practiced by the child until mastery is achieved, and expanded upon step by methodical step, they are utterly enjoyable on their own terms, and — taken together — they lead to the day when your child asks in wonderment: “When did I learn how to read?”