Montessori is a child-centered, individualized approach to learning following the philosophy of Maria Montessori, an Italian physician and educator. In the early part of the twentieth century, Dr. Montessori developed a set of hands-on, self-correcting materials to assist children with severe learning disabilities. At the time, the children were labeled as mentally defective and relegated to asylums, considered wholly uneducable. Yet Dr. Montessori was able to teach these children to read; in only two years, her pupils were able to pass standardized tests given by the public schools for their age level. Dr. Montessori had invented the first “multisensory” approach to teaching; the handicapped children that she worked with would likely be diagnosed with dyslexia, high-functioning autism, or related learning disabilities by today's standards.
Maria Montessori believed that every human being went through a quantum leap in learning during the preschool years. She also believed that children experience sensitive periods in their development, during which they seek certain stimuli with immense intensity, to the exclusion of all others. These are transitory periods in which they develop specific mental functions, such as: movement, language, order, refinement of the senses, and social awareness. If a child's need for specific stimuli is not met during the sensitive period, learning will be more difficult later on.
Soon after this success, Dr. Montessori was asked to open and administer a day care center for working class children in the slum district of Rome. She found that the children, ages two to five, were fascinated by educational devices she had developed for use with mentally handicapped children, and she allowed the youngsters to explore the materials, following the same progressive approach she had developed for teaching the asylum children. By age four, most of the pupils in her “Children's House” were reading, writing, and performing four-digit mathematics calculations.
The Montessori approach is based on providing children with access to specially developed materials that allow each child to discover basic concepts on his own, through self-guided work with the materials, and to use knowledge gained to move on to progressively more advanced concepts. Classes are typically large, with twenty to thirty students and two to three teachers per room. Children work individually with materials that are kept on low, open shelves; the teachers are trained to observe each child carefully and introduce new materials when the child appears ready to move on.
Children are introduced to the letters of the alphabet by learning the sounds of each letter and by running their fingers over sandpaper cutouts of the letters. They prepare for writing by tracing insets or stencils of simple shapes, like circles and triangles, until they have the manual dexterity to manage letters as well. Most will learn to write before they can read, encouraged by the teacher to piece together letter blocks or cutouts on their own to form words. This phonetic approach begins at age two; a child is never pushed or prodded by the teacher, but simply allowed to progress at his own individual pace, under the watchful eye of the teacher.
Children in a Montessori environment are kept in mixed-age groups, such as ages two to five or six to nine. This allows younger children to learn from observation of their older peers, and also provides a classroom that will be well-stocked with materials appropriate for many different ability levels. At the elementary and middle school level, Montessori continues to be highly individualized, allowing each child to work at his own level, but there is more focus on group work as older children are better able to work and learn cooperatively with their peers.
If you are fortunate enough to recognize your child's unique learning style when he is still a toddler, you may find the Montessori classroom to be a place where he will flourish and build a strong foundation for learning. Many of the skills and concepts that are emphasized in remedial programs for dyslexia are included as a natural part of the Montessori child's world from the start. For example, your child will be learning to recognize letters and associate them with their sounds long before the typical age when “early intervention” to teach phonemic awareness begins for children in traditional schools.
However, if your child is older, it may be difficult for her to integrate into a Montessori environment. The Montessori classroom has its own set of norms and rules; it is an orderly, clean, and quiet environment that depends on the cooperation of children who have grown up with the concepts of self-care and responsibility inherent in the approach. An elementary school-age child may have a hard time fitting in, especially if she has come to rely on the teacher-directed instructional methods used in traditional classroom settings.
Even if your child has been in a Montessori environment since preschool, he may not be able to successfully become a reader without extra support and intervention. The individualized, child-led approach of the Montessori method will serve your child well in most cases, but it may not give him all he needs to learn to read. You may need to supplement your child's schooling with specialized tutoring or programs to help him fill some of the gaps left by the self-guided approach of his school.