Sensitive Periods is a phrase that Maria Montessori coined that refers to times in a child’s life when he/she is most inclined to develop certain aspects of his/herself. Spontaneously children move in the direction of self-development in the areas in which they are sensitive. The environment can support and encourage the child in his/her natural inclination at this time.
Besides language development Montessori identified movement and order as being aspects of the personality of the child in most need of environmental support from birth to six years.
Educators speak of receptive language and expressive language. Receptive language is listening and reading (or being read to). Expressive language is speaking and writing. Receptive language typically precedes expressive language. The infant listens for a very long time prior to speaking. The child is read to prior to reading.
The environment can support the development of the child in listening and speaking skills, and in writing and reading skills.
Often not discussed with regard to language development but of vital importance is the child’s visual acuity and auditory discrimination. In learning to speak the child must visually notice the articulators of speech: lip, tongue, and teeth placement.
There are other articulators but they cannot be seen. This same developing visual acuity that serves the child in learning to speak becomes a foundation for the visual acuity required in distinguishing the letters of the alphabet.
In addition to visual acuity there is auditory discrimination. The child must train the ear to hear the separate sounds that make up a word. The beginning sound of the word, the ending sound of the word, and the medial (middle) sound of the word must be heard by the child.
The child’s visual acuity and auditory discrimination come together in the effort to learn to read and to write. The child must now make the association between the sound heard and the symbol representing the sound. Reading is the culmination of years of work that the young child has undertaken in developing the eye and the ear. This task is supported within the child by his/her Sensitive Period for language, and in the environment with adults who articulate (speak) clearly and slowly, and read to their child.
The Montessori classroom supports the child’s emerging language in many activities which encourage auditory and visual development, and in exercises in sound/symbol association.
What should a literacy program in the home look like? It begins with the “gaze”, the focus of the newborn infant looking into the parent’s eyes as he/she is cradled in the parent’s arms. At birth the child focuses at 12 inches which is just the distance of the parent’s eyes to the infant’s eyes when cradled. This gaze is the foundation for concentration. It orients the child to the human face which is the major communication center. The face is where words come from. The movement of the adult’ lips, teeth, and tongue gives the child the information needed to learn to speak and later to identify the seperate sounds in a word….an important skill for reading.
This means that we speak to children after we have eye contact. We get down to the child’s eye level so that the child can see our tongue, lips, and teeth when we speak. The information that the child receives when the adult makes eye contact before speaking is enormous.
Reading to children has often been related to the development of early reading in young children. However, just reading to children does not necessarily describe the full interaction. New words or ideas presented in the book must be discussed. What are “curds and whey” in Little Miss Muffett? The richness of language must be communicated. Also, retracing the sequence in the story is a useful game when you complete the telling of a story. You can even get into remembering the names of the characters in the story and what they did, and if they seemed to be helpful, funny, etc.
Games for learning the sounds of the letters of the alphabet begin with ear training. The child’s ear must distinguish the different sounds in a word. You can play a game of seeing something in the environment and saying, “I am thinking of a word that begins with the sound of….”. The child then guesses what you are thinking of. This sound game can go on endlessly as you are having dinner, driving in the car, ….anywhere!
The blending game develops the skill of blending separate sounds together. Say, “I am thinking of a magic word. Can you guess what it is?” “mmmm/aaaa/nnnn”. The child hears the separate sounds and guesses “man”.
Of course, just having relaxed conversations with your child where ideas and emotions and relationships are explored is most powerful.