Early Math and Language Skills Part 1

Image credit: Leo Reynolds on Flickr

I have felt a bit lost on some things since Annabelle was born, having to dig around for ideas on objects and activities to enrich her environment. On many occasions, I’ve joked that I would know what to do with her when she was two and a half. Of course I have learned a great deal along the way so that hopefully I’ll be less clueless for this next baby, but it occurred to me recently that at this point, she is almost two and a half! If I were still in the classroom and she in Montessori as well, she would be a mere two months away from starting her transition into the “Children’s House” with me. It boggles the mind!

Once I got over my initial shock at the realization that my tiny baby was actually a full-fledged toddler – near preschooler, even, I started thinking back through the different ways I set up my last classroom to allow for the development of early math and language skills. I’ve been asking myself what I might do now to make sure our home is rich with opportunities to build these skills.

Something I believe pretty strongly is that the focus with toddlers and young preschoolers should not be on letters and numbers. Of course some will express an interest themselves, even at this young age, asking questions and gravitating toward these things in their environment. I would never ignore or discourage this – there is tremendous value in following the child’s interests, after all – but I also refuse to sit my two year old down to go over the alphabet. She has far better things to do.

When people think of early learning experiences for toddlers and young preschoolers, the first thing that comes to mind seems to be the alphabet and numbers. Even educational toys designed for infants are often made with letters and numerals all over them, and don’t get me started on this Your Baby Can Read business. Babies can do just about anything, but why should they care about reading when they’re still joyfully discovering the basic truths of the universe, like the fact that if they spill water on themselves, they’ll get wet, or that when things fall, they make a sound. I don’t mean to say that there’s anything inherently wrong with alphabet blocks, number magnets, and the like. Some of them are downright gorgeous, actually. It’s just that they illustrate the common feeling that these are some of the first things our youngest children should be learning, and even that they need to be learning them at this very young age.

From the moment they start holding their heads up, the questions about babies start coming and I can only tell you for sure about the first two and a half years, but from where I’m sitting, they never stop. “Has she rolled over yet?” “Has he started walking?” “My Susie is learning the alphabet. What about your daughter?” Of course the questions typically come from a place of genuine interest in what a child is doing, but they can perpetuate the idea that if children don’t dive right in to these subjects just as soon as they master walking, there’s a problem.

The thing many don’t realize is just how abstract letters and numbers actually are. We tend to think of reading as children’s first and most important academic skill, but how many have actually considered the complex preparation required for reading? In Montessori, we introduce writing first, and allow reading to follow on naturally. This seems counter intuitive to many at first, but when you think about it, it makes perfect sense. To pull from an old, old post of mine, “This may sound crazy, but makes perfect sense when you consider that the process of writing is encoding, a process much less complicated than decoding, which reading necessitates. The children learn the sounds of the English language and their corresponding symbols, and soon learn that they can put these together to make words. Later on, they have what is often called an “explosion” into reading. They know all the sounds, understand concretely what it means to put letters together to make words, and for this reason are quite well-prepared for reading, and as soon as they realize that they have what it takes, generally take to it quite easily.”

Prior to writing, however, or even learning the sounds associated with each letter, children are developing so many different skills in preparation for the complex tasks of reading and writing. Just think about the alphabet. There are twenty six different symbols that have no logical connection to the sound they make. They’re not visual representations of actual things, just something humans dreamed up and assigned meaning to. Before children can be expected to learn the sounds each one represents, they have to develop the skill of visual discrimination. In other words, they need to be able to tell the darn things apart. B and D look quite similar, you see, as do l and t, R and P, m and n. Remember that not long ago, preschoolers were still in a stage of development where its quite possible that they thought of everything with four legs as a dog or a cat, or were quite certain that all women were named, “mama.” I point this out not to trivialize the incredible capacity for understanding that young children undeniably have, but simply to illustrate that expecting a two or three old to make the giant leap from learning to detect the (comparatively large) differences between two distinct large mammal species, to differentiating between an m and an n or a b and a d.

In addition to being able to visually see the differences between the symbols for each individual letter, children also have to learn to hear the often subtle differences between the spoken sounds they represent. They need to develop their powers of auditory discrimination, so that they can learn to pick out the different sounds in a word, and to detect the differences between similar sounds such as b and v, or m and n.

There are a number of other, more subtle skills involved in learning to read and to put words together, but these two are particularly important. What I find interesting is that, despite the huge emphasis placed on literacy in early childhood environments, early mathematical skills are actually foundational to the development of these important pre-language abilities. For the next few Mondays, I’ll look more closely at these basic early math and language skills and share some ideas for ways that we as parents can enrich our home environments with opportunities to master them.


More Posts in this Series

Early Math and Language Skills: Part 2

Early Math and Language Skills Part 3: Pre-Writing

Early Math and Language Skills: Pre-Reading

The Montessori Method for Teaching the Letter Sounds

Early Math and Language Skills: Pre-Math

More Than Just Numbers: Montessori Pre-Math

17 thoughts on “Early Math and Language Skills Part 1

  1. Rach

    Thanks Melissa, I can’t wait for these very timely posts! I have been thinking about what else I can be doing to help B too and feeling numbers and letters mean zilch. I am just finishing an update post on B where I bemoan the early maths and reading targets set here in UK and how easy it is to get caught up in it. I feel so lucky to have your guidance. Ooh auditory discrimination is not something I connected with reading but i sense some very illuminating posts and activities coming up.

    1. melissa Post author

      I’m glad the topic is on your mind, too. I’m sure you’ll have some great ideas yourself! I can always use more. I’ll be watching for that update post.

  2. Jessica

    Great post! I wish more people understood the importance of auditory discrimination and it’s correlation with reading later on.

    1. melissa Post author

      It really is important! Until I started teaching, I never thought about how hard it is for children to simply isolate and pick out the individual sounds in a word. It’s such a huge, and hugely underestimated skill!

  3. Lori

    I couldn’t agree with you more! I loved hearing your story and how you are introducing early reading with your toddler. I shared your post on the Montessori MOMents Facebook page. facebook.com/MontessoriMOMents

    Thanks for the great read! Happy Homeschooling!

    1. melissa Post author

      Thanks so much for letting me know you enjoyed the post, and for sharing, Lori! I really appreciate it!

  4. Sylvia Phillips

    Interesting and food for thought! My Betty Boop has spent 10 years trying to learn how to read. She still can’t blend the letter sounds together even though she has known each individual letter’s sound for so many years. Perhaps she never will, but perhaps I have been going about from the wrong angle?!

    1. melissa Post author

      Being able to pick out the sounds each letter makes is an important step, but of course blending is another, entirely separate and sometimes challenging skill. You obviously know your children well, so I can’t imagine that you’re simply going at it from the wrong angle. I know you enjoy implementing the Montessori method. Is that what you have used for reading and writing? I imagine you have probably tried all sorts of things! I’d be happy to try to help, but I doubt I have many tricks up my sleeve that you haven’t tried. If anything sparks your interest during this series and you want to talk, though, I’m here!

  5. Christine @ African Babies Don't Cry

    I agree with taking a relaxed approach to letters and the alphabet, no need to rush, if they do go to school they will have them drilled into them for years to come ;)
    Glad I’m not the only one who felt lost with how to enrich a young toddler / baby’s learning / home environment… I find almost all activities etc are aimed at preschoolers and older.

    1. melissa Post author

      It’s true that a whole wealth of ideas seem to be available for preschoolers and beyond, and yet for infants and toddlers most of what is readily available seems to be videos and other not suitable for infants things. Both of our children seem to have thrived on simply enjoying life through that phase anyhow, so it seems we’re doing okay! :)

  6. Janine

    Ha – Don’t get ME started on Your Baby Can Read either! For one, memorizing the shapes of words as a whole is not reading. And that’s not even the biggest issue. Your examples are great. Going back to read your older post on the topic now.

    Sebastian is really interested in letters. We do have fridge letter magnets, and he likes to push them together into clumps, vocalizing on and on with vowel sounds. We don’t pressure him to “read” of course, but will happily tell him the name of letters when he points to them. The only one he can pick out every time is the “K” for whatever reason. I do have big dreams of him being an early reader (I was, and mostly an early and excited writer), and even hope to teach him (and me!) Korean as he grows up. His dad was adopted from Korea and I think it would be cool, although obviously not the most valuable language to learn for living in the states. I know a bit of Spanish – Maybe that would be a better choice. ;)

    1. melissa Post author

      “Memorizing the shapes of words as a whole is not reading” <- Excellent point! Refrigerator magnets are a classic toy, and it sounds like Sebastian has found them to be a pretty engaging way to experiment with language. That must be such fun to watch! I’ll definitely be on the lookout for any tips or ideas you come up with as you get into learning a second language together. While Korean may not be the most common foreign language spoken in the states, just the skills involved in learning any language can be so valuable! We have been on again off again with Spanish since Annabelle was born, mostly off. I really wish I had more stick to when it comes to that, because it really is a useful skill!

  7. Amy

    Isn’t it funny the “checklist questions” people have for babies and children? I’d totally fail if those questions mattered?
    -Does she sleep though the night? (absolutely not)
    -Is she weaned? (ditto)
    – Does she stay with a babysitter for you to go on a date? (ditto)
    -Does she say the alphabet with Sesame Street? (ditto)

    Why don’t people ask:
    -Is she healthy?
    -Is she happy?

    1. melissa Post author

      Those last two really are the important ones! I’d fail most of the first set as well! I’m really not sure where the idea that the first are important comes from, but I love it when parenting advice acknowledges that a no answer to any of those questions is only a problem if it’s a problem for you. The sleeping through the night, for example, doesn’t matter to me at all. It doesn’t disrupt my life. You seem to be pretty at peace with your non-weaned, night waking kiddo, too, which tells me you’re doing just fine!


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