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.
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