Early literacy skills are those skills deemed requisite to acquisition including expanding vocabulary and language, concepts of print, phonemic awareness, demonstrating awareness, knowledge of letters, and comprehending stories. (Cornille & others, 2002). Early literacy begins when young children begin to use oral language . The early childhood up until about age eight is often a window for learning early literacy. It is important for children to acquire literacy skills during this window of opportunities. According to early education theorist, Piaget, language represents a verbal pattern that follows a chain of actions and that thought through language represents elements of structure. In other words, language is a notation for a system cognitive instruments including classifications and relationships. Piaget also stressed that the environment of the child, the communication opportunities and the experiences that take place can shape the development of the child.
Montessori Language and Literacy Curriculum
The following is a carefully graded Montessori methodology of early literacy skills acquisition:
- Insets for Design, Sandpaper Letters and Large Moveable Alphabet (LMA) for motor movement.
- Three –Letter phonics sounds which is the Pink Series comprising of matching, reading of sight words, phrases and sentences and Reading Books.
- Early grammar includes Noun and Verb.
- Four or more letters phonics blending which is the Blue Series involving matching, reading of word list, sight words, phrases and sentences and Reading Books.
- Early grammar includes Noun extension, Adjective, Verb extension, Themes, as well as Singular and Plural.
- Four or more letters phonograms and diagraphs which is the Green Series involving matching, reading of word list, sight words, phrases and sentences and Reading Books.
- Later grammar includes Nouns, Adjectives, Verbs, Noun & Adjective game, Singular/Plural, Prepositions and Theme Box.
In the book Discovery of the Child, Maria Montessori writes “ … if our method is applied at the normal age, that is, before the age of five, a little child will write before he reads, whereas a child who is already too far developed (five or six years old) will read first, experiencing difficulties adjusting his clumsy mechanism”
The mechanism of writings involve two distinct aspects – the motor mechanism which depends upon motor training, the work of the intellect and creativity. Montessori further explains that the movements involved in writing fall into two distinct activities. Firstly, is the management of the writing instrument. Secondly, is the drawing of the shapes of letters of the alphabets.
To prepare the child for writing Montessori advocates indirect preparation through the following developmental exercises;
- using Sensorial materials for moving the hand in a left/right orientation,
- using Sensorial material for fine motor control of the thumb, index and third finger i.e. the three fingers that will control a pencil,
- using Sensorial material to develop a lightness of touch and a tactile sensibility and
- using Sensorial material where the child traces with his fingers the outlines of the geometric shapes, thus experiencing movements that are similar to the movements he will make when writing letters, e.g. horizontal, vertical, oblique, clockwise and anti-clockwise circles.
To prepare the child more directly, Montessori introduced the following exercises;
- Filling in the figures of the Insets for Design with controlled lines.
- Tracing the Sandpaper Letters in the writing direction.
- Composing words with the Large Moveable Alphabet. (LMA)
The Montessori teacher is patient, to wait until the child begins to write before giving him/her controlled writing exercises, such as copying or tracing letters.
The International Reading Association (IRA) and the National Association of Young Children stated that, “Although reading and writing abilities continue to develop throughout the life span, the early years-from birth through age eight-are the most important period for literacy development” (Beaty & Pratt, 2003, p5). Woods (2004) in his book stated, with intensive reading instruction, he states that 95% of struggling children under age 10 catch up but only 25% of struggling children aged 10 and older catch up (p5). He further states that the most important influence on a child’s success in class is the teacher. Therefore, this is the time that teachers have to make sure that children are given ample opportunities to develop in their reading skills. Moreover, inculcating the habit of reading is a different issue. Reading in Malaysia is an important tool for success. However, the problem that we are facing at the moment, according to the 2005 reading habit statistics, is that a high percentage of Malaysian are literate but only a small percentage of them make reading a habit. Are we using the right strategies in teaching early reading to young children that will cultivate a reading culture?
Methods of Reading
The phonic method starts with a limited set of letters, which can then be built into many different combinations to make different kinds of words. Gradually more letters are added and then the children given consonant blends. As some words frequently occurring in the language keep recurring, the child also develops a “sight vocabulary” during these early stages.
Sight Word or Whole Word Approach is the building up of a set of words, which can be recognized by the child where the child does not initially need to know that the individual letters composing the words represent individual sounds. It promotes reading for meaning at a very young age. Developing a sight vocabulary is simply a matter of regular practice.
The Sentence method is a look-and-say method based on the principle that the sentence or phrase is a more natural unit of recognition for the child than the word. This extension of the whole word method emphasizes meaning using a complete sentence. However, the logical extension is not to stay with the sentence but to expand to stories and other more complete forms of written material.
Language Experience Approach is the emphasis of the approach was to get children to talk, write, and read about their experiences and interests, with support from the teacher – this was also the basis for Breakthrough to Literacy. Hence, children were to use their own experiences and interests to form the basis for their reading materials. Breakthrough went one step further to provide some of the materials for children.
Reading aloud to children helps them develop and improve literacy skills — reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Teachers have read aloud to young children for centuries. We know that time spent reading aloud is valuable to them. We have watched pre-readers listen to a story, then capture the book itself to look at again and again. Sometimes they memorized the story, shared it with their friends, and at times even slept with the book. And since children listen on a higher level than they read, listening to other readers stimulates growth and understanding of vocabulary and language patterns. Neuman (1999) explains how storybook reading helps children gain general knowledge, practice cognitive thinking, and learn about the rhythms and conventions or written language.
Factors Influencing Teaching of Reading
From the wealth of research and investigations into the teaching of reading, which has undertaken in recent years, two conclusions seem to emerge with clarity. The first states that, “it is not possible to isolate any one method or approach which is inherently superior to all others and which of itself offers the best chance of success in teaching children to read” (Taylor, 1973, p181). The second conclusion states that, “the most important single factor in the whole process is the skill of the teacher. This factor outweighs other elements discussed in the attainment of the ultimate results” (Taylor, 1973, p181). Chall (1967) and Burt (1969) in their investigation also arrive at the same conclusion that “though in the short term a new method may appear to improve the standard of reading, in the long-term analysis, there is no single best method of teaching reading. What is important is that the teacher, whatever method she uses, is aware of the individual members of her class and is prepared to vary the approach to take account of their strengths and weaknesses” (Taylor, 1973, p183).
- Beaty, J. J., & Pratt, L. (2003). Early Literacy in Preschool and Kindergarten. Upper Saddle River, N. J. : Merrill / Prentice Hall.
- Beaty & Pratt 2003 – 5). Tuitors Influencing Teaching Reading. Upper Saddle River, N. J. : Merrill / Prentice Hall.
- Taylor, J. (1973). Reading and Writing in the First School. London : George Allen and Unwin Ltd.
- Wood, T. (2004). See Johnny Read! New York : McGraw Hill.