"Chapter XVI." by Maria Montessori (1870-1952), translated by Anne Everett George (1882-)
Spontaneous Development of Graphic Language. While I was directress of the Orthophrenic School at Rome, I had already begun to experiment with various didactic means for the teaching of reading and writing. These experiments were practically original with me.
Itard and Séquin do not present any rational method through which writing may be learned. In the pages above quoted, it may be seen how Itard proceeded in the teaching of the alphabet and I give here what Séguin says concerning the teaching of writing.
"To have a child pass from design, to writing, which is its most immediate application, the teacher need only call D, a portion of a circle, resting its extremities upon a vertical; A, two obliques reunited at the summit and cut by a horizontal, etc., etc.
"We no longer need worry ourselves as to how the child shall learn to write: he designs, then writes. It need not be said that we should have the child draw the letters according to the laws of contrast and analogy. For instance, O beside I; B with P; T opposite L, etc."
According to Séquin, then, we do not need to teach writing. The child who draws, will write. But writing, for this author, means printed capitals! Nor does he, in any other place, explain whether his pupil shall write in any other way. He instead, gives much space [Page 247] to the description of the design which prepares for, and which includes writing. This method of design is full of difficulties and was only established by the combined attempts of Itard and Séguin.
"Chapter XL: DESIGN. In design the first idea to be acquired is that of the plane destined to receive the design. The second is that of the trace or delineation. Within these two concepts lies all design, all linear creation.
"These two concepts are correlative, their relation generates the idea, or the capacity to produce the lines in this sense; that lines may only be called such when they follow a methodical and determined direction: the trace without direction is not a line; produced by chance, it has no name.
"The rational sign, on the contrary, has a name because it has a direction and since all writing or design is nothing other than a composite of the diverse directions followed by a line, we must, before approaching what is commonly called writing, insist upon these notions of plane and line. The ordinary child acquires these by instinct, but an insistence upon them is necessary in order to render the idiot careful and sensitive in their application. Through methodical design he will come into rational contact with all parts of the plane and will, guided by imitation, produce lines at first simple, but growing more complicated.
"The pupil may be taught: First, to trace the diverse species of lines. Second, to trace them in various directions and in different positions relative to the plane. Third, to reunite these lines to form figures varying from simple to complex. We must therefore, teach the pupil to distinguish straight lines from curves, vertical from [Page 248] horizontal, and from the various oblique lines; and must finally make clear the principal points of conjunction of two or more lines in forming a figure.
"This rational analysis of design, from which writing will spring, is so essential in all its parts, that a child who, before being confided to my care, already wrote many of the letters, has taken six days to learn to draw a perpendicular or a horizontal line; he spent fifteen days before imitating a curve and an oblique. Indeed the greater number of my pupils, are for a long time incapable of even imitating the movements of my hand upon the paper, before attempting to draw a line in a determined direction. The most imitative, or the least stupid ones, produce a sign diametrically opposite to that which I show them and all of them confound the points of conjunction of two lines no matter how evident this is. It is true that the thorough knowledge I have given them of lines and of configuration helps them to make the connection which must be established between the plane and the various marks with which they must cover the surface, but in the study rendered necessary by the deficiency of my pupils, the progression in the matter of the vertical, the horizontal, the oblique, and the curve must be determined by the consideration of the difficulty of comprehension and of execution which each offers to a torpid intelligence and to a weak unsteady hand.
"I do not speak here of merely having them perform a difficult thing, since I have them surmount a series of difficulties and for this reason I ask myself if some of these difficulties are not greater and some less, and if they do not grow one from the other, like theorems. Here are the ideas which have guided me in this respect. [Page 249]
"The vertical is a line which the eye and the hand follow directly, going up and down. The horizontal line is not natural to the eye, nor to the hand, which lowers itself and follows a curve (like the horizon from which it has taken its name), starting from the centre and going to the lateral extremity of the plane.
"The oblique line presupposes more complex comparative ideas,and the curve demands such firmness and so many differences in its relation to the plane that we would only lose time in taking up the study of these lines. The most simple line then, is the vertical, and this is how I have given my pupils an idea of it.
"The first geometric formula is this: only straight lines may be drawn from one given point to another.
"Starting from this axiom, which the hand alone can demonstrate, I have fixed two points upon the blackboard and have connected them by means of a vertical. My pupils try to do the same between the dots they have upon their paper, but with some the vertical descends to the right of the point and with others, to the left, to say nothing of those whose hand diverges in all directions. To arrest these various deviations which are often far more defects of the intelligence and of the vision, than of the hand, I have thought it wise to restrict the field of the plane, drawing two vertical lines to left and right of the points which the child is to join by means of a parallel line half way between the two enclosing lines. If these two lines are not enough, I place two rulers vertically upon the paper, which arrest the deviations of the hand absolutely. These material barriers are not, however, useful for very long. We first suppress the rulers and return to the two parallel lines, between which the idiot learns to draw the third line. We then take away [Page 250] one of the guiding lines, and leave, sometimes that on the right, sometimes that on the left, finally taking away this last line and at last, the dots, beginning by erasing the one at the top which indicates the starting point of the line and of the hand. The child thus learns to draw a vertical without material control, without points of comparison.
"The same method, the same difficulty, the same means of direction are used for the straight horizontal lines. If, by chance, these lines begin well, we must await until the child curves them, departing from the centre and proceeding to the extremity as nature commands him, and because of the reason which I have explained. If the two dots do not suffice to sustain the hand, we keep it from deviating by means of the parallel lines or of the rulers.
"Finally, have him trace a horizontal line, and by uniting with it a vertical ruler we form a right angle. The child will begin to understand, in this way, what the vertical and horizontal lines really are, and will see the relation of these two ideas as he traces a figure.
"In the sequence of the development of lines, it would seem that the study of the oblique should immediately follow that of the vertical and the horizontal, but this is not so! The oblique which partakes of the vertical in its inclination, and of the horizontal in its direction, and which partakes of both in its nature (since it is a straight line), presents perhaps, because of its relation to other lines, an idea too complex to be appreciated without preparation."
Thus Séguin goes on through many pages, to speak of the oblique in all directions, which he has his pupils trace between two parallels. He then tells of the four curves [Page 251] which he has them draw to right and left of a vertical and above and below a horizontal, and concludes: "So we find the solution of the problems for which we sought–the vertical line, the horizontal, the oblique, and four curves, whose union forms the circle, contain all possible lines, all writing."
"Arrived at this point, Itard and I were for a long time at a standstill. The lines being known, the next step was to have the child trace regular figures, beginning of course, with the simplest. According to the general opinion, Itard had advised me to begin with the square and I had followed this advice for three months, without being able to make the child understand me."
After a long series of experiments, guided by his ideas of the genesis of geometric figures, Séguin became aware that the triangle is the figure most easily drawn.
"When three lines meet thus, they always form a triangle, while four lines may meet in a hundred different directions without remaining parallel and therefore without presenting a perfect square.
"From these experiments and many others, I have deduced the first principles of writing and of design for the idiot; principles whose application is too simple for me to discuss further."
Such was the proceeding used by my predecessors in the teaching of writing to deficients. As for reading, Itard proceeded thus: he drove nails into the wall and hung upon them, geometric figures of wood, such as triangles, squares, circles. He then drew the exact imprint of these upon the wall, after which he took the figures away and had the "boy of Aveyron" replace them upon the proper nails, guided by the design. From this design Itard conceived the idea of the plane geometric [Page 252] insets. He finally had large print letters made of wood and proceeded in the same way as with the geometric figures, that is, using the design upon the wall and arranging the nails in such a way that the child might place the letters upon them and then take them off again. Later, Séguin used the horizontal plane instead of the wall, drawing the letters on the bottom of a box and having the child superimpose solid letters. After twenty years, Séguin had not changed his method of procedure.
A criticism of the method used by Itard and Séguin for reading and writing seems to me superfluous. The method has two fundamental errors which make it inferior to the methods in use for normal children, namely: writing in printed capitals, and the preparation for writing through a study of rational geometry, which we now expect only from students in the secondary schools.
Séguin here confuses ideas in a most extraordinary way. He has suddenly jumped from the psychological observation of the child and from his relation to his environment, to the study of the origin of lines and their relation to the plane.
He says that the child will readily design a vertical line, but that the horizontal will soon become a curve, because "nature commands it " and this command of nature is represented by the fact that man sees the horizon as a curved line!
The example of Séguin serves to illustrate the necessity of a special education which shall fit man for observation, and shall direct logical thought.
The observation must be absolutely objective, in other words, stripped of preconceptions. Séguin has in this case the preconception that geometric design must prepare for writing, and that hinders him from discovering [Page 253] the truly natural proceeding necessary to such preparation. He has, besides, the preconception that the deviation of a line, as well as the inexactness with which the child traces it, are due to "the mind and the eye, not to the hand," and so he wearies himself for weeks and months in explaining the direction of lines and in guiding the vision of the idiot.
It seems as if Séguin felt that a good method must start from a superior point, geometry; the intelligence of the child is only considered worthy of attention in its relation to abstract things. And is not this a common defect?
Let us observe mediocre men; they pompously assume erudition and disdain simple things. Let us study the clear thought of those whom we consider men of genius. Newton is seated tranquilly in the open air; an apple falls from the tree, he observes it and asks, "Why?" Phenomena are never insignificant; the fruit which falls and universal gravitation may rest side by side in the mind of a genius.
If Newton had been a teacher of children he would have led the child to look upon the worlds on a starry night, but an erudite person might have felt it necessary first to prepare the child to understand the sublime calculus which is the key to astronomy–Galileo Galilei observed the oscillation of a lamp swung on high, and discovered the laws of the pendulum.
In the intellectual life simplicity consists in divesting one's mind of every preconception, and this leads to the discovery of new things, as, in the moral life, humility and material poverty guide us toward high spiritual conquests.
If we study the history of discoveries, we will find that [Page 254] they have come from real objective observation and from logical thought. These are simple things, but rarely found in one man.
Does it not seem strange, for instance, that after the discovery by Laveran of the malarial parasite which invades the red blood-corpuscles, we did not, in spite of the fact that we know the blood system to be a system of closed vessels, even so much as suspect the possibility that a stinging insect might inoculate us with the parasite? Instead, the theory that the evil emanated from low ground, that it was carried by the African winds, or that it was due to dampness, was given credence. Yet these were vague ideas, while the parasite was a definite biological specimen.
When the discovery of the malarial mosquito came to complete logically the discovery of Laveran, this seemed marvellous, stupefying. Yet we know in biology that the reproduction of molecular vegetable bodies is by scission with alternate sporation, and that of molecular animals is by scission with alternate conjunction. That is, after a certain period in which the primitive cell has divided and sub-divided into fresh cells, equal among themselves, there comes the formation of two diverse cells, one male and one female, which must unite to form a single cell capable of recommencing the cycle of reproduction by division. All this being known at the time of Laveran, and the malarial parasite being known to be a protozoon, it would have seemed logical to consider its segmentation in the stroma of the red corpuscle as the phase of scission and to await until the parasite gave place to the sexual forms, which must necessarily come in the phase succeeding scission. Instead, the division was looked upon as spore-formation, and neither Laveran, nor the numer- [Page 255] ous scientists who followed the research, knew how to give an explanation of the appearance of the sexual forms. Laveran expressed an idea, which was immediately received, that these two forms were degenerate forms of the malarial parasite, and therefore incapable of producing the changes determining the disease. Indeed, the malaria was apparently cured at the appearance of the two sexual forms of the parasite, the conjunction of the two cells being impossible in the human blood. The theory–then recent–of Morel upon human degeneration accompanied by deformity and weakness, inspired Laveran in his interpretation, and everybody found the idea of the illustrious pathologist a fortunate one, because it was inspired by the great concepts of the Morellian theory.
Had anyone, instead, limited himself to reasoning thus: the original form of the malarial insect is a protozoon; it reproduces itself by scission, under our eyes; when the scission is finished, we see two diverse cells; one a half-moon, the other threadlike. These are the feminine and masculine cells which must, by conjunction, alternate the scission,–such a reasoner would have opened the way to the discovery. But so simple a process of reasoning did not come. We might almost ask ourselves how great would be the world's progress if a special form of education prepared men for pure observation and logical thought.
A great deal of time and intellectual force are lost in the world, because the false seems great and the truth so small and insignificant.
I say all this to defend the necessity, which I feel we face, of preparing the coming generations by means of more rational methods. It is from these generations that [Page 256] the world awaits its progress. We have already learned to make use of our surroundings, but I believe that we have arrived at a time when the necessity presents itself for utilising human force, through a scientific education.
To return to Séguin's method of writing, it illustrates another truth, and that is the tortuous path we follow in our teaching. This, too, is allied to an instinct for complicating things, analogous to that which makes us so prone to appreciate complicated things. We have Séguin teaching geometry in order to teach a child to write; and making the child's mind exert itself to follow geometrical abstractions only to come down to the simple effort of drawing a printed D. After all, must the child not have to make another effort in order to forget the print, and learn the script?
And even we in these days still believe that in order to learn to write the child must first make vertical strokes. This conviction is very general. Yet it does not seem natural that to write the letters of the alphabet, which are all rounded, it should be necessary to begin with straight lines and acute angles.
In all good faith, we wonder that it should be difficult to do away with the angularity and stiffness with which the beginner traces the beautiful curve of the O. * Yet, through what effort on our part, and on his, was he forced to fill pages and pages with rigid lines and acute angles! To whom is due this time honoured idea that the first sign to be traced must be a straight line? And why do we so avoid preparing for curves as well as angles?
Let us, for a moment, divest ourselves of such preconceptions and proceed in a more simple way. We may be [Page 257] able to relieve future generations of all effort in the matter of learning to write.
Is it necessary to begin writing with the making of vertical strokes? A moment of clear and logical thinking is enough to enable us to answer, no. The child makes too painful an effort in following such an exercise. The first steps should be the easiest, and the up and down stroke, is, on the contrary, one of the most difficult of all the pen movements. Only a professional penman could fill a whole page and preserve the regularity of such strokes, but a person who writes only moderately well would be able to complete a page of presentable writing. Indeed, the straight line is unique, expressing the shortest distance between two points, while any deviation from that direction signifies a line which is not straight. These infinite deviations are therefore easier than that one trace which is perfection.
If we should give to a number of adults the order to draw a straight line upon the blackboard, each person would draw a long line proceeding in a different direction, some beginning from one side, some from another,and almost all would succeed in making the line straight. Should we then ask that the line be drawn in a particular direction, starting from a determined point, the ability shown at first would greatly diminish, and we would see many more irregularities, or errors. Almost all the lines would be long–for the individual must needs gather impetus in order to succeed in making his line straight.
Should we ask that the lines be made short, and included within precise limits, the errors would increase, for we would thus impede the impetus which helps to conserve the definite direction. In the methods ordinarily used in teaching writing, we add, to such limita- [Page 258] tions, the further restriction that the instrument of writing must be held in a certain way, not as instinct prompts each individual.
Thus we approach in the most conscious and restricted way the first act of writing, which should be voluntary. In this first writing we still demand that the single strokes be kept parallel, making the child's task a difficult and barren one, since it has no purpose for the child, who does not understand the meaning of all this detail.
I had noticed in the note-books of the deficient children in France (and Voisin also mentions this phenomenon) that the pages of vertical strokes, although they began as such, ended in lines of C's. This goes to show that the deficient child, whose mind is less resistant than that of the normal child, exhausts, little by little, the initial effort of imitation, and the natural movement gradually comes to take the place of that which was forced or stimulated. So the straight lines are transformed into curves, more and more like the letter C. Such a phenomenon does not appear in the copy-books of normal children, for they resist, through effort, until the end of the page is reached, and, thus, as often happens, conceal the didactic error.
But let us observe the spontaneous drawings of normal children. When, for example, picking up a fallen twig, they trace figures in the sandy garden path, we never see short straight lines, but long and variously interlaced curves.
Séguin saw the same phenomenon when the horizontal lines he made his pupils draw became curves so quickly instead. And he attributed the phenomenon to the imitation of the horizon line!
That vertical strokes should prepare for alphabetical [Page 259] writing, seems incredibly illogical. The alphabet is made up of curves, therefore we must prepare for it by learning to make straight lines.
"But," says someone, "in many letters of the alphabet, the straight line does exist." True, but there is no reason why as a beginning of writing, we should select one of the details of a complete form. We may analyse the alphabetical signs in this way, discovering straight lines and curves, as by analysing discourse, we find grammatical rules. But we all speak independently of such rules, why then should we not write independently of such analysis, and without the separate execution of the parts constituting the letter?
It would be sad indeed if we could speak only after we had studied grammar! It would be much the same as demanding that before we looked at the stars in the firmament, we must study infinitesimal calculus; it is much the same thing to feel that before teaching an idiot to write, we must make him understand the abstract derivation of lines and the problems of geometry!
No less are we to be pitied if, in order to write, we must follow analytically the parts constituting the alphabetical signs. In fact the effort which we believe to be a necessary accompaniment to learning to write is purely artificial effort, allied, not to writing, but to the methods by which it is taught.
Let us for a moment cast aside every dogma in this connection. Let us take no note of culture, or custom. We are not, here, interested in knowing how humanity began to write, nor what may have been the origin of writing itself. Let us put away the conviction, that long usage has given us, of the necessity of beginning writing by making vertical strokes; and let us try to be as clear [Page 260] and unprejudiced in spirit as the truth which we are seeking.
"Let us observe an individual who is writing, and let us seek to analyse the acts he performs in writing," that is, the mechanical operations which enter into the execution of writing. This would be undertaking the philosophical study of writing, and it goes without saying that we should examine the individual who writes, not the writing; the subject, not the object. Many have begun with the object, examining the writing, and in this way many methods have been constructed.
But a method starting from the individual would be decidedly original–very different from other methods which preceded it. It would indeed signify a new era in writing, based upon anthropology.
In fact, when I undertook my experiments with normal children, if I had thought of giving a name to this new method of writing, I should have called it without knowing what the results would be, the anthropological method. Certainly, my studies in anthropology inspired the method, but experience has given me, as a surprise, another title which seems to me the natural one, "the method of spontaneous writing."
While teaching deficient children I happened to observe the following fact: An idiot girl of eleven years, who was possessed of normal strength and motor power in her hands, could not learn to sew, or even to take the first step, darning, which consists in passing the needle first over, then under the woof, now taking up, now leaving, a number of threads.
I set the child to weaving with the Froebel mats, in which a strip of paper is threaded transversely in and out among vertical strips of paper held fixed at top and bot- [Page 261] tom. I thus came to think of the analogy between the two exercises, and became much interested in my observation of the girl. When she had become skilled in the Froebel weaving, I led her back again to the sewing, and saw with pleasure that she was now able to follow the darning. From that time on, our sewing classes began with a regular course in the Froebel weaving.
I saw that the necessary movements of the hand in sewing had been prepared without having the child sew, and that we should really find the way to teach the child how, before making him execute a task. I saw especially that preparatory movements could be carried on, and reduced to a mechanism, by means of repeated exercises not in the work itself but in that which prepares for it. Pupils could then come to the real work, able to perform it without ever having directly set their hands to it before.
I thought that I might in this way prepare for writing, and the idea interested me tremendously. I marvelled at its simplicity, and was annoyed that I had not thought before of the method which was suggested to me by my observation of the girl who could not sew.
In fact, seeing that I had already taught the children to touch the contours of the plane geometric insets, I had now only to teach them to touch with their fingers the forms of the letters of the alphabet.
I had a beautiful alphabet manufactured, the letters being in flowing script, the low letters 8 centimetres high, and the taller ones in proportion. These letters were in wood, 1/2 centimetre in thickness, and were painted, the consonants in blue enamel, the vowels in red. The under side of these letter forms, instead of being painted, were covered with bronze that they might be more dur- [Page 262] able. We had only one copy of this wooden alphabet, but there were a number of cards upon which the letters were painted in the same colours and dimensions as the wooden ones. These painted letters were arranged upon the cards in groups, according to contrast, or analogy of form.
Corresponding to each letter of the alphabet, we had a picture representing some object the name of which began with the letter. Above this, the letter was painted in large script, and near it, the same letter, much smaller and in its printed form. These pictures served to fix the memory of the sound of the letter, and the small printed letter united to the one in script, was to form the passage to the reading of books. These pictures do not, indeed, represent a new idea, but they completed an arrangement which did not exist before. Such an alphabet was undoubtedly most expensive and when made by hand the cost was fifty dollars.
The interesting part of my experiment was, that after I had shown the children how to place the movable wooden letters upon those painted in groups upon the cards, I had them touch them repeatedly in the fashion of flowing writing.
I multiplied these exercises in various ways, and the children thus learned to make the movements necessary to reproduce the form of the graphic signs without writing.
I was struck by an idea which had never before entered my mind–that in writing we make two diverse forms of movement, for, besides the movement by which the form is reproduced, there is also that of manipulating the instrument of writing. And, indeed, when the deficient children had become expert in touching all the letters [Page 263] according to form, they did not yet know how to hold a pencil. To hold and to manipulate a little stick securely, corresponds to the acquisition of a special muscular mechanism which is independent of the writing movement; it must in fact go along with the motions necessary to produce all of the various letter forms. It is, then, a distinct mechanism, which must exist together with the motor memory of the single graphic signs. When I provoked in the deficients the movements characteristic of writing by having them touch the letters with their fingers, I exercised mechanically the psycho-motor paths, and fixed the muscular memory of each letter. There remained the preparation of the muscular mechanism necessary in holding and managing the instrument of writing, and this I provoked by adding two periods to the one already described. In the second period, the child touched the letter, not only with the index finger of his right hand, but with two, the index and the middle finger. In the third period, he touched the letters with a little wooden stick, held as a pen in writing. In substance I was making him repeat the same movements, now with, and now without, holding the instrument.
I have said that the child was to follow the visual image of the outlined letter. It is true that his finger had already been trained through touching the contours of the geometric figures, but this was not always a sufficient preparation. Indeed, even we grown people, when we trace a design through glass or tissue paper, cannot follow perfectly the line which we see and along which we should draw our pencil. The design should furnish some sort of control, some mechanical guide, for the pencil, in order to follow with exactness the trace, sensible in reality only to the eye. [Page 264]
The deficients, therefore, did not always follow the design exactly with either the finger or the stick. The didactic material did not offer any control in the work, or rather it offered only the uncertain control of the child's glance, which could, to be sure, see if the finger continued upon the sign, or not. I now thought that in order to have the pupil follow the movements more exactly, and to guide the execution more directly, I should need to prepare letter forms so indented, as to represent a furrow within which the wooden stick might run. I made the designs for this material, but the work being too expensive I was not able to carry out my plan.
After having experimented largely with this method, I spoke of it very fully to the teachers in my classes in didactic methods at the State Orthophrenic School. These lectures were printed, and I give below the words which, though they were placed in the hands of more than 200 elementary teachers, did not draw from them a single helpful idea. Professor Ferreri * in an article speaks with amazement of this fact. †
"At this point we present the cards bearing the vowels painted in red. The child sees irregular figures painted in red. We give him the vowels in wood, painted red, and have him superimpose these upon the letters painted on the card. We have him touch the wooden vowels in the fashion of writing, and give him the name of each [Page 265] letter. The vowels are arranged on the cards according to analogy of form:
o e a i u
"We then say to the child, for example, 'Find o. Put it in its place.' Then, 'What letter is this?' We here discover that many children make mistakes in the letters if they only look at the letter.
"They could however tell the letter by touching it. Most interesting observations may be made, revealing various individual types: visual, motor.
"We have the child touch the letters drawn upon the cards,–using first the index finger only, then the index with the middle finger,–then with a small wooden stick held as a pen. The letter must be traced in the fashion of writing.
"The consonants are painted in blue, and are arranged upon the cards according to analogy of form. To these cards are annexed a movable alphabet in blue wood, the letters of which are to be placed upon the consonants as they were upon the vowels. In addition to these materials there is another series of cards, where, besides the consonant, are painted one or two figures the names of which begin with that particular letter. Near the script letter, is a smaller printed letter painted in the same colour.
"The teacher, naming the consonant according to the phonetic method, indicates the letter, and then the card, pronouncing the names of the objects painted there, and emphasizing the first letter, as, for example, 'p-pear: give me the consonant p –put it in its place, touch it,' etc. In all this we study the linguistic defects of the child. [Page 266]
"Tracing the letter, in the fashion of writing, begins the muscular education which prepares for writing. One of our little girls taught by this method has reproduced all the letters with the pen, though she does not as yet recognise them all. She has made them about eight centimetres high, and with surprising regularity. This child also does well in hand work. The child who looks, recognises, and touches the letters in the manner of writing, prepares himself simultaneously for reading and writing.
"Touching the letters and looking at them at the same time, fixes the image more quickly through the co-operation of the senses. Later, the two facts separate; looking becomes reading; touching becomes writing. According to the type of the individual, some learn to read first, others to write."
I had thus, about the year 1899, initiated my method for reading and writing upon the fundamental lines it still follows. It was with great surprise that I noted the facility with which a deficient child, to whom I one day gave a piece of chalk, traced upon the blackboard, in a firm hand, the letters of the entire alphabet, writing for the first time.
This had arrived much more quickly than I had supposed. As I have said, some of the children wrote the letters with a pen and yet could not recognise one of them. I have noticed, also, in normal children, that the muscular sense is most easily developed in infancy, and this makes writing exceedingly easy for children. It is not so with reading, which requires a much longer course of instruction, and which calls for a superior intellectual development, since it treats of the interpretation of signs, and of the modulation of accents of the voice, in order [Page 267] that the word may be understood. And all this is a purely mental task, while in writing, the child, under dictation, materially translates sounds into signs, and moves, a thing which is always easy and pleasant for him. Writing develops in the little child with facility and spontaneity, analogous to the development of spoken language–which is a motor translation of audible sounds. Reading, on the contrary, makes part of an abstract intellectual culture, which is the interpretation of ideas from graphic symbols, and is only acquired later on.
My first experiments with normal children were begun in the first half of the month of November, 1907.
In the two "Children's Houses" in San Lorenzo, I had, from the date of their respective inaugurations (January 6 in one and March 7 in the other), used only the games of practical life, and of the education of the senses. I had not presented exercises for writing, because, like everybody else, I held the prejudice that it was necessary to begin as late as possible the teaching of reading and writing, and certainly to avoid it before the age of six.
But the children seemed to demand some conclusion of the exercises, which had already developed them intellectually in a most surprising way. They knew how to dress and undress, and to bathe, themselves; they knew how to sweep the floors, dust the furniture, put the room in order, to open and close boxes, to manage the keys in the various locks; they could replace the objects in the cupboards in perfect order, could care for the plants; they knew how to observe things, and how to see objects with their hands. A number of them came to us and frankly demanded to be taught to read and write. Even in the face of our refusal several children came to school and [Page 268] proudly showed us that they knew how to make an O on the blackboard.
Finally, many of the mothers came to beg us as a favour to teach the children to write, saying, "Here in the 'Children's Houses' the children are awakened, and learn so many things easily that if you only teach reading and writing they will soon learn, and will then be spared the great fatigue this always means in the elementary school." This faith of the mothers, that their little ones would, from us, be able to learn to read and write without fatigue, made a great impression upon me. Thinking upon the results I had obtained in the school for deficients, I decided during the August vacation to make a trial upon the reopening of the school in September. Upon second thought I decided that it would be better to take up the interrupted work in September, and not to approach reading and writing until October, when the elementary schools opened. This presented the added advantage of permitting us to compare the progress of the children of the first elementary with that made by ours, who would have begun the same branch of instruction at the same time.
In September, therefore, I began a search for someone who could manufacture didactic materials, but found no one willing to undertake it. I wished to have a splendid alphabet made, like the one used with the deficients. Giving this up, I was willing to content myself with the ordinary enamelled letters used upon shop windows, but I could find them in script form nowhere. My disappointments were many.
So passed the whole month of October. The children in the first elementary had already filled pages of vertical strokes, and mine were still waiting. I then decided to [Page 269] cut out large paper letters, and to have one of my teachers colour these roughly on one side with a blue tint. As for the touching of the letters, I thought of cutting the letters of the alphabet out of sandpaper, and of gluing them upon smooth cards, thus making objects much like those used in the primitive exercises for the tactile sense.
Only after I had made these simple things, did I become aware of the superiority of this alphabet to that magnificent one I had used for my deficients, and in the pursuit of which I had wasted two months! If I had been rich, I would have had that beautiful but barren alphabet of the past! We wish the old things because we cannot understand the new, and we are always seeking after that gorgeousness which belongs to things already on the decline, without recognising in the humble simplicity of new ideas the germ which shall develop in the future.
I finally understood that a paper alphabet could easily be multiplied, and could be used by many children at one time, not only for the recognition of letters, but for the composition of words. I saw that in the sandpaper alphabet I had found the looked-for guide for the fingers which touched the letter. This was furnished in such a way that no longer the sight alone, but the touch, lent itself directly to teaching the movement of writing with exactness of control.
In the afternoon after school, the two teachers and I, with great enthusiasm, set about cutting out letters from writing-paper, and others from sandpaper. The first, we painted blue, the second, we mounted on cards, and, while we worked, there unfolded before my mind a clear vision of the method in all its completeness, so simple that it made me smile to think I had not seen it before.
The story of our first attempts is very interesting. One [Page 270] day one of the teachers was ill, and I sent as a substitute a pupil of mine, Signorina Anna Fedeli, a professor of pedagogy in a Normal school. When I went to see her at the close of the day, she showed me two modifications of the alphabet which she had made. One consisted in placing behind each letter, a transverse strip of white paper, so that the child might recognise the direction of the letter, which he often turned about and upside down. The other consisted in the making of a cardboard case where each letter might be put away in its own compartment, instead of being kept in a confused mass as at first. I still keep this rude case made from an old pasteboard box, which Signorina Fedeli had found in the court and roughly sewed with white thread.
She showed it to me laughing, and excusing herself for the miserable work, but I was most enthusiastic about it. I saw at once that the letters in the case were a precious aid to the teaching. Indeed, it offered to the eye of the child the possibility of comparing all of the letters, and of selecting those he needed. In this way the didactic material described below had its origin.
I need only add that at Christmas time, less than a month and a half later, while the children in the first elementary were laboriously working to forget their wearisome pothooks and to prepare for making the curves of O and the other vowels, two of my little ones of four years old, wrote, each one in the name of his companions, a letter of good wishes and thanks to Signor Edoardo Talamo. These were written upon note paper without blot or erasure and the writing was adjudged equal to that which is obtained in the third elementary grade.
* It will, of course, be understood that this is a criticism of the system in use in Italian schools. A.E.G.
* G. Ferreri–Per l'insegnamento della scrittura (Sistema della Dott M. Montessori) Bolletino dell' Associazione Romana per la cura medico–pedigogica dei fanciulli anormali e deficienti poveri, anno 1, n. 4, ottobre 1907. Roma Tipografia delle Terme Diocleziane.
† Riassunto delle lezion di didattica, della dott. Montessori anno 1900, Stab. lit. Romano, via Frattina 62, Disp. 6a, pag. 46: "Lettura e Scrittura simultanee."
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