"Chapter XVII." by Maria Montessori (1870-1952), translated by Anne Everett George (1882-)
FIRST PERIOD: EXERCISE TENDING TO DEVELOP THE MUSCULAR MECHANISM NECESSARY IN HOLDING AND USING THE INSTRUMENT IN WRITING
Design Preparatory to Writing.–Didactic Material. Small wooden tables; metal insets, outline drawings, coloured pencils. I have among my materials two little wooden tables, the tops of which form an inclined plane sloping toward a narrow cornice, which prevents objects placed upon the table from slipping off. The top of each table is just large enough to hold four of the square frames, into which the metal plane geometric insets are fitted, and is so painted as to represent three of these brown frames, each containing a square centre of the same dark blue as the centres of the metal insets.
The metal insets are in dimension and form a reproduction of the series of plane geometric insets in wood already described.
Exercises. Placed side by side upon the teacher's desk, or upon one of the little tables belonging to the children, these two little tables may have the appearance of being one long table containing eight figures. The child may select one or more figures, taking at the same time the frame of the inset. The analogy between these metal insets and the plane geometric insets of wood is complete. [Page 272] But in this case, the child can freely use the pieces, where before, he arranged them in the wooden frame. He first takes the metal frame, places it upon a sheet of white paper, and with a coloured pencil draws around the contour of the empty centre. Then, he takes away the frame, and upon the paper there remains a geometric figure.
This is the first time that the child has reproduced through design, a geometric figure. Until now, he has only placed the geometric insets above the figures delineated on the three series of cards. He now places upon the figure, which he himself has drawn, the metal inset, just as he placed the wooden inset upon the cards. His next act is to follow the contour of this inset with a pencil of a different colour. Lifting the metal piece, he sees the figure reproduced upon the paper, in two colours.
Here, for the first time is born the abstract concept of the geometric figure, for, from two metal pieces so different in form as the frame and the inset, there has resulted the same design, which is a line expressing a determined figure. This fact strikes the attention of the child. He often marvels to find the same figure reproduced by means of two pieces so different, and looks for a long time with evident pleasure at the duplicate design–almost as if it were actually produced by the objects which serve to guide his hand.
Besides all this, the child learns to trace lines determining figures. There will come a day in which, with still greater surprise and pleasure, he will trace graphic signs determining words.
After this, he begins the work which directly prepares for the formation of the muscular mechanism relative to the holding and manipulation of the instrument of writing. With a coloured pencil of his own selection, held as [Page 273] the pen is held in writing, he fills in the figure which he has outlined. We teach him not to pass outside the contour, and in doing so we attract his attention to this contour, and thus fix the idea that a line may determine a figure.
The exercise of filling in one figure alone, causes the child to perform repeatedly the movement of manipulation which would be necessary to fill ten copy-book pages with vertical strokes. And yet, the child feels no weariness, because, although he makes exactly the muscular co-ordination which is necessary to the work, he does so freely and in any way that he wishes, while his eyes are fixed upon a large and brightly coloured figure. At first, the children fill pages and pages of paper with these big squares, triangles, ovals, trapezoids; colouring them red, orange, green, blue, light blue, and pink.
Gradually they limit themselves to the use of the dark blue and brown, both in drawing the figure and in filling it in, thus reproducing the appearance of the metal piece itself. Many of the children, quite of their own accord, make a little orange-coloured circle in the centre of the figure, in this way representing the little brass button by which the metal piece is to be held. They take great pleasure in feeling that they have reproduced exactly, like true artists, the objects which they see before them on the little shelf.
Observing the successive drawings of a child, there is revealed to us a duplicate form of progression:
First. Little by little, the lines tend less and less to go outside the enclosing line until, at last, they are perfectly contained within it, and both the centre and the frame are filled in with close and uniform strokes.
Second. The strokes with which the child fills in the [Page 274] figures, from being at first short and confused, become gradually longer, and more nearly parallel, until in many cases the figures are filled in by means of perfectly regular up and down strokes, extending from one side of the figure to the other. In such a case, it is evident that the child is master of the pencil. The muscular mechanism, necessary to the management of the instrument of writing, is established. We may, therefore, by examining such designs, arrive at a clear idea of the maturity of the child in the matter of holding the pencil or pen in hand. To vary these exercises, we use the outline drawings already described. Through these designs, the manipulation of the pencil is perfected, for they oblige the child to make lines of various lengths, and make him more and more secure in his use of the pencil.
If we could count the lines made by a child in the filling in of these figures, and could transform them into the signs used in writing, they would fill many, many copy-books! Indeed, the security which our children attain is likened to that of children in our ordinary third elementary grade. When for the first time they take a pen or a pencil in hand, they know how to manage it almost as well as a person who has written for a long time.
I do not believe that any means can be found which will so successfully and, in so short a space of time, establish this mastery. And with it all, the child is happy and diverted. My old method for the deficients, that of following with a small stick the contours of raised letters, was, when compared with this, barren and miserable!
Even when the children know how to write they continue these exercises, which furnish an unlimited progression, since the designs may be varied and complicated. The children follow in each design essentially the same [Page 275] movements, and acquire a varied collection of pictures which grow more and more perfect, and of which they are very proud. For I not only provoke, but perfect, the writing through the exercises which we call preparatory. The control of the pen is rendered more and more secure, not by repeated exercises in the writing, but by means of these filled-in designs. In this way, my children perfect themselves in writing, without actually writing.
SECOND PERIOD: EXERCISES TENDING TO ESTABLISH THE VISUAL-MUSCULAR IMAGE OF THE ALPHABETICAL SIGNS: AND TO ESTABLISH THE MUSCULAR MEMORY OF THE MOVEMENTS NECESSARY TO WRITING
Didactic Material. Cards upon which the single letters of the alphabet are mounted in sandpaper; larger cards containing groups of the same letters.
The cards upon which the sandpaper letters are mounted are adapted in size and shape to each letter. The vowels are in light-coloured sandpaper and are mounted upon dark cards, the consonants and the groups of letters are in black sandpaper mounted upon white cards. The grouping is so arranged as to call attention to contrasted, or analogous forms.
The letters are cut in clear script form, the shaded parts being made broader. We have chosen to reproduce the vertical script in use in the elementary schools.
Exercises. In teaching the letters of the alphabet, we begin with the vowels and proceed to the consonants, pronouncing the sound, not the name. In the case of the consonants, we immediately unite the sound with one of the vowel sounds, repeating the syllable according to the usual phonetic method. [Page 276]
The teaching proceeds according to the three periods already illustrated.
First. Association of the visual and muscular-tactile sensation with the letter sound.
The directress presents to the child two of the cards upon which vowels are mounted (or two of the consonants, as the case may be). Let us suppose that we present the letters i and o, saying, "This is i! This is o!" As soon as we have given the sound of a letter, we have the child trace it, taking care to show him how to trace it, and if necessary guiding the index finger of his right hand over the sandpaper letter in the sense of writing.
"Knowing how to trace " will consist in knowing the direction in which a given graphic sign must be followed.
The child learns quickly, and his finger, already expert in the tactile exercise, is led, by the slight roughness of the fine sandpaper, over the exact track of the letter. He may then repeat indefinitely the movements necessary to produce the letters of the alphabet, without the fear of the mistakes of which a child writing with a pencil for the first time is so conscious. If he deviates, the smoothness of the card immediately warns him of his error.
The children, as soon as they have become at all expert in this tracing of the letters, take great pleasure in repeating it with closed eyes, letting the sandpaper lead them in following the form which they do not see. Thus the perception will be established by the direct muscular-tactile sensation of the letter. In other words, it is no longer the visual image of the letter, but the tactile sensation, which guides the hand of the child in these movements, which thus become fixed in the muscular memory.
There develop, contemporaneously, three sensations when the directress shows the letter to the child and has [Page 277] him trace it; the visual sensation, the tactile sensation, and the muscular sensation. In this way the image of the graphic sign is fixed in a much shorter space of time than when it was, according to ordinary methods, acquired only through the visual image. It will be found that the muscular memory is in the young child the most tenacious and, at the same time, the most ready. Indeed, he sometimes recognises the letters by touching them, when he cannot do so by looking at them. These images are, besides all this, contemporaneously associated with the alphabetical sound.
Second. Perception. The child should know how to compare and to recognise the figures, when he hears the sounds corresponding to them.
The directress asks the child, for example, "Give me o!–Give me i!" If the child does not recognise the letters by looking at them, she invites him to trace them, but if he still does not recognise them, the lesson is ended, and may be resumed another day. I have already spoken of the necessity of not revealing the error, and of not insisting in the teaching when the child does not respond readily.
Third. Language. Allowing the letters to lie for some instants upon the table, the directress asks the child, "What is this?" and he should respond, o, i.
In teaching the consonants, the directress pronounces only the sound, and as soon as she has done so unites with it a vowel, pronouncing the syllable thus formed and alternating this little exercise by the use of different vowels. She must always be careful to emphasize the sound of the consonant, repeating it by itself, as, for example, m, m, m, ma, me, mi, m, m. When the child repeats the sound he isolates it, and then accompanies it with the vowel. [Page 278]
It is not necessary to teach all the vowels before passing to the consonants, and as soon as the child knows one consonant he may begin to compose words. Questions of this sort, however, are left to the judgment of the educator.
I do not find it practical to follow a special rule in the teaching of the consonants. Often the curiosity of the child concerning a letter leads us to teach that desired consonant; a name pronounced may awaken in him a desire to know what consonants are necessary to compose it, and this will, or willingness, of the pupil is a much more efficacious means than any rule concerning the progression of the letters.
When the child pronounces the sounds of the consonants, he experiences an evident pleasure. It is a great novelty for him, this series of sounds, so varied and yet so distinct, presenting such enigmatic signs as the letters of the alphabet. There is mystery about all this, which provokes most decided interest. One day I was on the terrace while the children were having their free games; I had with me a little boy of two years and a half left with me, for a moment, by his mother. Scattered about upon a number of chairs, were the alphabets which we use in the school. These had become mixed, and I was putting the letters back into their respective compartments. Having finished my work, I placed the boxes upon two of the little chairs near me. The little boy watched me. Finally, he drew near to the box, and took one of the letters in his hand. It chanced to be an f. At that moment the children, who were running in single file, passed us, and, seeing the letter, called out in chorus the corresponding sound and passed on. The child paid no attention to them, but put back the f and took up an r. The children running by again, looked at him laughing, and [Page 279] then began to cry out "r, r, r ! r, r, r !" Little by little the baby understood that, when he took a letter in hand, the children, who were passing, cried out a sound. This amused him so much that I wished to observe how long he would persist in this game without becoming tired. He kept it up for three-quarters of an hour! The children had become interested in the child, and grouped themselves about him, pronouncing the sounds in chorus, and laughing at his pleased surprise. At last, after he had several times held up f, and had received from his public the same sound, he took the letter again, showing it to me, and saying, "f, f, f!" He had learned this from out the great confusion of sounds which he had heard: the long letter which had first arrested the attention of the running children, had made a great impression upon him.
It is not necessary to show how the separate pronunciation of the alphabetical sounds reveals the condition of the child's speech. Defects, which are almost all related to the incomplete development of the language itself, manifest themselves, and the directress may take note of them one by one. In this way she will be possessed of a record of the child's progress, which will help her in her individual teaching, and will reveal much concerning the development of the language in this particular child.
In the matter of correcting linguistic defects, we will find it helpful to follow the physiological rules relating to the child's development, and to modify the difficulties in the presentation of our lesson. When, however, the child's speech is sufficiently developed, and when he pronounces all the sounds, it does not matter which of the letters we select in our lessons.
Many of the defects which have become permanent in [Page 280] adults are due to functional errors in the development of the language during the period of infancy. If, for the attention which we pay to the correction of linguistic defects in children in the upper grades, we would substitute a direction of the development of the language while the child is still young, our results would be much more practical and valuable. In fact, many of the defects in pronunciation arise from the use of a dialect, and these it is almost impossible to correct after the period of childhood. They may, however, be most easily removed through the use of educational methods especially adapted to the perfecting of the language in little children.
We do not speak here of actual linguistic defects related to anatomical or physiological weaknesses, or to pathological facts which alter the function of the nervous system. I speak at present only of those irregularities which are due to a repetition of incorrect sounds, or to the imitation of imperfect pronunciation. Such defects may show themselves in the pronunciation of any one of the consonant sounds, and I can conceive of no more practical means for a methodical correction of speech defects than this exercise in pronunciation, which is a necessary part in learning the graphic language through my method. But such important questions deserve a chapter to themselves.
Turning directly to the method used in teaching writing, I may call attention to the fact that it is contained in the two periods already described. Such exercises have made it possible for the child to learn, and to fix, the muscular mechanism necessary to the proper holding of the pen, and to the making of the graphic signs. If he has exercised himself for a sufficiently long time in these exercises, he will be potentially ready to write all the [Page 281] letters of the alphabet and all of the simple syllables, without ever having taken chalk or pencil in his hand.
We have, in addition to this, begun the teaching of reading at the same time that we have been teaching writing. When we present a letter to the child and enunciate its sound, he fixes the image of this letter by means of the visual sense, and also by means of the muscular-tactile sense. He associates the sound with its related sign; that is, he relates the sound to the graphic sign. But when he sees and recognises, he reads; and when he traces, he writes. Thus his mind receives as one, two acts, which, later on, as he develops, will separate, coming to constitute the two diverse processes of reading and writing. By teaching these two acts contemporaneously, or, better, by their fusion, we place the child before a new form of language without determining which of the acts constituting it should be most prevalent.
We do not trouble ourselves as to whether the child in the development of this process, first learns to read or to write, or if the one or the other will be the easier. We must rid ourselves of all preconceptions, and must await from experience the answer to these questions. We may expect that individual differences will show themselves in the prevalence of one or the other act in the development of different children. This makes possible the most interesting psychological study of the individual, and should broaden the work of this method, which is based upon the free expansion of individuality.
THIRD PERIOD: EXERCISES FOR THE COMPOSITION OF WORDS
Didactic Material. This consists chiefly of alphabets. The letters of the alphabet used here are identical in form [Page 282] and dimension with the sandpaper ones already described, but these are cut out of cardboard and are not mounted. In this way each letter represents an object which can be easily handled by the child and placed wherever he wishes it. There are several examples of each letter, and I have designed cases in which the alphabets may be kept. These cases or boxes are very shallow, and are divided and subdivided into many compartments, in each one of which I have placed a group of four copies of the same letter. The compartments are not equal in size, but are measured according to the dimensions of the letters themselves. At the bottom of each compartment is glued a letter which is not to be taken out. This letter is made of black cardboard and relieves the child of the fatigue of hunting about for the right compartment when he is replacing the letters in the case after he has used them. The vowels are cut from blue cardboard, and the consonants from red.
In addition to these alphabets we have a set of the capital letters mounted in sandpaper upon cardboard, and another, in which they are cut from cardboard. The numbers are treated in the same way.
Exercises. As soon as the child knows some of the vowels and the consonants we place before him the big box containing all the vowels and the consonants which he knows. The directress pronounces very clearly a word; for example, "mama," brings out the sound of the m very distinctly, repeating the sounds a number of times. Almost always the little one with an impulsive movement seizes an m and places it upon the table. The directress repeats "ma–ma." The child selects the a and places it near the m. He then composes the other syllable very easily. But the reading of the word which he has com-
(A) TRAINING THE SENSE OF TOUCH. Learning the difference between rough and smooth by running fingers alternately over sandpaper and smooth cardboard; distinguishing different shapes by fitting geometric insets into place; distinguishing textures. (B) LEARNING TO WRITE AND READ BY TOUCH. The child at the left is tracing sandpaper letters and learning to know them by touch. The boy and girl are making words out of cardboard letters.
(A) CHILDREN TOUCHING LETTERS. The child on the left has acquired lightness and delicacy of touch by very thorough preparatory exercises. The one on the right has not had so much training. (B) MAKING WORDS WITH CARDBOARD ON SCRIPT.
[Page 283] posed is not so easy. Indeed, he generally succeeds in reading it only after a certain effort. In this case I help the child, urging him to read, and reading the word with him once or twice, always pronouncing very distinctly, mama, mama. But once he has understood the mechanism of the game, the child goes forward by himself, and becomes intensely interested. We may pronounce any word, taking care only that the child understands separately the letters of which it is composed. He composes the new word, placing, one after the other, the signs corresponding to the sounds.
It is most interesting indeed to watch the child at this work. Intensely attentive, he sits watching the box, moving his lips almost imperceptibly, and taking one by one the necessary letters, rarely committing an error in spelling. The movement of the lips reveals the fact that he repeats to himself an infinite number of times the words whose sounds he is translating into signs. Although the child is able to compose any word which is clearly pronounced, we generally dictate to him only those words which are well-known, since we wish his composition to result in an idea. When these familiar words are used, he spontaneously rereads many times the word he has composed, repeating its sounds in a thoughtful, contemplative way.
The importance of these exercises is very complex. The child analyses, perfects, fixes his own spoken language,–placing an object in correspondence to every sound which he utters. The composition of the word furnishes him with substantial proof of the necessity for clear and forceful enunciation.
The exercise, thus followed, associates the sound which is heard with the graphic sign which represents it, and [Page 284] lays a most solid foundation for accurate and perfect spelling.
In addition to this, the composition of the words is in itself an exercise of intelligence. The word which is pronounced presents to the child a problem which he must solve, and he will do so by remembering the signs, selecting them from among others, and arranging them in the proper order. He will have the proof of the exact solution of his problem when he rereads the word–this word which he has composed, and which represents for all those who know how to read it, an idea.
When the child hears others read the word he has composed, he wears an expression of satisfaction and pride, and is possessed by a species of joyous wonder. He is impressed by this correspondence, carried on between himself and others by means of symbols. The written language represents for him the highest attainment reached by his own intelligence, and is at the same time, the reward of a great achievement.
When the pupil has finished the composition and the reading of the word we have him, according to the habits of order which we try to establish in connection with all our work, "put away " all the letters, each one in its own compartment. In composition, pure and simple, therefore, the child unites the two exercises of comparison and of selection of the graphic signs; the first, when from the entire box of letters before him he takes those necessary; the second, when he seeks the compartment in which each letter must be replaced. There are, then, three exercises united in this one effort, all three uniting to fix the image of the graphic sign corresponding to the sounds of the word. The work of learning is in this case facilitated in three ways, and the ideas are acquired in a third [Page 285] of the time which would have been necessary with the old methods. We shall soon see that the child, on hearing the word, or on thinking of a word which he already knows, will see, with his mind's eye, all the letters, necessary to compose the word, arrange themselves. He will reproduce this vision with a facility most surprising to us. One day a little boy four years old, running alone about the terrace, was heard to repeat many times, "To make Zaira, I must have z-a-i-r-a." Another time, Professor Di Donato, in a visit to the "Children's House," pronounced his own name for a four-year-old child. The child was composing the name, using small letters and making it all one word, and had begun thus–diton. The professor at once pronounced the word more distinctly; di do nato, whereupon the child, without scattering the letters, picked up the syllable to and placed it to one side, putting do in the empty space. He then placed an a after the n, and, taking up the to which he had put aside, completed the word with it. This made it evident that the child, when the word was pronounced more clearly, understood that the syllable to did not belong at that place in the word, realised that it belonged at the end of the word, and therefore placed it aside until he should need it. This was most surprising in a child of four years, and amazed all of those present. It can be explained by the clear and, at the same time, complex vision of the signs which the child must have, if he is to form a word which he hears spoken. This extraordinary act was largely due to the orderly mentality which the child had acquired through repeated spontaneous exercises tending to develop his intelligence.
These three periods contain the entire method for the acquisition of written language. The significance of such [Page 286] a method is clear. The psycho-physiological acts which unite to establish reading and writing are prepared separately and carefully. The muscular movements peculiar to the making of the signs or letters are prepared apart, and the same is true of the manipulation of the instrument of writing. The composition of the words, also, is reduced to a psychic mechanism of association between images heard and seen. There comes a moment in which the child, without thinking of it, fills in the geometric figures with an up and down stroke, which is free and regular; a moment in which he touches the letters with closed eyes, and in which he reproduces their form, moving his finger through the air; a moment in which the composition of words has become a psychic impulse, which makes the child, even when alone, repeat to himself "To make Zaira I must have z-a-i-r-a."
Now this child, it is true, has never written, but he has mastered all the acts necessary to writing. The child who, when taking dictation, not only knows how to compose the word, but instantly embraces in his thought its composition as a whole, will be able to write, since he knows how to make, with his eyes closed, the movements necessary to produce these letters, and since he manages almost unconsciously the instrument of writing.
More than this, the freedom with which the child has acquired this mechanical dexterity makes it possible for the impulse or spirit to act at any time through the medium of his mechanical ability. He should, sooner or later, come into his full power by way of a spontaneous explosion into writing. This is, indeed, the marvellous reaction which has come from my experiment with normal children. In one of the "Children's Houses," directed by Signorina Bettini, I had been especially careful in the [Page 287] way in which writing was taught, and we have had from this school most beautiful specimens of writing, and for this reason, perhaps I cannot do better than to describe the development of the work in this school.
One beautiful December day when the sun shone and the air was like spring, I went up on the roof with the children. They were playing freely about, and a number of them were gathered about me. I was sitting near a chimney, and said to a little five-year-old boy who sat beside me, "Draw me a picture of this chimney," giving him as I spoke a piece of chalk. He got down obediently and made a rough sketch of the chimney on the tiles which formed the floor of this roof terrace. As is my custom with little children, I encouraged him, praising his work. The child looked at me, smiled, remained for a moment as if on the point of bursting into some joyous act, and then cried out, "I can write! I can write!" and kneeling down again he wrote on the pavement the word "hand." Then, full of enthusiasm, he wrote also "chimney," "roof." As he wrote, he continued to cry out, "I can write! I know how to write!" His cries of joy brought the other children, who formed a circle about him, looking down at his work in stupefied amazement. Two or three of them said to me, trembling with excitement, "Give me the chalk. I can write too." And indeed they began to write various words: mama, hand, John, chimney, Ada.
Not one of them had ever taken chalk or any other instrument in hand for the purpose of writing. It was the first time that they had ever written, and they traced an entire word, as a child, when speaking for the first time, speaks the entire word.
The first word spoken by a baby causes the mother [Page 288] ineffable joy. The child has chosen perhaps the word "mother," seeming to render thus a tribute to maternity. The first word written by my little ones aroused within themselves an indescribable emotion of joy. Not being able to adjust in their minds the connection between the preparation and the act, they were possessed by the illusion that, having now grown to the proper size, they knew how to write. In other words, writing seemed to them only one among the many gifts of nature.
They believe that, as they grow bigger and stronger, there will come some beautiful day when they shall know how to write. And, indeed, this is what it is in reality. The child who speaks, first prepares himself unconsciously, perfecting the psycho-muscular mechanism which leads to the articulation of the word. In the case of writing, the child does almost the same thing, but the direct pedagogical help and the possibility of preparing the movements for writing in an almost material way, causes the ability to write to develop much more rapidly and more perfectly than the ability to speak correctly.
In spite of the ease with which this is accomplished, the preparation is not partial, but complete. The child possesses all the movements necessary for writing. And written language develops not gradually, but in an explosive way; that is, the child can write any word. Such was our first experience in the development of the written language in our children. Those first days we were a prey to deep emotions. It seemed as if we walked in a dream, and as if we assisted at some miraculous achievement.
The child who wrote a word for the first time was full of excited joy. He might be compared to the hen who has just laid an egg. Indeed, no one could escape from [Page 289] the noisy manifestations of the little one. He would call everyone to see, and if there were some who did not go, he ran to take hold of their clothes forcing them to come and see. We all had to go and stand about the written word to admire the marvel, and to unite our exclamations of surprise with the joyous cries of the fortunate author. Usually, this first word was written on the floor, and, then, the child knelt down before it in order to be nearer to his work and to contemplate it more closely.
After the first word, the children, with a species of frenzied joy, continued to write everywhere. I saw children crowding about one another at the blackboard, and behind the little ones who were standing on the floor another line would form consisting of children mounted upon chairs, so that they might write above the heads of the little ones. In a fury at being thwarted, other children, in order to find a little place where they might write, overturned the chairs upon which their companions were mounted. Others ran toward the window shutters or the door, covering them with writing. In these first days we walked upon a carpet of written signs. Daily accounts showed us that the same thing was going on at home, and some of the mothers, in order to save their pavements, and even the crust of their loaves upon which they found words written, made their children presents of paper and pencil. One of these children brought to me one day a little note-book entirely filled with writing, and the mother told me that the child had written all day long and all evening, and had gone to sleep in his bed with the paper and pencil in his hand.
This impulsive activity which we could not, in those first days control, made me think upon the wisdom of Nature, who develops the spoken language little by little, [Page 290] letting it go hand in hand with the gradual formation of ideas. Think of what the result would have been had Nature acted imprudently as I had done! Suppose Nature had first allowed the human being to gather, by means of the senses, a rich and varied material, and to acquire a store of ideas, and had then completely prepared in him the means for articulate language, saying finally to the child, mute until that hour, "Go–Speak!" The result would have been a species of sudden madness, under the influence of which the child, feeling no restraints, would have burst into an exhausting torrent of the most strange and difficult words.
I believe, however, that there exists between the two extremes a happy medium which is the true and practical way. We should lead the child more gradually to the conquest of written language, yet we should still have it come as a spontaneous fact, and his work should from the first be almost perfect.
Experience has shown us how to control this phenomenon, and how to lead the child more calmly to this new power. The fact that the children see their companions writing, leads them, through imitation, to write as soon as they can. In this way, when the child writes he does not have the entire alphabet at his disposal, and the number of words which he can write is limited. He is not even capable of making all of the words possible through a combination of the letters which he does know. He still has the great joy of the first written word, but this is no longer the source of an overwhelming surprise, since he sees just such wonderful things happening each day, and knows that sooner or later the same gift will come to all. This tends to create a calm and ordered environment, still full of beautiful and wonderful surprises. [Page 291]
Making a visit to the "Children's House," even during the opening weeks, one makes fresh discoveries. Here, for instance, are two little children, who, though they fairly radiate pride and joy, are writing tranquilly. Yet, these children, until yesterday, had never thought of writing!
The directress tells me that one of them began to write yesterday morning at eleven o'clock, the other, at three in the afternoon. We have come to accept the phenomenon with calmness, and tacitly recognise it as a natural form of the child's development.
The wisdom of the teacher shall decide when it is necessary to encourage a child to write. This can only be when he is already perfect in the three periods of the preparatory exercise, and yet does not write of his own accord. There is danger that in retarding the act of writing, the child may plunge finally into a tumultuous effort, due to the fact that he knows the entire alphabet and has no natural check.
The signs by which the teacher may almost precisely diagnose the child's maturity in this respect are: the regularity of the parallel lines which fill in the geometric figures; the recognition with closed eyes of the sandpaper letters; the security and readiness shown in the composition of words. Before intervening by means of a direct invitation to write, it is best to wait at least a week in the hope that the child may write spontaneously. When he has begun to write spontaneously the teacher may intervene to guide the progress of the writing. The first help which she may give is that of ruling the blackboard, so that the child may be led to maintain regularity and proper dimensions in his writing.
The second, is that of inducing the child, whose writing is not firm, to repeat the tracing of the sandpaper letters. [Page 292] She should do this instead of directly correcting his actual writing, for the child does not perfect himself by repeating the act of writing, but by repeating the acts preparatory to writing. I remember a little beginner who, wishing to make his blackboard writing perfect, brought all of the sandpaper letters with him, and before writing touched two or three times all of the letters needed in the words he wished to write. If a letter did not seem to him to be perfect he erased it and retouched the letter upon the card before rewriting.
Our children, even after they have been writing for a year, continue to repeat the three preparatory exercises. They thus learn both to write, and to perfect their writing, without really going through the actual act. With our children, actual writing is a test, it springs from an inner impulse, and from the pleasure of explaining a superior activity; it is not an exercise. As the soul of the mystic perfects itself through prayer, even so in our little ones, that highest expression of civilisation, written language, is acquired and improved through exercises which are akin to, but which are not, writing.
There is educational value in this idea of preparing oneself before trying, and of perfecting oneself before going on. To go forward correcting his own mistakes, boldly attempting things which he does imperfectly, and of which he is as yet unworthy dulls the sensitiveness of the child's spirit toward his own errors. My method of writing contains an educative concept; teaching the child that prudence which makes him avoid errors, that dignity which makes him look ahead, and which guides him to perfection, and that humility which unites him closely to those sources of good through which alone he can make a spiritual conquest, putting far from him the illusion that [Page 293] the immediate success is ample justification for continuing in the way he has chosen.
The fact that all the children, those who are just beginning the three exercises and those who have been writing for months, daily repeat the same exercise, unites them and makes it easy for them to meet upon an apparently equal plane. Here there are no distinctions of beginners, and experts. All of the children fill in the figures with coloured pencils, touch the sandpaper letters and compose words with the movable alphabets; the little ones beside the big ones who help them. He who prepares himself, and he who perfects himself, both follow the same path. It is the same way in life, for, deeper than any social distinction, there lies an equality, a common meeting point, where all men are brothers, or, as in the spiritual life, aspirants and saints again and again pass through the same experiences.
Writing is very quickly learned, because we begin to teach it only to those children who show a desire for it by spontaneous attention to the lesson given by the directress to other children, or by watching the exercises in which the others are occupied. Some individuals learn without ever having received any lessons, solely through listening to the lessons given to others.
In general, all children of four are intensely interested in writing, and some of our children have begun to write at the age of three and a half. We find the children particularly enthusiastic about tracing the sandpaper letters.
During the first period of my experiments, when the children were shown the alphabet for the first time, I one day asked Signorina Bettini to bring out to the terrace where the children were at play, all of the various letters which she herself had made. As soon as the children saw [Page 294] them they gathered about us, their fingers outstretched in their eagerness to touch the letters. Those who secured cards were unable to touch them properly because of the other children, who crowded about trying to reach the cards in our laps. I remember with what an impulsive movement the possessors of the cards held them on high like banners, and began to march, followed by all the other children who clapped their hands and cried out joyously. The procession passed before us, and all, big and little, laughed merrily, while the mothers, attracted by the noise, leaned from the windows to watch the sight.
The average time that elapses between the first trial of the preparatory exercises and the first written word is, for children of four years, from a month to a month and a half. With children of five years, the period is much shorter, being about a month. But one of our pupils learned to use in writing all the letters of the alphabet in twenty days. Children of four years, after they have been in school for two months and a half, can write any word from dictation, and can pass to writing with ink in a note-book. Our little ones are generally experts after three months' time, and those who have written for six months may be compared to the children in the third elementary. Indeed, writing is one of the easiest and most delightful of all the conquests made by the child.
If adults learned as easily as children under six years of age, it would be an easy matter to do away with illiteracy. We would probably find two grave hinderances to the attainment of such a brilliant success: the torpor of the muscular sense, and those permanent defects of spoken language, which would be sure to translate themselves into the written language. I have not made experiments along this line, but I believe that one school year would be suffi- [Page 295] cient to lead an illiterate person, not only to write, but to express his thoughts in written language.
So much for the time necessary for learning. As to the execution, our children write well from the moment in which they begin. The form of the letters, beautifully rounded and flowing, is surprising in its similarity to the form of the sandpaper models. The beauty of our writing is rarely equalled by any scholars in the elementary schools, who have not had special exercises in penmanship. I have made a close study of penmanship, and I know how difficult it would be to teach pupils of twelve or thirteen years to write an entire word without lifting the pen, except for the few letters which require this. The up and down strokes with which they have filled their copy-book make flowing writing almost impossible to them.
Our little pupils, on the other hand, spontaneously, and with a marvellous security, write entire words without lifting the pen, maintaining perfectly the slant of the letters, and making the distance between each letter equal This has caused more than one visitor to exclaim, "If I had not seen it I should never have believed it." Indeed, penmanship is a superior form of teaching and is necessary to correct defects already acquired and fixed. It is a long work, for the child, seeing the model, must follow the movements necessary to reproduce it, while there is no direct correspondence between the visual sensation and the movements which he must make. Too often, penmanship is taught at an age when all the defects have become established, and when the physiological period in which the muscular memory is ready, has been passed.
We directly prepare the child, not only for writing, but also for penmanship, paying great attention to the beauty of form (having the children touch the letters in script [Page 295] form) and to the flowing quality of the letters. (The exercises in filling-in prepare for this.)
Didactic Material. The Didactic Material for the lessons in reading consists in slips of paper or cards upon which are written in clear, large script, words and phrases. In addition to these cards we have a great variety of toys.
Experience has taught me to distinguish clearly between writing and reading, and has shown me that the two acts are not absolutely contemporaneous. Contrary to the usually accepted idea, writing precedes reading. I do not consider as reading the test which the child makes when he verifies the word that he has written. He is translating signs into sounds, as he first translated sounds into signs. In this verification he already knows the word and has repeated it to himself while writing it. What I understand by reading is the interpretation of an idea from the written signs. The child who has not heard the word pronounced, and who recognises it when he sees it composed upon the table with the cardboard letters and who can tell what it means; this child reads. The word which he reads has the same relation to written language that the word which he hears bears to articulate language. Both serve to receive the language transmitted to us by others. So, until the child reads a transmission of ideas from the written word, he does not read.
We may say, if we like, that writing as described is a fact in which the psycho-motor mechanism prevails, while in reading, there enters a work which is purely intellectual. But it is evident how our method for writing prepares for reading, making the difficulties almost imperceptible. Indeed, writing prepares the child to interpret [Page 297] mechanically the union of the letter sounds of which the written word is composed. When a child in our school knows how to write, he knows how to read the sounds of which the word is composed. It should be noticed, however, that when the child composes the words with the movable alphabet, or when he writes, he has time to think about the signs which he must select to form the word. The writing of a word requires a great deal more time than that necessary for reading the same word.
The child who knows how to write, when placed before a word which he must interpret by reading, is silent for a long time, and generally reads the component sounds with the same slowness with which he would have written them. But the sense of the word becomes evident only when it is pronounced clearly and with the phonetic accent. Now, in order to place the phonetic accent the child must recognise the word; that is, he must recognise the idea which the word represents. The intervention of a superior work of the intellect is necessary if he is to read. Because of all this, I proceed in the following way with the exercises in reading, and, as will be evident, I do away entirely with the old-time primer.
I prepare a number of little cards made from ordinary writing-paper. On each of these I write in large clear script some well-known word, one which has already been pronounced many times by the children, and which represents an object actually present or well known to them. If the word refers to an object which is before them, I place this object under the eyes of the child, in order to facilitate his interpretation of the word. I will say, in this connection, the objects used in these writing games are for the most part toys of which we have a great many in the "Children's Houses." Among these toys, are the [Page 298] furnishings of a doll's house, balls, dolls, trees, flocks of sheep, or various animals, tin soldiers, railways, and an infinite variety of simple figures.
If writing serves to correct, or better, to direct and perfect the mechanism of the articulate language of the child, reading serves to help the development of ideas, and relates them to the development of the language. Indeed writing aids the physiological language and reading aids the social language.
We begin, then, as I have indicated, with the nomenclature, that is, with the reading of names of objects which are well known or present.
There is no question of beginning with words that are easy or difficult, for the child already knows how to read any word; that is, he knows how to read the sounds which compose it. I allow the little one to translate the written word slowly into sounds, and if the interpretation is exact, I limit myself to saying, "Faster." The child reads more quickly the second time, but still often without understanding. I then repeat, "Faster, faster." He reads faster each time, repeating the same accumulation of sounds, and finally the word bursts upon his consciousness. Then he looks upon it as if he recognised a friend and assumes that air of satisfaction which so often radiates our little ones. This completes the exercise for reading; It is a lesson which goes very rapidly, since it is only presented to a child who is already prepared through writing. Truly, we have buried the tedious and stupid A B C primer side by side with the useless copy-books!
When the child has read the word, he places the explanatory card under the object whose name it bears, and the exercise is finished. [Page 299]
One of our most interesting discoveries was made in the effort to devise a game through which the children might, without effort, learn to read words. We spread out upon one of the large tables a great variety of toys. Each one of them had a corresponding card upon which the name of the toy was written. We folded these little cards and mixed them up in a basket, and the children who knew how to read were allowed to take turns in drawing these cards from the basket. Each child had to carry his card back to his desk, unfold it quietly, and read it mentally, not showing it to those about him. He then had to fold it up again, so that the secret which it contained should remain unknown. Taking the folded card in his hand, he went to the table. He had then to pronounce clearly the name of a toy and present the card to the directress in order that she might verify the word he had spoken. The little card thus became current coin with which he might acquire the toy he had named. For, if he pronounced the word clearly and indicated the correct object, the directress allowed him to take the toy, and to play with it as long as he wished.
When each child had had a turn, the directress called the first child and let him draw a card from another basket. This card he read as soon as he had drawn it. It contained the name of one of his companions who did not yet know how to read, and for that reason could not have a toy. The child who had read the name then offered to his little friend the toy with which he had been playing. We taught the children to present these toys in a gracious and polite way, accompanying the act with a bow. In this way we did away with every idea of class distinction, and inspired the sentiment of kindness toward those who did not possess the same blessings as ourselves. [Page 300] This reading game proceeded in a marvellous way. The contentment of these poor children in possessing even for a little while such beautiful toys can be easily imagined.
But what was my amazement, when the children, having learned to understand the written cards, refused to take the toys! They explained that they did not wish to waste time in playing, and, with a species of insatiable desire, preferred to draw out and read the cards one after another!
I watched them, seeking to understand the secret of these souls, of whose greatness I had been so ignorant! As I stood in meditation among the eager children, the discovery that it was knowledge they loved, and not the silly game, filled me with wonder and made me think of the greatness of the human soul!
We therefore put away the toys, and set about making hundreds of written slips, containing names of children, cities, and objects; and also of colours and qualities known through the sense exercises. We placed these slips in open boxes, which we left where the children could make free use of them. I expected that childish inconstancy would at least show itself in a tendency to pass from one box to another; but no, each child finished emptying the box under his hand before passing to another, being verily insatiable in the desire to read.
Coming into the school one day, I found that the directress had allowed the children to take the tables and chairs out upon the terrace, and was having school in the open air. A number of little ones were playing in the sun, while others were seated in a circle about the tables containing the sandpaper letters and the movable alphabet.
A little apart sat the directress, holding upon her lap [Page 301] a long narrow box full of written slips, and all along the edge of her box were little hands, fishing for the beloved cards. "You may not believe me," said the directress, "but it is more than an hour since we began this, and they are not satisfied yet!" We tried the experiment of bringing balls, and dolls to the children, but without result; such futilities had no power beside the joys of knowledge.
Seeing these surprising results, I had already thought of testing the children with print, and had suggested that the directress print the word under the written word upon a number of slips. But the children forestalled us! There was in the hall a calendar upon which many of the words were printed in clear type, while others were done in Gothic characters. In their mania for reading the children began to look at this calendar, and, to my inexpressible amazement, read not only the print, but the Gothic script.
There therefore remained nothing but the presentation of a book, and I did not feel that any of those available were suited to our method.
The mothers soon had proofs of the progress of their children; finding in the pockets of some of them little slips of paper upon which were written rough notes of marketing done; bread, salt, etc. Our children were making lists of the marketing they did for their mothers! Other mothers told us that their children no longer ran through the streets, but stopped to read the signs over the shops.
A four-year-old boy, educated in a private house by the same method, surprised us in the following way. The child's father was a Deputy, and received many letters. He knew that his son had for two months been taught by means of exercises apt to facilitate the learning of read- [Page 302] ing and writing, but he had paid slight attention to it, and, indeed, put little faith in the method. One day as he sat reading, with the boy playing near, a servant entered, and placed upon the table a large number of letters that had just arrived. The little boy turned his attention to these, and holding up each letter read aloud the address. To his father this seemed a veritable miracle.
As to the average time required for learning to read and write, experience would seem to show that, starting from the moment in which the child writes, the passage from such an inferior stage of the graphic language to the superior state of reading averages a fortnight. Security in reading is, however, arrived at much more slowly than perfection in writing. In the greater majority of cases the child who writes beautifully, still reads rather poorly.
Not all children of the same age are at the same point in this matter of reading and writing. We not only do not force a child, but we do not even invite him, or in any way attempt to coax him to do that which he does not wish to do. So it sometimes happens that certain children, not having spontaneously presented themselves for these lessons, are left in peace, and do not know how to read or write.
If the old-time method, which tyrannized over the will of the child and destroyed his spontaneity, does not believe in making a knowledge of written language obligatory before the age of six, much less do we!
I am not ready to decide, without a wider experience, whether the period when the spoken language is fully developed is, in every case, the proper time for beginning to develop the written language.
In any case, almost all of the normal children treated [Page 303] with our method begin to write at four years, and at five know how to read and write, at least as well as children who have finished the first elementary. They could enter the second elementary a year in advance of the time when they are admitted to first.
Games for the Reading of Phrases. As soon as my friends saw that the children could read print, they made me gifts of beautifully illustrated books. Looking through these books of simple fairy lore, I felt sure that the children would not be able to understand them. The teachers, feeling entirely satisfied as to the ability of their pupils, tried to show me I was wrong, having different children read to me, and saying that they read much more perfectly than the children who had finished the second elementary.
I did not, however, allow myself to be deceived, and made two trials. I first had the teacher tell one of the stories to the children while I observed to what extent they were spontaneously interested in it. The attention of the children wandered after a few words. I had forbidden the teacher to recall to order those who did not listen, and thus, little by little, a hum arose in the schoolroom, due to the fact that each child, not caring to listen had returned to his usual occupation.
It was evident that the children, who seemed to read these books with such pleasure, did not take pleasure in the sense, but enjoyed the mechanical ability they had acquired, which consisted in translating the graphic signs into the sounds of a word they recognised. And, indeed, the children did not display the same constancy in the reading of books which they showed toward the written slips, since in the books they met with so many unfamiliar words. [Page 304]
My second test, was to have one of the children read the book to me. I did not interrupt with any of those explanatory remarks by means of which a teacher tries to help the child follow the thread of the story he is reading, saying for example: "Stop a minute. Do you understand? What have you read? You told me how the little boy went to drive in a big carriage, didn't you? Pay attention to what the book says, etc."
I gave the book to a little boy, sat down beside him in a friendly fashion, and when he had read I asked him simply and seriously as one would speak to a friend, "Did you understand what you were reading?" He replied: "No." But the expression of his face seemed to ask an explanation of my demand. In fact, the idea that through the reading of a series of words the complex thoughts of others might be communicated to us, was to be for my children one of the beautiful conquests of the future, a new source of surprise and joy
The book has recourse to logical language, not to the mechanism of the language. Before the child can understand and enjoy a book, the logical language must be established in him. Between knowing how to read the words, and how to read the sense, of a book there lies the same distance that exists between knowing how to pronounce a word and how to make a speech. I, therefore, stopped the reading from books and waited.
One day, during a free conversation period, four children arose at the same time and with expressions of joy on their faces ran to the blackboard and wrote phrases upon the order of the following:
"Oh, how glad we are that our garden has begun to bloom." It was a great surprise for me, and I was deeply moved. These children had arrived spontaneously at the [Page 305] art of composition, just as they had spontaneously written their first word.
The mechanical preparation was the same, and the phenomenon developed logically. Logical articulate language had, when the time was ripe, provoked the corresponding explosion in written language.
I understood that the time had come when we might proceed to the reading of phrases. I had recourse to the means used by the children; that is, I wrote upon the blackboard, "Do you love me?" The children read it slowly aloud, were silent for a moment as if thinking, then cried out, "Yes! Yes!" I continued to write; "Then make the silence, and watch me." They read this aloud, almost shouting, but had barely finished when a solemn silence began to establish itself, interrupted only by the sounds of the chairs as the children took positions in which they could sit quietly. Thus began between me and them a communication by means of written language, a thing which interested the children intensely. Little by little, they discovered the great quality of writing–that it transmits thought. Whenever I began to write, they fairly trembled in their eagerness to understand what was my meaning without hearing me speak a word.
Indeed, graphic language does not need spoken words. It can only be understood in all its greatness when it is completely isolated from spoken language.
This introduction to reading was followed by the following game, which is greatly enjoyed by the children. Upon a number of cards I wrote long sentences describing certain actions which the children were to carry out; for example, "Close the window blinds; open the front door; then wait a moment, and arrange things as they were at first." "Very politely ask eight of your com- [Page 306] panions to leave their chairs, and to form in double file in the centre of the room, then have them march forward and back on tiptoe, making no noise." "Ask three of your oldest companions who sing nicely, if they will please come into the centre of the room. Arrange them in a nice row, and sing with them a song that you have selected," etc., etc. As soon as I finished writing, the children seized the cards, and taking them to their seats read them spontaneously with great intensity of attention, and all amid the most complete silence.
I asked then, "Do you understand?" "Yes! Yes!" "Then do what the card tells you," said I, and was delighted to see the children rapidly and accurately follow the chosen action. A great activity, a movement of a new sort, was born in the room. There were those who closed the blinds, and then reopened them; others who made their companions run on tiptoe, or sing; others wrote upon the blackboard, or took certain objects from the cupboards. Surprise and curiosity produced a general silence, and the lesson developed amid the most intense interest. It seemed as if some magic force had gone forth from me stimulating an activity hitherto unknown. This magic was graphic language, the greatest conquest of civilisation.
And how deeply the children understood the importance of it! When I went out, they gathered about me with expressions of gratitude and affection, saying, "Thank you! Thank you! Thank you for the lesson!"
This has become one of the favourite games: We first establish profound silence, then present a basket containing folded slips, upon each one of which is written a long phrase describing an action. All those children who know how to read may draw a slip, and read it mentally [Page 307] once or twice until they are certain they understand it. They then give the slip back to the directress and set about carrying out the action. Since many of these actions call for the help of the other children who do not know how to read, and since many of them call for the handling and use of the materials, a general activity develops amid marvellous order, while the silence is only interrupted by the sound of little feet running lightly, and by the voices of the children who sing. This is an unexpected revelation of the perfection of spontaneous discipline.
Experience has shown us that composition must precede logical reading, as writing preceded the reading of the word. It has also shown that reading, if it is to teach the child to receive an idea, should be mental and not vocal.
Reading aloud implies the exercise of two mechanical forms of the language–articulate and graphic–and is, therefore, a complex task. Who does not know that a grown person who is to read a paper in public prepares for this by making himself master of the content? Reading aloud is one of the most difficult intellectual actions. The child, therefore, who begins to read by interpreting thought should read mentally. The written language must isolate itself from the articulate, when it rises to the interpretation of logical thought. Indeed, it represents the language which transmits thought at a distance, while the senses and the muscular mechanism are silent. It is a spiritualised language, which puts into communication all men who know how to read.
Education having reached such a point in the "Children's Houses," the entire elementary school must, as a logical consequence, be changed. How to reform the lower grades in the elementary schools, eventually carrying [Page 308] them on according to our methods, is a great question which cannot be discussed here. I can only say that the first elementary would be completely done away with by our infant education, which includes it.
The elementary classes in the future should begin with children such as ours who know how to read and write; children who know how to take care of themselves; how to dress and undress, and to wash themselves; children who are familiar with the rules of good conduct and courtesy, and who are thoroughly disciplined in the highest sense of the term, having developed, and become masters of themselves, through liberty; children who possess, besides a perfect mastery of the articulate language, the ability to read written language in an elementary way, and who begin to enter upon the conquest of logical language.
These children pronounce clearly, write in a firm hand, and are full of grace in their movements. They are the earnest of a humanity grown in the cult of beauty–the infancy of an all-conquering humanity, since they are intelligent and patient observers of their environment, and possess in the form of intellectual liberty the power of spontaneous reasoning.
For such children, we should found an elementary school worthy to receive them and to guide them further along the path of life and of civilisation, a school loyal to the same educational principles of respect for the freedom of the child and for his spontaneous manifestations–principles which shall form the personality of these little men. [Page 309]
Example of writing done with pen, by a child five years. One-fourth reduction.
Translation: "We would like to wish a joyous Easter to the civil engineer Edoardo Talamo and the Princess Maria. We will ask them to bring their pretty children here. Leave it to me: I will write for all. April 7, 1909."
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