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Learning English as a Foreign Language: The Montessori Approach

May, 2017
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Learning English as a Foreign Language: The Montessori Approach

Language is a powerful tool. It can bond people together or divide them apart. It can transmit knowledge or ignorance. It can bridge cultures or be a catalyst for divisiveness.

With the rapid expansion of China’s leadership in the world, there is an increasing emphasis on bilingual education in Chinese schools. Many schools are scrambling to put together effective language programs that can serve the growing demands of parents and the needs of children. Effective and well-designed language programs that can help children proficiently and joyfully speak English are in short supply. Many programs struggle to utilize best practices based on what we know about how children best learn languages.

0j7a8479e589afe69cacFor years, Montessori educators around the world have used strategies in the Montessori environment that can significantly enhance the child’s acquisition of another language. The very nature of the Montessori classroom – including materials, cultural studies, peace education, and the sense of community – provides the ideal environment in which to develop a successful model of foreign language instruction. Between birth and the age of six years, children are in a sensitive period for the development of language. While it is true that they have a great capacity to absorb language at this time, and it is a myth that the acquisition of a foreign language is easy. It is a challenging process for them and requires much support from the adults around them.

There are three major aspects that must be present for a child to acquire another language in a classroom setting: input, output, and interaction. Research shows that in order to learn another language, children must be exposed to high amounts of interesting and meaningful language inputs (language which is spoken to them, role modeled for them or that they hear other people speaking). Children cannot develop any significant abilities to speak another language without the opportunity to produce creative and meaningful utterances when repeating the second language. Repeated meaningful opportunities (as opposed to memorizing vocabulary lists) must be frequent so that they can become proficient. Researchers stress the importance of the necessity for learners to communicate in meaningful ways in the target language, interacting with friends and teachers who can help them successfully build on emerging language patterns.

Unfortunately, English cram schools force inputs and outputs, but often lack meaningful interaction. They promise to produce fluent speakers using methods highly focused on repetition and memorization of phrases and manipulation of grammar patterns. Very few students make significant improvement in their ability to communicate creatively under these circumstances. However, the children can dutifully communicate in typical call and response scenarios, including the teacher saying, “Hello, how are you?” to which a child automatically responds, “I am fine.” Research also shows that the method of forceful delivery a child experiences in these programs provokes anxiety, which can inhibit brain development in a young child. Good programs that seek to help children develop proficiency in a new language set goals and objectives, which focus on natural development and holistic communication strategies. These goals should include helping children to use the new language in authentic ways, as well as offer opportunities for creative language practice and interaction, including expressing their own spontaneous, personal thoughts as early as possible (i.e. “I like bananas” or “I am sad today because…”).  

The typical early childhood language classroom is organized around vocabulary “units” such as the alphabet, numbers, colors, etc. There is emphasis placed on memorizing vocabulary lists. This type of classroom exposes children to another language but teaching isolated vocabulary words to children does not produce meaningful levels of oral proficiency or understanding. Such a program can also be misleading to parents who assume that three or four years of increased vocabulary will result in children who are “fluent speakers.”

0j7a8524e589afe69cacThe foundation of foreign language learning in the Montessori environment includes the introduction of English language study as early as possible, a qualified teaching team in the classroom, and effective teaching strategies within an environment that serves the natural development of children. Language is introduced to toddlers, preferably, in both the mother tongue and target language. Each classroom teaching team is comprised of an international, fluent English-speaking teacher in addition to a Chinese bilingual teacher. Instruction is offered in English. The objective of the program is a true integration of English in the Montessori environment. Teachers work individually and with small groups of children in hands on experiential lessons using interdisciplinary materials, which are guided by children’s interests. The most effective teachers link new language to thematic study, which is introduced with cultural studies (social studies and science) and incorporates literature, math and the arts. 

There is an intrinsic connection between language and culture. Understanding another culture requires more than simply memorizing a few simple and stereotypical facts. Children explore cultural perspectives through a rich use of language introduced in cultural stories and legends, visual and folk art, music and composers, coins and stamps etc. They learn about cultural practices (greetings, gestures, free time activities, home and school life, cooking and meal preparation). Recently, one of our teachers enhanced a study on geometric shapes (sensorial/math) by having children construct maps of their bedroom using geometric shapes they could identify.

0j7a8507e589afe69cacThe Montessori language environment provides a rich foundation in spoken language first. Teachers talk with children about more than instructions. We engage in many hours of joyful conversation and introduce the names of everything to the children; names of continents, animals, units of measurement, textures of fabrics, geometric shapes, colors and their variations, plants, world terrain, etc. We introduce these words in simplicity and in the context of our multi-sensorial curriculum. Sensory experiences, movement and language enhance the physical structure of the brain. The successful formation of brain development and neural circuitry depends on these types of experiences.

Once children have mastered learning the sounds of the English alphabet, they become creative writers. They want to write words and stories, but do not have the hand strength. We honor their creative thoughts by allowing them to write without a pencil, instead using the Moveable Alphabet (a wooden box with plastic letters for each letter of the English alphabet). They start first writing simple phonetic words, expanding to phonograms, and then two words together, short phrases and then paragraphs. This is a system unique to Montessori. It allows children to follow their creative interests first without being hindered by the lack of readiness for the pencil.  It is amazingly followed by an explosion into reading in English a few months afterward. Children enjoy reading small phonetic sounds books, phonetic readers and then simple chapter books. The beauty of all of this is that it occurs in partnership with the ease of the child’s natural development.

Language in its simplest essence is the basis of human existence and interaction. Establishing high quality foreign language programs in Montessori schools in China has been an exciting adventure. It has required a firm commitment by teachers, administration and the school community. The goal of Montessori education is to empower children as they transform themselves into peaceful, self-disciplined and compassionate people. We do not transform them; it is their work to do. We give them the highest respect as they go about the day-to-day task of forming the language that they will use to reach out to their families, their community and the world. This was the experience that I had with five-year-old Yiyi one day as we took a walk together last fall. As she glanced up at the trees, she reached out and took my hand and said, “Ms. Andrea, look! The trees are beautiful crimson red today.”


By Andrea Johnson,  

Head of School at Montessori School of Shanghai, Jiading Campus



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