Montessori Partnership
girl reading right

Promoting quality in Montessori teacher education


The two Helens are often asked for their thoughts and reflections on questions that puzzle Montessori practitioners. Here are some of them, and if you'd like to ask them anything, e-mail Helen P at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Sandpaper Letters Misunderstood - Helen Wheatley

The sandpaper letters are unique in that they involve a number of senses simultaneously: tracing the letters develops touch and the muscular memory, hearing is used to listen to the name of the letter when it is said, and the visual sense is stimulated a little. Each thing involves a separate area of the brain. The saying of the letter involves a further area. Children under the age of about six absorb stimuli with all of their senses together, though at this age the visual sense is less active than the senses of touch and hearing and the muscular sense. Margaret Homfray, who was a student of Maria Montessori, and who adapted the reading materials for the English language, was adamant that the sandpaper letters were to teach writing, not reading. They could even be used to great effect with a blindfold. To extend the feeling of the letters into actual writing, Maria Montessori used small slates, about the same size as the sandpaper letters; the child felt and said the letter and then picked up the slate pencil and formed the letter. Now we use a sand tray; later a chunky crayon or fat pencil can be used with a sheet of inset paper for each letter. Ensure the correct pencil grip from the start by gently removing the pencil and replacing it in the correct position. The sand tray can be introduced when the child is fluent with about half of the sandpaper letters.
We see two quite serious errors in many Montessori nurseries. One is to display the sandpaper letters on a rack. They should be kept in their box. Miss Homfray was keen that the children at this stage did not see too many single letters on display as she felt this prevented them from feeling and saying, so making it harder for them to learn to write. Montessori tells us that writing comes before reading, and is easier, as it involves both more sensory stimuli, and a connection between the hand and the mind which assists learning. Reading is a much more abstract activity, as the child must see the letter and recall its sound mentally. Preparation for reading is done later, by pairing the learned sandpaper letters with the large moveable alphabet. It should be delayed until the child is fluent with the sandpaper letters.
The second error is to provide phonogram sandpaper letters. By the time the child reaches this stage they are already writing letters fluently and are absorbing the look of the letters with the increasingly acute visual sense. The sense of touch is the first of the sensitive periods to decline, and has probably begun to be less important by now, as the visual sense becomes more acute. There were no phonogram sandpaper letters in Montessori's day, as far as I know, and I never saw them in any classroom until long after the deaths of our mentors who had been students of Madam Montessori. I suspect they are a marketing ploy to sell more materials, rather than an aid to the child.
So I urge you, to make it easier for both the children and yourselves: put the sandpaper letters in their box. Remove the phonogram ones and sell them to someone who has not read this article. And instead of alphabets on the walls, try some prints of real works of art. The aesthetic senses need to be cultivated too.

Some Thoughts on Transitions - Helen Prochazka

The transitions between the Infant Community and the Children’s House, and between Children’s House and Elementary are much more than just ‘moving up’. These transitions are implemented in response to significant developmental changes in each individual child, and until these changes have happened the child is not yet ready for the next classroom.
So let’s look at the child moving from the Infant Community to Children’s House and the changes we can observe.

From Infant Community to Children’s House

The child from birth to around three, was thought by Montessori to be a ‘spiritual embryo’, a being whose intellectual, emotional and spiritual faculties were physically in the process of formation, an insight borne out in recent years by brain imaging and neurophysiological research. Montessorians refer to this as the ‘unconscious mind’ phase of the absorbent mind plane of development.
At around three the infant ‘is born’ mentally, and a different kind of thinking now characterises the child. The change is strongly linked to language acquisition and the development of metacognition, or the ability to recall and reflect on one’s own thinking, for which language is essential. Montessori practitioners call this ‘the conscious mind phase’, and the change can happen very quickly. One week the child is still a chaotic toddler; the next he or she is a much more rational thinker, beginning to be able to explain his or her thinking and to understand the notion of logical consequences.
The children entering Children’s House have ‘exploded’ into language using basic grammatical structures correctly in their speech, and with a vocabulary that is growing exponentially. Their memory is much more reliable, and they can give reasons for their preferences, choices, likes and dislikes. Their thinking is still child-like, as are their preoccupations, but their thinking processes have become more transparent and more recognisable to the adult. The are developing the ability to concentrate on a chosen activity and to make meaningful choices from a range of appropriate options. It’s essential to remember that each child will reach the conscious mind stage in line with their own individual development, and not to fit in with expectations for their chronological age or the school calendar.

From Children’s House to Elementary

The transition from Children’s House to Elementary coincides with the passage from the first to the second plane of development. The second plane of development, from around six to about twelve years of age, was designated the stage of ‘the reasoning mind’ by Montessori. The mantra of this age group is, ‘It’s not fair!’, which epitomises their growing moral awareness, and the widening of their social horizons to include learning to operate as one of a group of peers. There are physical changes too, most notably the loss of the milk teeth, generally improved overall health, a change in the texture and colour of the hair and steady growth in height and strength.
It is essential that for the children to be able to operate effectively in Elementary they do not ‘go up’ too early. They need to be able to write competently in order to cope with the work undertaken during this second phase of development. By ‘write’ we mean ‘to have mastered the mechanical skill of recording words’, on paper, electronically, wherever. Creative and expressive writing, the composition of what is written, and the honing of literary skills, is what the elementary experience is all about. Children can be at any stage of reading when they enter elementary, but this ability to write and record is essential.

There is a deliberate overlap in the materials used at the upper end of Children’s House and in the lower elementary, partly to foster the transition, and partly to consolidate the new writing, and progressively, reading, skills that the children are acquiring. The elementary years support the ‘passage to abstraction’, in other words, developing the ability to think in the abstract, and being able to write about and record one’s learning experiences is an important step in this process.

'Gentle hands' conveys a positive message - Helen Prochazka

Over the last two weeks I've been working intensively with a group of under twos in the infant community, and I've been struck as never before by just how easy it is to reinforce patterns of unwanted behaviour by giving negative commands.
A prime example is pushing - several of the children are still frustrated by lack of language in their attempts to communicate with each other, and they resort to physical contact, usually in the form of pushing, to get their message across. And it's so easy for us as adults to intervene and say, 'Don't push! We need to be kind to our friends.'
But what does the child focus on as he hears this? Well, the key word he picks out is 'push'. So in what we say we are inadvertently reinforcing exactly what we want the child not to do. We need to give positive, not negative directions. But how can we put 'push' in a positive light?
'Gentle hands' is a lovely phrase used by colleagues to good effect in this type of situation, but whatever words you use, make sure they're triggers for positive rather than negative behaviour.

Carrying the red rods - Helen Prochazka

A query from a Montessori practitioner: 'I'm being asked to encourage the children to carry the red rods up on the shoulder "like a soldier". This seems to be missing a sensorial opportunity, and to be dangerous as well as a horrid analogy! How do you show children how to carry them?'
Helen replies, 'Previously I always used to get the children to carry them vertically, for safety reasons, but Helen Wheatley, who trained under Miss Child and Miss Homfray, who were themselves trained by Dr. Montessori, says that the children should cup their hands round the ends of the rods and carry them horizontally. This is now how I teach it. The fact that the children's hands are round the ends means that they actually don't hurt anyone with the rods and they get a muscular impression of the length. If their arms aren't long enough to carry the longest rods they adjust their hold and still carry them responsibly.

Montessori - A woman ahead of her time - Helen Prochazka

Maria Montessori was indeed far ahead of her time in her thinking. She was an early feminist, and her 1899 lecture The New Woman raised equality issues that are still only too familiar to us today; later she wrote at length on how children construct their own minds, an insight now supported by neuro-psychological research findings; she predicted that the key educational attainment people would need in the future would be transferable skills; and perhaps most significantly of all, she was an ecologist long before this specialism had a name.
Her focus on cosmic education, where the interconnections and links between everything in the cosmos provides the structure for the educational curriculum has never been rivalled in the sweep of its vision. At a time when the planet is severely threatened by global warming and climate change brought about by unrestrained plundering of its natural resources, we particularly need to hope, as Montessori did, that positive change can be brought about by the children we are educating now. So, we need to be sure to educate them in the right way, and this means putting them back in touch with nature.
Montessori understood the small child's affinity with nature and sought to strengthen it, but there is increasing evidence to suggest that children today are becoming divorced from the natural world and that they are losing their sensitivity to the rhythms and life forms in the outdoor environment. It is our responsibility as educators not just to set up outdoor classrooms, but to ensure that in them the children have opportunities to experience the wildness and freedom of nature, untamed and unrestricted by targets and individual education plans.

Reality Check - Helen Prochazka

The appearance of small ghouls, ghosts and witches in commercialised get-ups at Halloween and the proliferation of Santa Claus hats and reindeer antlers etc. at Christmas prompts the perennial and tricky question for Montessorians to answer: what is the effect, if any, of this type of adult fantasy on a small child's development?
As a Montessori practitioner and trainer I try to get across to parents and students alike how essential it is that the child's growing experience of the world around him should be reality-based. And recently I saw a wonderful example of this approach in action during an observation visit to a Montessori school where a mixed age group was being introduced to the fruits of Brazil as part of a focus on that country's landscape, language and culture.
A pineapple, mango, papaya, pomegranate and kumquats were being introduced to the children who were invited to say how they thought the fruits were grown, in the ground, on the ground, on a bush, or on a tree. The children examined the fruits carefully, observing and commenting on their different colours and textures, and then it was time to cut them open to see what was inside.
The rapt attention, total silence, and gasp as the purple mango revealed its rich golden flesh was topped only by the effect of the crimson pomegranate juice dripping off the chopping board. 'Look! It's bleeding!' one of the children exclaimed. Once the fruits were cut up the children were able to sample them for themselves, experiencing their taste, smell and texture, and putting these experiences into words. Truly a multi-sensory experience, but one rooted in the reality of nature.
For a whole group of children to watch intently, for their interest to be held, and for them to be surprised and excited at...fruit... supports Montessori's view, on which our whole approach is based, that children find the real world much more interesting and appealing than make belief.

0 to 9 or 1 to 10? - Helen Prochazka

A Montessori practitioner observed: 'Our sandpaper numerals go from zero to nine, not from one to ten. Why is that?'
Helen's answer:The purpose of the sandpaper numerals is for the child to learn the symbolic representation in numerical form of the quantities represented on the number rods, i.e. one to ten. Throughout the Montessori maths curriculum we teach the quantities first, with concrete materials, then we teach the symbols, and then we combine the two. You can combine the sandpaper numerals 1-10 with the number rods, or you can use a set of numeral cards. A set of sandpaper numerals from 0-9 suggests that these might have been intended for use in conjunction with the spindle box, which is the piece of material we use after the number rods to teach the concept of zero. By the time the child encounters the spindle box, with its sequence of numerals along the back, he can already recognise and name the numerals, and is focusing on organising loose quantities (the spindles) to correspond to these fixed numerals, so there is probably no real need for another set of sandpaper numerals.

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