One of the events in the first Children's Houses that most fascinated the world was the spontaneous "explosion" into writing and reading. In one of her later books, Montessori talks about the professionals from the field of education who came to visit her and evaluate her method. She goes on to say that when she told them that it had occured almost unintentionally - Montessori had simply created cut-out letters and directed the teacher to tell a child what it was if he showed an interest - they thought she was making fun of them.
But thinking about it, it makes perfect sense. Written words are everwhere, and from the time a child is small, he must recognize their importance in the world around him. Just as he longs to touch and figure out all the things that are important to us - cooking implements, the remote control, the telephone - so too must he long to decipher these written symbols we seem so fond of. In fact, the motivation here must be even more intense because of the sensitive period for language.
Today, Montessori teachers typically use sandpaper letters to create the link between phonemes and their symbolic representations. Once he has a sufficient number of symbols (letters and phonograms) down, the child can begin writing. The part that I love is that the child is allowed to discover that he can also use this knowledge to read - the teacher never mentions reading until the child has spontaneously discovered that he can use symbols to blend sounds and read words.
All of this was floating around in my head when Alex started babbling. Certain sounds seemed to delight him, and perhaps I am jumping the gun, but I was eager to find a way to concretely satisfy this interest. While I was at a craft store one day I saw that they had wooden letters. I picked out his favorites - "B" "S" and "M" - and tucked them in a basket in his room. Now, when he takes a letter out, I say the sound for him and trace the letter with my finger. In addition to hearing the sounds he loves, he's also getting a concrete experience with its symbolic representation.
The more I have been thinking about this idea of giving letters to very young children, the more it makes sense to me. At a time when they are just beginning to learn that all objects have names, why not give them the ones they can actually say? Plus, Alex can also now engage me in a sort of sound game by pulling letters out of his basket. I heard a recent study on NPR that said that children at this age (around 1 year) spend a great deal of time polishing their ability to create sounds by listening to a sound, attempting to recreating it, evaluating their recreation, listening again...and so on. This reinforced for me how vital it is for children to hear words and sounds often at this stage.
I'll definitely post again as our foray into early letter introduction continues. I'm excited to see how Alex will respond to these letters as he comes to understand the link between language and objects (we're definitely getting there - he already signs the word "light" and has a pretty accurate abstract concept of what a light is) and as he encounters text more and more frequently.