We know that part of our work as Montessori teachers is to observe children. We observe to understand their development, that we may better prepare for that development in the materials and lessons we offer in the environment.
Before we introduce writing as a lesson, we need to observe the child’s physical and intellectual development for signs of alignment. That is to say, each new lesson should be aligned to the observations we’ve made of the child to whom we’re offering it: not to the general development of children “that age,” or because the lesson is next in the sequence, but because we’ve seen something in the specific child that lets us know it’s the right time. What might you look for in the child’s writing development?
First, observe for the child’s physical development: Before a child has the fine motor control to manage a pencil, they’re likely to move through some predictable grasps. Each represents great refinement of the gross and fine muscles needed for writing.
Typically in early toddlerhood, or just after the first birthday, children will hold styli in their hands with a fisted grasp. Imagine the way you might bang your fist on the table. Now, imagine a large crayon in your hand. The control of the crayon with a fisted grasp comes from the larger muscles of the palm, with the fine muscles of the fingers steadying the stylus. You’ll notice children grabbing crayons or paintbrushes with their full fists, and manipulating them using all the muscles in their arms and shoulders, often in large sweeping motions.
In older toddlerhood and the beginning of early childhood, as children develop greater control of their shoulders, arms and hands, they’l shift the grip to a “Palmer Grasp.” Imagine how your fingers might hold a hand-puppet, with the four fingers together against the thumb. No, imagine a stylus held such that the nib emerges from the point where all the fingertips touch. In a Palmer grasp, the hand faces the table. Children using this grasp generally still also use their whole arms. You’ll notice this grasp often with young children standing at the easel.
Generally between three and four years old, children may demonstrate a static tripod or static quadrupod grasp. In a tripod grasp, children will rest the stylus between their index finger, middle finger and thumb. In a quadrupod grasp, they’ll include the little finger for more control. By this time, you should see children using the muscles of their forearms and wrists to control the stylus, with less involvement from their shoulders.
Then, between the ages of four and six years old, children will master the dynamic tripod, or pincer, grasp. Identical to the static tripod grasp, imagine how your fingers would work if you were picking up a dime. You would use the muscles of your fingers, not your wrists or arms, for such a nuanced task. This flexible grip allows for more precise letter formation, drawing and writing.
Then, look to see what they’re doing with that development: While a child is developing the physical ability to manage a stylus, they’re also building the cognitive ability to use those muscles with intent. For toddlers, you may only observe scribbling, random marks of varying sizes. These are often circular and large. While a child scribbling may not be using identifiable letters, these are nonetheless an expression of some ideas. To understand more about what a child intends when they scribble, ask them to describe what they see on the page.
Children will often move quickly in early childhood to forming symbols that are reminiscent of formal numbers and letters. While the child may not intend a specific letter or numbers, they are replicating what they see in their environments. They may know a few letters of their own names, for example, although they may not put them in the right order or in any observable relationship to each other on the page.
When children begin “writing” letters, they usually start with seemingly random assortments. At this point, the child understands that letters are specific shapes, but they are likely still developing a connection between those shapes and the associated sounds. Shortly after, you may observe children writing words and letters distinctly. A child at this stage who tries to title a picture, for example, will be able to construct a message relevant to their drawing, although they may not space letters correctly.
After children demonstrate that they are linking written letters with a specific message, you should be able to observe them creating reliable (if incorrectly spelled!) words that consistently represent the same message. At the same time, they may start using punctuation and more predictably separating their words with spaces. You’ll observe children sounding out most words, and spelling them how they sound. Common exceptions include: environmental print, some sight words, and their own names and the names of loved ones.
Older early childhood and younger elementary children will begin to employ readable, standardized letter forms, as well as beginning, middle and ending sounds approaching standard spelling. It’s not usually until children are in elementary that they are aware of standard spelling and employ it regularly.
Finally, consider what lessons match each observed skill. Children need lots of opportunities to practice these motor skills, and lessons that help to build the visual discrimination, order, and concentration they’ll need to attend to writing. Talk with your coteachers or colleagues about what materials might be a good match for a child at a particular stage of development. Discuss, too, how much mastery is mastery: for some children, these physical and cognitive stages will move very quickly. For others, they may be more erratic. Remember, too, that many of the materials that build a child’s intellectual and physical capacity for writing don’t look very much like writing lessons at all. Lessons that help the child’s eye-hand coordination and the coordination of the fingers may be in your Practical Life or Sensorial Area. Likewise, children need experiences in visual discrimination to notice the differences in the formation of letters. And, of course children need endless practice with the Sandpaper Letters, especially in the third lesson of the three-period lesson. Find ways to engage children in that third period through light-hearted, warm distance games, and sound games that help them to stay engaged. Continue practicing with the three-period lessons even when you’ve observed children practicing letters on their own.
As children move toward mastery of written letters, they will rapidly want to make use of that skill in meaningful writing. Don’t be surprised if your environment is scattered with discarded examples of children’s writing (and don’t spend too much time worrying about “whose work this is.”) Initially, the process of writing and the experience of having conveyed a message will be more important to the child than the recipient of that written work. Don’t force it. Offer ample opportunity for physical practice, ample opportunity for the concentration, coordination of the senses, and order necessary for habits of mind, and patience to the developing child. Remember: observing both precedes and follows every lesson. Look for indications of children’s development to suggest what lessons to present, and look for indications of interest, concentration and mastery to affirm the alignment of the lessons. And, if the former doesn’t lead to the latter, go back to the former. While Montessori starts and ends with observation, there’s no perfect straight line between what you observe and what you present- only informed hypotheses about what’s happening in the mysterious interior of the child’s mind. But the more you link the observation to the lesson, the more often the connection will be there. Seek it out, and have the grace for yourself and for the child to ask more, observe more, and reflect more in service to the child.