Let me tell you the story of two little boys.
The first little boy went to an entirely typical preschool at 3 years old. His mother was the program director and she was positive that this was the best program for him (and at the time was). He practiced writing his name all year by tracing little dotted letters. By the end of the year he had it mostly down. He didn't really do any other writing activities, but he did learn how to hold his scissors correctly and did tons of cute art projects.
At 4 years old, Little Boy went to a new full time preschool. This was a Montessori preschool, but he didn't have great luck with his classroom and had several teachers over the course of this first year who didn't seem quite sure what to do with him. Instead of backing up to the metal insets as a first writing work, or even starting at the beginning of the sand paper letters or moveable alphabet, they simply picked up somewhere in the middle. With not much rhyme or reason, seeming to pay more attention at any given point to where he should have been by age as opposed to where he actually was by observation. At the end of the year, his name looked just like it did the year before and he could still hold a pencil and use art materials.
At 5 years old this little boy's mama started to wise up a bit to the fact that her very smart little boy was very far behind! Without the proper moveable alphabet presentations he was without the tools to spontaneously read (which for the record, his mama still didn't really believe in) and without the repetition and the sensorial experience of the sandpaper letters most of the letters he did try to write were quite a bit of a struggle and many were misformed, backwards, upside down, etc. Little Boy's mama and papa decided to give *school* one more try, but first they met with the classroom teacher to express their concerns. This was (another) new teacher who really knew the Montessori method, but also believed that if Little Boy was not yet interested then it was best to leave him be.
Knowing her child, Mama knew that it wasn't that he lacked interest but more that he lacked foundations. He was filled with frustration that other kindergartners in his class could do things he could not and had decided to simply not care. He was having behavior problems at home and at school. Mama did some reading and research and after Christmas, Little Boy came home to try a new approach to school.
Mama went back to tracing because that is what Little Boy knew. At the same time, she bought sandpaper letters, a moveable alphabet, made a sand tray, and eventually set up pink series works. Two things were quickly clear. 1- Little Boy was uncomfortable with cursive having started with print at age 3. The transition was not working for him so Mama switched everything to print for consistency (school had been using cursive). 2- Little Boy was WAY out of the sensitive period for the sandpaper letters and quickly getting there with the moveable alphabet. Mama worked as quickly as possible through the presentations trying to balance the need for understanding with Little Boy's lack of interest in the materials. They were simply not special to him any longer.
Meanwhile, his handwriting was quite poor and in continued need of interpretation and tracing. At 6 years old, Mama added Handwriting Without Tears (1st grade level) for more targeted practice. This did the trick at improving handwriting. We also did some extra lessons on placing letters on the line (a moveable alphabet lesson he never had). For continued handwriting practice, Little Boy now writes regular journal entries and does a small amount of copy work, copying sayings, Bible verses, and poems into his language notebook. He no longer fights about his writing, but takes great pride in his work.
Little Boy never took the writing road to reading. He never read spontaneously, but that is another post. Little Boy did, however, teach his mother to trust the sequence in Montessori writing. This was a great benefit to the second little boy I would like to tell you about.
Little Brother never went to a traditional preschool. At just under 3 years old, he enrolled for a few months in a Montessori preschool because Little Boy was attending the same school. At just over 3 years old, he transitioned to home with his brother. In his first year at home (Little Brother has a November birthday) he mainly engaged in sensorial activities like the pink tower and brown stair. He also did lots of practical life! He enjoyed geography and maps and learned all of his continents and began with some basic eye spy games. Academics, however, were not his focus.
At just under 4 years old (the beginning of this current school year), Mama decided that Little Brother was ready to begin his writing work. She didn't want to purchase the entire set of metal insets, so she improvised with a simple shape puzzle. First Little Brother traced the shapes with his finger and then with the pencil. He then moved into filling the shapes in with parallel lines and making design booklets with several shapes at once. He found this extremely fascinating for about a month and hasn't done it since.
At the same time, Mama began introducing the sandpaper letters- one or two each week, with plenty of time for review. She also involved Little Boy in these lessons by allowing him to be the teacher, but that was just a ploy to keep him interested and practicing himself. Eventually Little Brother was working with the sandpaper letters and the sand tray regularly and had learned most of them. Around Christmastime, Little Brother became more and more interested in this thing called a pencil. Since kids are generally so proud to be able to write their name, Mama introduced writing letters using Rainbow Names. This led to an explosion of writing *notes* to other family members. Of course he had to read our notes to us because they didn't make much sense, but he was indeed quite proud... and he was writing!
With Little Boy, Little Brother had a lesson on placing letters on the line with the moveable alphabet. It was meant to be an introduction to the moveable alphabet for Little Brother, but instead it was more like a rocket launcher!
At shy of 4 and a half, only 6 months after starting the sequence of writing lessons, Little Brother is making the transition. He is sounding out the words that he writes and is finding sounds and letters in books. On a few occasions, he has taken out beginning pink series pictures to write with his moveable alphabet. He chooses to write.
What is the difference between Little Boy and Little Brother? I truly don't believe intelligence is in any way a factor. I believe there is really only one difference.
Little Brother had consistent instruction from a well laid out plan from the very beginning.
Period. That's the only significant difference.
Does Mama feel a little bit bad about that? Well, honestly, yeah- it wasn't Little Boy's fault. She has, however, had the importance of the approach demonstrated in an extremely personal way. She has taken notes and will work hard not to make the same mistake again. She will watch for the child's readiness and then she will encourage and guide them along a path that is both logical, effective, and interesting.
Because at the end of the day, that's what teaching is really all about.