Teaching My Baby To Read

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My Thoughts on Play-Based Preschools

Between my two kids I am entering my fourth year of parent participation in a play-based preschool. I am familiar with the research that supports play-based learning, and think it is fine—for children coming from middle class and beyond homes.

But if you have ever faced down a classroom of third graders living in poverty, where some of them didn’t even know their ABCs, you might reconsider the research saying play-based preschools are best, just like I did.

Looking back at my experience as a Psychology student at Stanford’s Bing Nursery school, a play-based preschool where a lot of early childhood research is conducted, I can remember that even though the professors strongly encouraged the parents not to “teach” their children at home, many of the families were doing this anyway. One three year old girl in my class even had a reading tutor.

The English Language Learner kids from East Palo Alto who were at Bing to help “normalize” the data pool? Well, their parents were savvy enough to get them into Bing, right? How typical is that? Most of the parents I knew in the Ravenswood School District loved their children deeply, but none of them knew how to “work the system”.

The East Palo Alto students I taught spent their preschool years playing in the front yard with their cousins, pit bulls, a garden hose and their pet squirrel. They had play-based formative years, but that didn’t mean they entered Kindergarten ready to learn. Some of them didn’t even go to Kindergarten at all, because Kindergarten wasn’t mandatory in the state of California at that time.

So fine academia… Keep telling me how wonderful play-based education is for all learners. I’ll view all of your research with the wisdom of my own personal experience.

For the record, I think Montessori preschools would be a much better choice. They are a hybrid of choice, exploration, reading, counting, painting, real-life skills, and cultural compassion and understanding. Maria Montessori’s very first classroom in the slums of Italy proved that her methods could help all children learn, regardless of socio-economic level. I’d be happy to pay more taxes to fund that.

Dress-Up Clothes and Why We Need Them

Dress-up clothes are a big deal in our house, and we have an extensive collection of costumes packed into their own trunk, pictured behind Jenna(2.5).  When my son Bruce was three and four, my MIL would take him to buy a new costume once a month.  We also have a lot of hand-me-down costumes.  So now, sometimes I even have trouble closing the trunk’s lid.

Since my husband and I have chosen for our kids to go to Montessori for preschool, having a giant hoard of dress-up clothes for my kids to dally with is really important.  True Montessori schools like the one Jenna is registered to attend in the fall, do not by nature include dramatic play activities.  In fact, if you visit a “Montessori” school and see kids dressed up like firefighters, it’s a safe bet that you are seeing a fake Montessori.  Since Montessori isn’t a licensed term, any school can slap it on their title without consequence.  A real Montessori school will have a bevy of bizarre objects and manipulatives for the kids to “work” with, that you don’t even recognize.  I often found myself staring through the one way window at Bruce’s preschool class thinking “What the heck is that thing?”

Some educators and parents give the Montessori philosophy a really hard time because of its stance against dramatic play.  After all, research shows that dramatic play is really important for children, and can actually make them smarter.  My opinion is that it is really easy for families like ours to have dress-up clothes, toy kitchens, toy lawn mowers etc. at home.  What is difficult is to recreate the highly unusual activities they have going on in good Montessori classrooms.  Jen at Post-Apocalyptic Homeschool does a really good job creating Montessori styled experiences for her son at home, but boy is she dedicated!  That’s a lot of work! 

Where we live, the wonderful, three hours a day/three days a week Montessori Jenna will attend in fall only costs $300 a month.  Although that price would still be out of reach for a lot of families, it is extremely cheap compared to where we use to live in California.  So we are lucky that Jenna will be able to have a great Montessori experience, just like her big brother.  At home, it’s a safe bet that there will be a lot of princess tea parties in my future!

Fine Motor Fun

Today Jenna(2) had some fun with Montessori style practical life activities, that I totally stole from Postapocalyptichomeschool.blogspot.

Incidentally, two of Bruce’s favorite activities from Montessori were picking kernels off of Indian corn with tweezers, and grinding cloves with a mortar and pestle. Alas, I didn’t have the materials for either of those activities today.

Pershing, Commander of the Great War


I did not expect Pershing, Commander of the Great War by John Perry to be a tear-jerker, but half way through reading it I could not stop sobbing.  Without giving away any spoilers, something very tragic befell Pershing midlife, and it is the type of story that makes you want to kiss every member in your family and tell them that you love them.  I know that something that happened over a hundred years ago should not affect me so much, but I cannot get the image of General Pershing crying on the shoulder of his friend on the train ride from Bakersfield to San Francisco out of my mind.

It is impossible not to have a great deal of respect for General Pershing, not just because of his leadership during World War I, but also because of the type of man he was in general.  His first job was as a teacher in an African American school, teaching the children of former slaves how to read.  He went on to lead the Buffalo Soldiers, the famous all Black Tenth Calvary Regiment.  When the army short-supplied them during the Spanish American War, Pershing took matters into his own hands and “requisitioned” food and supplies off of a train even though this made him face potential disciplinary action later on. 

Pershing’s humanity was also evident in his successful use of diplomacy and compassion to find a peaceful resolution to conflict with the Muslim Moro people of the Philippines.  He treated all people with dignity in an era when racism was the norm. 

I additionally enjoyed reading about Pershing’s first wife, Helen Frances Warren, who was a pioneer of modern thinking in her own right.  Mrs. Pershing was an educated Wellesley grad, and an early proponent of Montessori education.

Perishing had a well know reputation for being a stickler for details.  This really made me think about how I run my own household, and evaluate how I could make things better.  Proper nutrition, clean pots and pans, the right supplies… Pershing knew that little details could make a big difference for soldiers.  Reading this book made me want to give my whole house a good scrubbing!  But I’ll think twice about varnishing my wood floors. 😦

P.S.  I received a complimentary copy of this book from Booksneeze in exchange for my review.

Keeping things Neat and Tidy


One of the biggest challenges of having young children at home all the time is that the house quickly becomes a total wreck.  I’m sure you can relate!  Now that summer is upon us and we are home all the time, I’m trying to keep things organized by sticking to my cleaning schedule.  This sounds like a simple idea, but it took me almost 6 years of being a stay-at-home-mom to figure out.  I use to do a major cleaning one day a week, but it’s too hard to do that now with kids. 

The idea of incorporating children into housecleaning and management was one of the original principals of Maria Montessori.  Of course, people had been doing that for generations, but she was one of the first educators to make it part of her school curriculum.

Here are our chores for keeping things neat and tidy so we can focus on learning and play:

Bruce (6)

  • Makes bed
  • Brushes teeth
  • Sets table
  • Cleans room once a week
  • Puts shoes away
  • Helps put laundry away

Jenna (23 m)

  • Dishes (and she is soooooo helpful, let me tell you!)
  • Picks up toys

Mom (um… really old)

  • Monday: Changes sheets, waters plants, vacuums upstairs
  • Tuesday: Cleans bathrooms, cleans out refrigerator
  • Wednesday: Dusts, cleans desk and other “vertical filing surfaces”, cleans kitchen chairs and cabinets
  • Thursday: Vacuums downstairs, mops kitchen floor
  • Friday: Laundry
  • Saturday: Ironing, bleach out washer (we have a front loader).

 P.S.  My husband does a lot of work too!

Why I Love Montessori


I should have titled this post, “What I remember about about the dozen or so Montessori books I read three years ago.”  I’m not hitting up Wikipedia to check my details or anything, so take all of this information with a grain of salt.  But this is usually what I tell people when they ask me about Montessori preschool, and why I loved it so much for both of my children.

First, a brief history:

Maria Montessori was the first female doctor in Italy, over 100 years ago.  She faced a lot of discrimination getting through medical school, and then once she graduated, had a hard time actually being allowed to practice medicine due to her gender.  At some point she started working with children who were learning disabled, and whom the established medical community had given up on.  She invented a lot of learning tools for the children to use.  Blocks with pegs that they could pinch, grab and pick up to develop fine motor skills, and other such materials.  By the end of her experiment, the disabled children were scoring as well as nuerotypical children.  The logical question was then, why aren’t nerutypical children scoring even better?

Unfortunately, sexism hit again and nobody would let Montessori near regular, middle-class children.  So she went into the tenement slums of Italy and found a neighborhood that was so poor, that they didn’t care if she was a female doctor.  She found an abandoned space, hired a couple of teachers, and imported all of her methods.  By this point they also included having carpenters build child-sized table and chairs for children to sit on, as well as step stools so they could reach things.  Nowadays, this is standard furniture in all types of preschool classes, but back then it was an innovative idea.

Since the children were so impoverished, she also incorporated basic cleaning and hygiene activities into her program.  Children learned how to polish shoes, polish silver, clean up after themselves, set the table, do the dishes etc.  Montessori hoped that the children would bring these skills back into their home lives, which were often disorderly due to the utter poverty in which the children lived.

The classroom itself was multi-age, meaning that it wasn’t just a room full of three-year-olds.  Older children helping younger children was an important part of her methods.  The teachers also taught letter formation and sounds, before they actually taught reading, and by 3 or 4 ish, a lot of the children were spontaneously learning to read, all at the same time.

Montessori’s results were so amazing, that her teaching methods were imported all over the world.  She entertained controversy however, because at some point she was associated with Mussolini.  (But I don’t remember that part of the story very well.)  She was also staunchly Catholic.

It is important to note that “Montessori” is not a licenced term.  Anyone can slap the name Montessori in front of their preschool or day care and it doesn’t necessarily mean squat.


How to Identify a True Montessori School:

  1.  The children do not “play”, they “work”.  All the learning they do is considered really important.  School is different from play time.  There is a quite hum in the classroom of busy children engaged in activity.  Some of them might even be sewing.
  2. There should be lots of objects in the classroom you have never seen before in your life.  Pink block towers.  Weird wooden cylinder things.  Not a lot of plastic.
  3. The children do their work on mats.  If there is something they want to work with, they get out a mat, get out the item, do their work, put the item away, roll up their mat, and put their mat away.  If another child wants to play with the item in use, they have to be invited onto the mat of the child who is using the item.
  4. Children are actively taking part in cleaning the classroom.  They water plants, help get snack set up, push in their chairs, and keep things tidy.
  5. Maps, geography, and world cultures are taught and celebrated.  Often times a second language is introduced.
  6. Math activities are taught in a manipulative way, usually in small groups or one-on-one with the teacher according to ability level.  Choice is emphasized.  Children choose what to do for the majority of the day, although sometimes they to “have-to” work that the teacher introduces.
  7. The classroom is multi-age, and children progress in learning according to their individual needs, not their age level.  Sounds, and writing are taught starting at 3, and many children are reading independently by four.
  8. There is no dress-up or dramatic play area.
  9. There is lots and lots of fine motor work going on.  Some of my kids’ favorite activities were using tweezers to pluck kernels off of Indian corn, grinding cloves with a mortar and pestle, and squeezing colored water with an eye dropper.
  10. Courtesy is emphasized at all times.  As part of this, in a true Montessori classroom parents are usually not allowed to even cross the threshold.  The classroom is  respected as the children’s’ space, in which to conduct important work.  If you visit a “Montessori” school and see lots of parents in the classroom, it might mean that it’s not a real Montessori program.

Finally, the school should be affiliated with a national or international Montessori association.  (I think there are two main groups out there, but I might not be remembering that correctly.) Here’s one link: http://www.montessori.org/  Here’s another: http://montessori.edu/ The teachers should also be trained in the Montessori method and have some sort of degree or program certificate.

Why I Love Montessori:

My son was (and is) a super active child.  At three, he could drive me up the walls with his energy!  So putting him in a quite, orderly classroom with no recess time might seem like a crazy idea.  But heck, it was only three hours a day, and I took him to the park outside immediately afterwards to play with his classmates.  As it turned out, my son thrived in Montessori!  It was like he needed the quiet hum of the classroom to help him calm down and focus.  (On a side note, lots of good Montessori schools out there do have recess time.  Our school just happened not to, because of insurance issues.)

My daughter loved Montessori because of all of the arts, crafts, and social relationships. Montessori was a source for a lot of play-date friends.  Yes, the children are not being taught to “share” in the traditional sense. They are being taught curtesy, grace, manners, and waiting their turn instead.  They are being taught to respect their environment and each other’s personal space.  There is a lot of socialization going on on a Montessori classroom

The individualized learning that Montessori provided was really important to both of my kids. All the children were working at their own level, and that was okay.  From the outside looking in (through the one-way window), it seemed liked all of the children were exiting the program at five with a lot of excellent skills for Kindergarten.  In fact, a lot of the work that my kids came home with from Montessori, was more advanced than Kindergarten.

Your Thoughts?
Everyone has a different experience with preschool, so I’d love to hear back from what other’s think using the comments section below.  Montessori might not be for everyone.  Play-based, academic based, Waldorf, Coop….there are a lot of other choices out there.  No judgement if you have chosen something else for your child!


Visualization, Not Just Counting

Today I started working on visualizing quantities 1 to 5 with Jeanna.  I say visualization, because I’m teaching her to count with quantities, instead of just counting with one to one correspondence.  The best way to explain why I’m doint this is is to read Joan Cotter’s insightful article on young children and math: http://www.alabacus.com/pageView.cfm?pageID=314 

I hadn’t read any of this when Bruce was little, so my husband and I taught him how to count with correspondance, before teaching him any visualization strategies.  But then he started at a wonderful Montessori program, nine hours a week at age three, and his math really started taking off.  By February of his second year there, when Bruce was four, he was ready for first grade math.  All of that was due to Montessori, and their wonderful focus on visualization, grouping strategies, manipulatives, a lots of fun activites to practice.  I’m very eager to try this method with Jenna here at home, and see how far it will take her.

Creating a Writing Corner

As a teacher, one of my constant questions for parents during parent-teacher conference was “Have you set up a writing corner for your child?”

A writing corner is a special place in your home where your child has all of the supplies they need to write stories, draw pictures, and do important “work”.

This doesn’t need to cost any money! Just search through your home for things you already have on hand.

Writing Corner Supplies

  • blank paper
  • lined paper
  • a journal or diary
  • notebooks
  • pens
  • pencils
  • a dictionary
  • a stapler
  • crayons
  • markers
  • old mugs or cups to organize things
  • a mini trashcan
  • cut-out cereal boxes to store papers

Glenn Doman and Magical Thinking

(Don’t buy this!)

When Bruce was one and a half I came across Glenn Doman’s How to Teach Your Baby to Read in a used bookstore.  I bought it, and quickly read it cover to cover.  His idea that you could use giant flashcards to teach small babies to read had me hooked, and I was eager to see if this method worked.

I made the flashcards and gave it a good three months, about when Bruce was 18-21 months.  At the same time, I was also teaching him his ABCs and sounds using the videos “ABCs and Such” and some good old fashioned play-time with ABC blocks.  Maybe this messed up the Glenn Doman Gentle Revolution method, so it didn’t work.  I don’t know.  Doman does NOT want you to teach children their letters or sounds.  He just wants you to concentrate on flashcards, and reading books to children.

After a while, I honestly gave up on the flashcards.  It just didn’t seem to be working.  But boy did I want it to!  So when Jenna was born, I shelled out the $70 to buy the “Teach Your Baby to Read” video, also from Glenn Doman.  That was a waste of money, because it was basically a lecture of Glenn Doman’s daughter telling you the exact same things as was in the book.  What bugged me was that they never showed any evidence.  They said that there were babies who could read, but they never showed them.

So, did the Gentle Revolution method work for Bruce?  No, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t a strong reader by age four.   A combination of phonics and whole language instruction were what did it.

That being said, I still think that Glenn Doman has some interesting ideas and theories, the main being that there is a window of opportunity in young children when it is much easier to teach them how to read or learn a language, than it will be in later life.  This is the same theory Maria Montessori promoted, and boy and I a believer.  But I sure do wish I had saved my money on Glenn Doman propaganda.  I didn’t even tell you about the money I spent on those darn “Teach Your Baby Math” flashcards!

Once a teacher, always a teacher!

My mom always told me that “Home was for teaching, school was for practice.” This if a funny motto to keep close at heart, considering I became a teacher. I taught K/1, 3/4 and 3rd grade for six years in California. For the past five years I’ve stayed at home to raise my five year old son, Bruce, and 19 month old daughter, Jenna. They are my newest, and most beloved students.

My son Bruce is in Kindergarten and reading third and fourth grade chapter books, on his own in one or two sittings. His independent Guided Reading level is “P/Q”. Some of his favorite books to read by himself are “Harry Potter”, “Geronimo Stilton”, “Diary of a Wimpy Kid”, and “Wayside School”.

I feel badly that Bruce is only five years old and such a Reader-Beader, when so many of his friends are still trying to learn basic words. Yes, he is gifted, but part of his early reading success is due to the fact that I’m a teacher, and I use to teach kids to read for a living.  It’s really not that hard, and I wish that more parents had the tools to do this.

I’m a firm believer in Maria Montessori’s theory that there is a window of opportunity for children when it is very easy for them to learn to read.  If you wait until your child is 5, it’s going to be a lot more difficult.  I started teaching Bruce at 18 months, and now I’m teaching his Jenna the same way.   

As a teacher, if I could send out one message to the world at large it would be “Teach your kids to read before they enter Kindergarten!”  This blog will show you how, and perhaps teach me if my methods will work on other children as well as on my own.