The Importance of Oral Language by Robin Wilkins, Puriri Teacher

Being able to write clearly and effectively is an essential skill. As we all know, written language is a key focus in the NZ curriculum and ākonga have targeted expectations to meet. In order for ākonga to develop written language, they need a solid background in oral language. I have been doing a lot of reading on the subject and would like to share some of this with you.

Language shapes culture; language shapes thinking; and language shapes brains. Conversation helps tamariki learn to reason, reflect and respond to the world. The brain is intensely ravenous for language stimulation in early childhood. Many neuroscientists today are saying that the quality of young children’s language is declining and that this is affecting their cognitive development.

The results are declining literacy, falling test scores, faltering oral expression and ineptitude with the written word that extends from early childhood to the ranks of working adult professionals.

Much of the blame inevitably falls on TV, but some argue that is actually only a symptom.  There is increasing research that talks about the long-term effects of headphones, computer games and technology, and how these are affecting language development and social play.

Today’s world is such a fast-paced, over-scheduled and helter-skelter place.  If it is like this for us as adults, it is doubly so for our children. It is so important therefore, to be mindful of allowing quiet times for our children; to learn to analyse, to reflect and ponder and to learn to use quiet inner conversations to build personal realities and sharpen and extend their verbal reasoning.

Dr Jane Healy, an internationally recognised authority on learning and brain development and a speaker at Montessori conferences, suggests that good language is gained only from interactive engagement. Children need to talk as well as to hear. They need to play with words and reason with them. They need to practise talking about problems, to learn to plan and organise their behaviour. They need to respond to new words and stories to build a broad personal base of meaning.

There are concerns that children are not receiving enough daily doses of talk either at home or at school. It is critical that adults pay special attention to a child’s need to talk, to have language experiences of all kinds and to have good-quality conversation. Telling stories over and over, expanding on characters, events and ideas, help children to learn to think carefully and critically.

A child’s early experiences with oral language have powerful long-term effects on school achievement. One research study found that “frequent, responsive mother-child language interaction” was the most critical factor in raising mental ability. Studies show that mothers instinctively shape and expand their child’s language, tailoring their own responses precisely to each child’s developmental need. They seem to know just how to pull the child’s language up a notch by using forms in their own speech, that are one degree above the child’s current level. They do this automatically.

If we want growing brains to build the foundations for successful learning, we must examine the habits of our culture that are negatively impacting on the quality and the quantity of our children’s conversations and the effects of this on the written word.

Simply put, if we could all add a little more conversation and a little less action into daily life, we’d be onto a good thing!

“Why Not to Answer all your Child’s Questions”  by Krista Kerr, Pohutukawa Teacher

I read an interesting article recently entitled ‘Seven Reasons to not Answer your Child’s Questions.’ The main point of this article was that answering all of your child’s questions is similar to complying with all their requests. When your child asks “Can you put on my shoes/make my lunch/tidy my room…” you have two options:

1.      There are times when you will help and comply with the request; if you know that in this moment it really is too much to ask of your child, or if making them tie their own laces means that everyone will be late for school for example. This is fine – we all need help with even the smallest of tasks sometimes, or

2.      Standing back, providing just as much support, encouragement or guidance that your child needs to finish. This allows them to feel the satisfaction of achieving completion of a task, as well as helping them to understand that they need to put the effort in if they want to reach this achievement.

It is the same with their questions. You could answer every question, thereby demonstrating to your child that they are able to ask about the unknown and that someone will always be there to tell them the answer. However, this does not help your child to hypothesize, wonder, research, discuss or problem solve. It does not help your child to be independent in their learning or take delight in making their own discoveries.

Instead of always giving them the answer you could instead require that they put in some effort. Instead of telling them the answer, turn the question back on them with a line like “that is an interesting question. Why do you think ….?”

Wonder with them, listen to their theories, guide them with further questions and suggest where they may find further information (appropriate to their age) or include others in the conversation so that they can bounce ideas off each other. Two children together can come up with answers and theories that, although sometimes not the ‘right’ answer, make perfect sense when we listen to them and understand the thinking behind those answers.

For tamariki, especially the very young, they not only love to wonder and hypothesize about questions and problems, but love to see, feel, hear and touch them also. For example, if a child asks “how does a lawnmower cut the grass?” it is easier for us as adults to say “well, there is a blade which turns around very fast and it cuts the grass.” Some tamariki may leave it at that and move on straight away, but some of you know that there are tamariki who will then ask “but how does the blade turn around?” “What is a blade?” “Why does it make a loud noise?” and any and all other questions they can think off. Another ‘answer’ to this question may be to go out with your child, turn over the lawnmower and together examine the parts of a lawnmower. Give them a lesson in how to be safe, let them see the blade, start it up and allow them to hear and see the engine at work.

Just as with physical requests, I’m not suggesting that we never give our tamariki a straight forward, factual answer, but I wonder how many times we do this without thinking, not realizing that sometimes giving tamariki the answer to their questions is actually hindering their learning instead of helping it?


To read the full article go to

What is meant by ‘Planes of Development?’ by Jan Gaffney

‘Planes of Development’ is a term often used in Montessori. It governs how we group ākonga (children) into classrooms and how we cater for them at each stage.

One of the guiding principles of Montessori education came as a result
of careful and prolonged observation of children. Over time Dr. Montessori built a picture of childhood that led to grouping children as we do today.

She found that there were four periods of time referred to as planes of development; 0-6, 6-12, 12-18 and 18-24 years of age.  Each plane was characterised by certain traits that, if catered to effectively, made that time calm and positive for all concerned.  Each plane could further be cut in two to even more effectively cater for the children at each stage, and it is from there that we get our 3-6, 6-9, 9-12, 12-15 and 15-18  classes, and playgroup.

We often refer to the first period as the time of the absorbent mind, as it is during this time that children soak up everything in their environment.  It is during this time we get the sensitive period (a time when the young one is drawn to practicing a particular concept – such as language). This time is usually a time when children work by themselves to master activities that cater for an internal need.  Teachers in the 3-6 classrooms are trained to observe the child and watch for each sensitive period so as to present activities to help the child develop in that area. The first plane is often a turbulent time (particularly the first three years) as intense physical and emotional development goes on.

The second plane (6-12) is a time when children are ready to explore the world and their place in it.  It is the time of imagination and social interaction.  Often the children will go out to play a game, spend twenty minutes working out the rules and then have only 5 minutes left to play the game, but see nothing wrong with this; the emphasis is on the working out rather than the game! They are ready for big work that takes them to different times and places and they are in a stage of moral development and often have a great sense of justice.  ‘It’s not fair’ is often their catch cry! They are learning how being a social being works. Physically, it is a calmer time as they enter a time of emotional stability. It is often a time of great intellectual development.

The third plane (12-18yrs) is again a turbulent time as ākonga go through a time of enormous upheaval – emotionally and physically.  There is so much to cope with on that level that often a 12-15 year old particularly will have little interest in academic study.  When catered for effectively, in an environment that respects and understands their changing needs these teenagers can make great advances, solve the problems of the world and still remain polite to their parents! Alright, so I might be exaggerating slightly on that last one, but whereas expectations of teenagers are generally negative, I have in actual fact found there is as much to wonder about and exclaim over young people at this stage as there is over any other stage of development.

Things calm down by the time the child moves into the senior class here. The hormones don’t fluctuate quite so wildly and they become ready to apply themselves seriously to work that will help their future – usually a much calmer time than the three years prior.

Montessori education is ideally suited to the changing needs of children in all their stages of development. In my own (completely unbiased of course) opinion, we have chosen well!

Kawakawa Odyssey on the West Coast of the South Island by Tanya Laybourn, EOTC Co-ordinator

The purpose of the Odyssey is two-fold – to build the sense of teamwork and community in the class of Kawakawa AND to learn something.  This year we went to the West Coast of the South Island, to learn about historic and modern coal and gold mining and also about pounamu.

We were away at the start of Term 1 for 12 days  of travelling, cooking, playing games, learning and experiencing new places together – enjoying the sun, battling the rain and sleeping in strange places.

In Westport we learnt about coal. We visited the old coal mine at Denniston and experienced mining back in yester-year.  We also visited the fully functioning modern open-cast Stockton Coal Mine.

In Charleston, we ventured underground to learn about lime stones caves while amongst the stalagmites and stalactites and glow worms.  It was beautiful, and we all loved tubing down the rapids.

Our stay at Arahura Marae was a life changing experience of manākitanga for the class.  We were the first large group to be hosted at their stunning new whare and we learned so much about generosity of spirit and stories of pounamu. Hokitika will always be a place of treasured memories for Kawakawa.

At Shantytown we dressed up as 1800s miners and learnt about the life and times of gold miners.  Then we had the privilege of being the last tour through Oceana Gold Mine in Reefton – there we witnessed the massive technology of modern gold mining.  In Reefton we also enjoyed the company of the “famous” Bearded Miners for billy-tea and scones.

Not all the lessons of the Odyssey are about learning ‘stuff’; in fact many of the more impacting lessons involve the skills developed in the area of living as a community – getting up early to prepare breakfast for the class, spending a chunk of your afternoon cooking dinner, washing the cook’s dishes, etc … There are also many lessons around care of self and respect of others – doing your own laundry, packing up your own bags, considering the needs of others around the time to sleep.

Adolescents are beginning the stage of development that involves testing out what it is like to move away from the direct influence and care of the family.  They are learning from others and about others, testing behaviour and opinions with both their peers and with the other adults in their lives.  The other need they have is to learn experientially.  For both these reasons the Odyssey is a great way to start the year – a good dose of peer interaction combined with solid learning from being at the mines and being able to see, touch, try and ask questions from those who really know.

And for me, it is always a privilege to take Kawakawa away on trips – we constantly get positive feedback from the people we meet along the way …

The Role of Observation in Montessori Classrooms by Jan Gaffney

One of the key principals Montessori teachers often talk about is observation

and the importance of it, so I thought it timely to explain what we mean by that.

There are many different kinds of observation.

One is on the fly.  As we move around the classroom in between giving lessons, we make a note of what children are doing (often in written form so we don’t forget what we have seen). We look at what choices children have made – have they taken up lessons presented, or have we not yet captured their interest?

Another kind of observation is in dedicated sessions, where we sit with our notebook, writing down what we see. We are not available to answer questions or respond to the children for that moment, but instead we are looking for trends across the whole class, while also looking at what individuals and small groups are doing. We look at the work level happening – is there a quiet hum or is the volume at a level that tells us work has fallen off and ākonga are off task?

Another is the observation we do when giving lessons and watching ākonga practice lessons they have received. From watching them work we can tell if they understand a concept enough to keep going unassisted, or if they need our help a while longer.

The length of an observation can range from certain times during the day to across a whole week or longer, depending on the need of the child. In those longer observations we look not just at what they do, but other variables such as:

–          Are they choosing it themselves?

–          How long do they stick at it?

–          Is it a challenge or is it quite easy?

–          Are they doing it with deep concentration or are they a bit distracted?

–          Have they chosen the same thing over a few days or weeks?

–          Are they doing things in the same order, or do they like to mix things up?

–          Do they like to work with something new until they have mastered it before moving to something else, or do they like to space their work choices out?

All of these things give us clues to the student’s individual needs, interests, abilities, learning styles, and more. It is through observation that we are able to make individual plans to cater for the needs and interests of each ākonga.

Observation also lets us see what is happening in the class as a whole.

–          Do we need to be giving grace and courtesy lessons?

–          Are children treating each other well?

–          Are they handling the equipment responsibly?

–          Are there some children who need to broaden their choice of people to work with, or others who need to narrow theirs down?

If we didn’t spend this time observing, we would end up looking to see what the next lesson on the list was and deliver it, regardless of any interest or ability, and regardless of whether the planned lesson was going to meet the child’s developmental needs. We would also make assumptions about what we need to do instead of looking to really see what was needed.

Instead, teachers are striving to offer the child or children( in primary and above, where they are more group oriented) the lesson they need in order to develop to the best of their abilities.


The Prepared Environment by Tara Israelson

Last night as I tidied my room I came across some old notebooks from when I first moved to Aotearoa New Zealand.  I began flipping through the pages and realized that the notebooks were the records of my first days, weeks and months in Nikau class as a brand new teacher.

It was a fascinating read – observations of children, the classroom, the routines and structures that I had walked into.  I noted EVERYTHING – what children were working on, what they might be ready for, what I needed to buy / make / change to create the classroom of my Montessori dreams.

At first I found it funny how detailed and specific I was about everything.  “Buy a beautiful basket for button sewing”, “Need a special tray for table scrubbing”, “Create enticing folders for maths papers”, etc.

As I continued to read I began to reflect on what it means to be a Montessori teacher and what it means to create the most perfect environment for learning.  I could not buy any old basket for button sewing; it had to be beautiful.  No ordinary tray would do for my table scrubbing; it needed to be special.  My display of maths papers needed to be enticing to the child.

My notes also included bits about the “flow” of the classroom – where children were bumping in to each other, which materials seemed hidden away, gaps in furniture that were leading to running through the classroom.  These notes all reminded me of what it takes to create a Montessori Prepared Environment.

The Montessori classroom is like a little laboratory for learning, a place set up so perfectly that the child has the freedom

to work, play and learn independently.  Everything in the classroom must be attractive and well-presented so that the children in the classroom want to use it.  This is where the “beautiful basket” and “special tray” come in.

Everything must also have a purpose, nothing superfluous or unnecessary to learning.  Our jugs and trays are made of glass because, while the direct purpose of a material may be for cleaning a table, an indirect purpose is to refine the movements of the hand.  How better to refine these movements than by being extremely careful with a fragile and precious object.  We often try to sneak in ways to make connections with other areas of the classroom, or the wider world.  The dish we keep our erasers in might be hexagonal or the beads in the sorting activity might be ovoid, cubic and cylindrical.

We put great effort into preparing the environment of our ‘learning laboratory’, with love and attention to detail, using what Montessori described as ‘real objects for real life’.  We move furniture to achieve the best classroom flow, we walk around the Warehouse and Farmers putting little jugs on little trays and then trying to find a cloth that matches, we op shop for the perfect wooden tray or a box shaped like a square-based pyramid.

This prepared environment, the lab your child works in, allows him / her to be successful independently in his / her learning journey.  This is our job as Montessori teachers and we love it – to give the child the keys to the world and stand back as they open the doors.

For more information on the Prepared Environment, check out Montessori Madness, a book by Trevor Eissler.


Developing Resilient Children by Robin Wilkins, Puriri Teacher

Lately, I have had a number of parents express concerns about their child’s social and emotional competence. So I decided to do some research to assist in how we can develop resilient children.

At the turn of the 20th century Montessori called for a revolution in society’s approach to human development. She developed a precise, scientifically based theory that has stood the test of time, decade after decade.

In this millennium however, we are faced with a number of issues that Dr Montessori could not have predicted. Students are influenced by technology. Some suffer from medical issues around food. Others have learning difficulties that can be difficult to understand and deal with.

Nonetheless Dr Montessori’s directive that adults respond to the ‘internal needs of a life in the process of development’ still remains clear.

Children need the emotional safety provided by an environment built upon support, nurturing, consideration, mutual contribution, a sense of belonging, protection, acceptance, encouragement and understanding.

Emotional safety and the ability to learn have been correlated in contemporary education and brain research. This research has shown that the emotional centre of the brain is so powerful that negative emotions such as hostility, anger, fear and anxiety automatically “downshift” the brain to basic survival thinking. Under such stress the reasoning centre of the brain shuts down. In the presence of strong negative emotions, hormones are secreted in preparation for fight or flight. Fear limits perception, communication and learning.

So, What is Resilience?

Research maintains it to be the capacity of a child to deal effectively with stress and pressure, to cope with everyday challenges, to rebound from mistakes, disappointments, trauma and adversity, to develop clear and realistic goals, to solve problems, to interact comfortably with others and to treat oneself and others with respect and dignity.

Research also maintains that ‘resilient children’ possess certain qualities and/or ways of viewing themselves and the world that are not apparent in children who have been unsuccessful in meeting challenges and pressures. It suggests some ‘guideposts’ that form the foundation of a resilient mind-set.

Being Empathic is a critical factor in developing resilience. Children will develop empathy more easily when they interact with adults who model it daily, even though there may be times when it is difficult for us to show empathy if we are upset, angry or disappointed with our children. In a relationship of adult to child empathy is placing ourselves inside the shoes of the child and seeing the world through his/her eyes. It does not imply that we agree with what they do, but is an attempt to appreciate and validate their point of view.

Communicating Effectively and Listening Actively. Communication is an umbrella that affects all that goes on between human beings. Resilient children demonstrate a capacity to communicate their feelings and thoughts effectively and the adults in their world serve as important role models in the process. How we communicate our needs and listen to the needs of others determines whether needs are likely to be met. It is not only how we speak with another person, but involves actively listening, understanding and validating what they are saying.

In modelling these traits we are helping our children develop resilience – an vital quality for facing the ever changing world of their future.