At around age three, children move up from the Infant Community into Montessori Children’s House, where they stay for preschool and kindergarten. At that point, you can choose either the Japanese/English or the Chinese/English track for your child.
In this Montessori preschool program, the entire morning (9 am – 1 pm) is taught in either Japanese or Chinese. Both the Montessori trained preschool teacher and the assistant teacher speak only in Japanese/Chinese with the children. For children who are younger than four, this means that the entire day is taught in the target language (3-year-olds nap in the afternoon, from about 1 pm to about 3 pm.) Children who no longer nap are expected to stay at school until 3:30 pm, so that they may participate in the afternoon Montessori work period, which is taught in part in English.
For the preschool program, we switch to English plus either Chinese or Japanese, because we need to ensure that students learn the basics of literacy in English as well as in the other language, at the appropriate age. Dr. Montessori observed that children are usually ready to begin to learn to write and read as early as age 3 or 3 ½. That’s why we introduce our students to literacy skills in the preschool program, and why we work on literacy in English and Chinese/Japanese in parallel.
English literacy progresses along the normal Montessori sequence, outlined here.
One thing is different, thought: we introduce English letter sounds via Chinese/Japanese language instruction. 3-year-olds in the Montessori Children’s House programs are napping during the afternoon English work period. Still, these youngest students need to start learning letter sounds before they turn four. That’s why our Chinese and Japanese speaking teachers give three period lessons on English letter sounds with the Montessori Sandpaper letters, using Chinese/Japanese as the instructional language, but teaching the English sounds. They may say, using Japanese or Chinese, "This is ‘b’. Trace ‘b’ with two fingers. Put ‘b’ over here. What sound does this letter make?"
Once students turn four, and stop napping, we expect them to enroll in the full-day program to 3:30 pm. In the afternoons, we then focus on English language instruction: practicing English cursive letters, using the English moveable alphabet to write stories, using English-language command cards, reading boxes and books.
During the morning programs, the emphasis is on literacy in Japanese or Chinese, for students of all ages. Given the pictorial nature of these languages, writing and reading instruction is a bit different than in English, although, of course, still in line with Montessori principles.
Japanese literacy approach in Children’s House
In our Japanese program, we introduce written language starting at age three, with the phonetic Hiragana characters, which can be used to phonetically write all Japanese words. Once Hiragana are well learned (usually by age 4 – 4 ½), we also introduce Katakana, the phonetic symbols used to transcribe foreign words in Japanese
The process of learning these two sets of Japanese phonetic characters is very similar to that of learning English letter sounds: we have a set of sandpaper characters for both Hiragana and Katakana, and we introduce the easier to write characters first, then move on to the more complex ones. Similarly to English, we encourage children to repetitively trace the characters, to associate them with words that start with that sound, and then to write them, first on a large chalkboard, then on a smaller, squared one, and finally on paper.
Because both of these Japanese writing systems are purely phonetic, and because there are no letter names that are separate from sounds, our students usually become proficient readers in Japanese well before they can read English fluently.
We do introduce Kanji in the Children’s House program as part of three-period nomenclature cards, where the names of animals, plants and things are listed in Hiragana on one side of a label, and Kanji on the other side. The focus during the preschool years, though, is on learning to read and write in Hiragana and Katakana; Kanji are merely introduced to students.
Chinese literacy approach in Children’s House
As Chinese is a pictorial language, not a phonetic one, our approach to literacy in Chinese is quite different from the English language program, even as we use some of the same tools. We teach traditional Chinese characters (not simplified), and, later on, introduce pinyin to help children read independently.
We introduce Chinese writing via sandpaper stroke materials: children learn the key strokes that make up Chinese characters, including their names. This process starts at around age 3, at the same time as we introduce the English sandpaper letters, and children will progress from tracing, to writing in chalk and then writing on paper.
After the child has become familiar with some of the strokes, we also introduce traditional Chinese characters, starting with those that are easy to write (have few strokes), those that stand for every-day words (mouth, tree, water) and also many that are radicals, i.e., components of more complex characters. Sandpaper representations of these characters contain symbols for stroke order, to ensure students learn to write correctly from the start.
Some of the first characters a child learns is his or her Chinese name—it’s a point of pride for them to be able to write this set of several characters as early as age 3 ½ or 4!
Students also begin reading characters: We label three-part cards with Chinese characters, and as the children learn the vocabulary orally, they also become familiar with the written character for key words. We have a collection of simple Chinese picture books, and because children enjoy repetition, they often memorize the books, and in the process acquire the skill to recognize those characters that are repeated a lot in the books.
By the end of the Children’s House program, students may recognize between 30 and 60 characters, and write a sub-set of these.
During the last year of the three-year cycle, we also introduce pinyin, the official phonetic system for transcribing the sound of Chinese characters into Latin script. Because pinyin use the same letters as English writing, but the letters stand for different sound, we wait until the last year to introduce pinyin, to avoid confusing pinyin sounds with the English sounds the 3- and 4-year-olds are just learning. Learning pinyin is especially important for the children who continue into AIM’s elementary program, as we use pinyin in elementary to help children read independently, and to help them study and learn a larger set of Chinese characters each year.