Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Are We Creating an Environment of Non-Readers?

“We cannot know the consequences of suppressing a child's spontaneity when he is just beginning to be active. We may even suffocate life itself.” — Maria Montessori, The Montessori Method (p. 88)

NAMC montessori are we creating non-readers unhappy girl with books

Over the last few weeks we have been looking at equality and achievement in literacy as it relates to gender. We know that during the sensitive period for writing and reading (age 4–6) children spontaneously begin to read. By using the Montessori materials designed for learning to write and form words — the Metal Insets, Sandpaper Letters, and Moveable Alphabet — the child has already had exposure to the sounds of the written word. “Indeed, writing prepares the child to interpret mechanically the union of letter sounds of which the written word is composed.” (Montessori, p. 297)

Reading, however, is more than mechanics. It requires fluency and comprehension. The question, then, is how do we keep the enthusiasm of early readers as we move from mechanics to fluency?

The Montessori environment creates a culture of children who are thirsty for knowledge. The imagination is awakened through the Five Great Lessons, which serve as a catalyst for those who seek the answers to life’s important questions: Who am I? Who came before me? What is my purpose in life? Children seem intrinsically aware that the answers can be found through cultural exploration (history, geography, science). We can also introduce them to the idea that the answers to these questions can be found in literature.

As teachers, we tend to encourage cultural investigation, while quashing literary exploration by quantifying what, when, where, how, and how much reading should be done.

Non-Motivating Instructional Reading Strategies
  • Quantifying reading assignments
  • Requiring written book reports
  • Keeping a reading log
  • Isolating children by putting them in reading groups
  • Focusing on skills rather than engagement
  • Offering incentives
  • Focusing on test preparation
  • Restricting reading choices
Source: Kohn, 2010

I just finished reading a great historical novel. I completely lost myself with the characters and in the nuances of language. I fell in love not with their looks, but with what was said. I stayed up to the point of exhaustion simply because I could not wait to see what happened in the next chapter.
How I would have hated it if I had

  • been told I had to stop after 20 minutes each day (or after 20 pages)
  • to write a journal entry for what I read each day and a report when I finished the book
  • to keep track of where I read, what pages I had read, and had to have my parents sign for me (indicating my word was not enough)
  • been confined to discussing pre-selected page numbers with a few pre-selected peers
  • been told to focus on one specific element of the book (characters, setting, plot, theme, figurative language, etc.)
  • to read because I was going to be tested
  • been restricted to reading “approved” books rather than reading what appealed to me

Yet, isn’t this what often happens to our students? Once they are able to read chapter books, they are told how much they are allowed to read. We make them write the same boring book reports over and over again – Author; title; publication date; number of pages; plot; main characters; favorite part. We teach skills such as plot, setting, and theme as a way to deconstruct meaning rather than to construct it. We offer incentives as if the joy of reading wasn’t reason enough to open a book. And, we tell them what we want them to read, without trusting them enough to allow them to choose on their own.

NAMC montessori are we creating non-readers unhappy girl with book

In short, we have done the exact opposite of what Maria Montessori has told us to do. We have stifled and suppressed the children’s natural inclination to read by making them conform to our standards. We have annihilated enthusiasm and made reading a dreaded school subject, turning young readers into non-readers.

“The best way to make students hate reading is to make them prove to you that they’ve read.” (Kohn, 2010)

What can we do differently? How can we turn our Montessori environments into places that nurture and respect young readers? We will explore some ideas in our next blog.

Works Cited
Kohn, Alfie. “How to create nonreaders: reflections on motivation, learning, and sharing power.” English Journal, Fall 2010, vol. 100, no. 1. http://www.alfiekohn.org/teaching/nonreaders.htm
Montessori, Maria. The Montessori Method: Scientific Pedagogy as Applied to Child Education in “the Children’s Houses.” Trans. Anne George. New York, NY: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1912.
As much as possible, NAMC’s web blog reflects the Montessori curriculum as provided in its teacher training programs. We realize and respect that Montessori schools are unique and may vary their schedules and offerings in accordance with the needs of their individual communities. We hope that our readers will find our articles useful and inspiring as a contribution to the global Montessori community.
© North American Montessori Center - originally posted in its entirety at Montessori Teacher Training on Tuesday, May 20, 2014.


  1. After answering a question about how to encourage children to read, I have decided the only way is to LET THEM READ (OR BE READ TO). I hated writing book reports or keeping a reading log as a child. I love being free to read what I want, unfettered with thoughts of proving what i read. We, and especially children, should read for the JOY of reading!

  2. That's wonderful! I'm sure the children will appreciate it.


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