Origins of “Writing Before Reading”

It was in the San Lorenzo district of Rome in 1907 that Maria Montessori welcomed about 50 impoverished Italian children to her first “Casa dei Bambini” or “Children’s Home.” Here, she prepared an environment just for the children, learning through observation how to shape it to their needs.

Montessori details this experience in her book, “The Secret of Childhood.” In this book, I discovered the origins of Montessori’s belief that writing comes before reading. In her chapter on “Observations and Discoveries,” Montessori shared how one day at the Children’s House several mothers asked her to teach their children reading and writing. Her gut said that the undertaking was more than she had in mind. However, she went ahead and created and introduced sandpaper letters to the environment, and made chalk available for writing. To her delight, pretty soon, the kids began to write.

Montessori wrote, “This [children teaching themselves how to write] was the greatest event to take place in the first Children’s Home. The child who first made the discovery was so astonished that he shouted out loud: ‘I’ve written, I’ve written!’ The children excitedly ran up to look at the words which he had traced on the floor with a piece of chalk. “Me too, me too!” they shouted as they ran off in search of writing materials. Some crowded around the blackboard. Others stretched themselves out upon the floor. They all began to write.

Their boundless activity was like a torrent. They wrote everywhere, on doors, walls, and even on loaves of bread at home. The children were only about four years old, and their discovery of writing had been totally unforeseen. The teacher told me: ‘It was three o’clock yesterday when the little boy began to write.’

We were struck as if we had witnessed a miracle. We had earlier received some beautifully illustrated books, but when we now gave them to the children, they received them coolly. They contained beautiful pictures, it was true, but these only distracted them from the new and enthralling occupation that absorbed their energies. They wanted to write and not to look at pictures. The children had perhaps never before seen books, and for a long time we tried to arouse their interest in them, but it was even impossible to make them understand what we meant by reading. We therefore set the books aside, waiting for a more favorable time. The children were rarely interested in reading what another had written. It even seemed that they were unable to read the words. Many of the children would turn around and look at me in amazement when I read out loud the words they had written, as if to ask, ‘How do you know it?’

It was only after some six months that they began to understand what it is to read, and they did this only by associating reading with writing.”

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