Dr. Montessori believed that the sensitive period for language begins at birth and continues until about six years of age. During this time, children learn best through human interaction, absorbing the sounds and speech patterns of the family and home environment. In the Orientation classroom, students focus on learning vocabulary by naming pictures or objects and having a clear, simple conversation with the teacher. A three-period lesson on the word and concept of a “cow” may progress by naming the animal (introduction), recognizing the animal (identification), and remembering the name of the animal (cognition). The teacher may take the child further, sounding out the phonetics of c-o-w, to prepare the child to read in Primary.
Language Arts in Primary (3 – 6 years old)
In Primary, teachers introduce handwriting in tandem with reading, employing sandpaper letters, the movable alphabet, and other tactile manipulatives to make visible the transformation of sounds to letters to words to sentences to paragraphs to simple stories. The three-finger grasp developed in Orientation is used to hold a pencil in Primary and begin writing.
The lined paper of a Primary child shows the sky as the top line, the fence as the dotted middle line, and the grass as the bottom line (often decorated with a whimsical flower). In writing a lower-case “h,” the student will move from the sky to the grass, curving up to the fence and back down to the grass and ending with a graceful “whoop!” at the end. The D’Nealian “whoop” prepares Primary students to write in cursive. This skill is developed in Upper Elementary and is shown to increase retention, with researchers theorizing that the flow of the script may help connect ideas.
The student’s voice is given space for written and pictorial expression on paper that includes a dedicated area for illustration followed by lines for text. Primary students may write and illustrate stories about their family, their friends, what they know, and what they imagine, creating a delightful window into the mind and soul of a young student. Kindergarten students read their stories to their friends and family at an annual Authors’ Night, a tradition that will continue into Upper Elementary.
Language Arts in Lower Elementary (1st – 3rd grade)
In Lower Elementary, students begin to analyze more abstract concepts of language: the how, the why, and the from where? Students explore handwriting, spelling, word study, and grammar (parts of speech, nouns, pronouns, articles, adjectives, conjunctions, prepositions, verbs, adverbs, sentence analysis). With strong reading comprehension skills and a library of great literature at their fingertips, Lower Elementary students will progress from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.”
In addition to studying how we write today, Lower Elementary students take a trip back in time in the Montessori Fourth Great Lesson to explore the history of language. A holistic and cosmic exploration of early people, how they communicated, how they developed written language, and how written language evolved over the centuries, the Fourth Great Lessons captures the attention and imagination of young learners and inspires them to tell their own stories.
Language Arts in Upper Elementary
Upper Elementary students continue to use distinct symbols to represent each part of speech. This tool allows students to study grammar at the word level and the sentence level. Students explore the meaning and function of words and the syntax of how they go together to create a meaningful sentence.
Empowered and equipped to read, Upper Elementary students enjoy efferent reading, which is reading (usually nonfiction) to find information, and aesthetic reading, which is reading (usually fiction) for enjoyment and to appreciate the literature. The teacher guides students to a deeper understanding of fiction and literature (plot and setting, character, vocabulary and figurative language, themes and ideas) as well as of nonfiction and information (main idea, key details, vocabulary, text features). Students explore literature together in classroom book clubs.
The writing curriculum in Upper Elementary, which parallels the reading curriculum, focuses on the three main purposes of writing — narrative writing, informational writing, and persuasive writing. Students work through a similar hierarchy of skills in developing their writing, including composing with pictures, engagement, generating ideas, focus, organization/structure, and drafting (elaboration, word choice, spelling, grammar, and punctuation). Writing projects are diverse and run the gamut from research papers to found poems to persuasive infomercials.
Middle Years Language Arts Curriculum (7th and 8th grade)
The Language Arts curriculum at St. Stephen’s focuses on creating thoughtful and discerning communicators; the curriculum features the purposeful progression from concrete (Orientation and Primary) to abstract (Lower Elementary) to analytical (Upper Elementary) to expressive (Middle Years). English Language Arts in Middle Years facilitates academic growth in reading, writing, listening, speaking, discussion, reflection, and analysis. Through the examination of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, students hone their reading strategies, critical thinking skills, and vocabulary. The focus of the writing curriculum is narrative, expository, and persuasive, and students maintain a blog throughout their time in Middle Years to chart their progress as writers.
Language Arts in the Fine Arts
Everyone has a story to tell. Stories define who we are and who we want to be. St. Stephen’s Fine Arts Program is built around magnifying the voices of our young storytellers. Exploring avenues of expression in music, visual arts, film, and theatre, St. Stephen’s students create and represent their individual and collective narratives.
The music program at St. Stephen’s strives to support a lifelong love of creating, performing, and appreciating music from the earliest levels. The youngest students focus on developing pitch and rhythm through seasonal songs, games, stories, and playing instruments. Starting in Kindergarten, students continue to build their aural training and begin their journey into music notation, utilizing Kodály-influenced materials. In the upper levels, the students gain a deeper understanding of music history and theory.
Through visual arts courses beginning in Kindergarten, St. Stephens students are offered a full range of creative studio art opportunities, from drawing and photography to multimedia and sculpture projects. Budding artists learn art history in the art room and experience it firsthand through visiting museums and collaborating with guest artists. Students speak about their work, process, and influences at art shows and exhibitions.
Students create and tell their stories in St. Stephen’s film class. Each filmmaker is responsible for writing, producing, directing, and editing a short film, shown at our annual film festival. Students form their production teams and are trained in everything from camera operation to film editing and scriptwriting. Through active participation in this year-long, project-based course, students develop artistic and technical skills as well as organizational and time-management skills.
In theatre, students are challenged with scene study and technical practices to develop their craft in acting and are also given great insight into what it is like to be a technical theatre worker. Students are encouraged to expand their idea of what theatre is and appreciate the complexity and individuality it can provide for almost anyone. Theatre at St. Stephen’s provides a strong foundation for pursuing the arts while enhancing other non-arts skills such as public speaking, the ability to collaborate with others, and giving and receiving constructive feedback.