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The Three-Period Lesson

As a parent interested in the Montessori method, you may have heard about the three-period lesson, a hallmark of Montessori education that helps young children learn vocabulary and concepts.

In simple terms, the three steps, or periods, are:

  • 1. Naming (Introduction) "This is a dog."
  • 2. Recognizing (Identification) "Show me the dog."
  • 3. Remembering (Cognition) "What is this?"

The three-period lesson was developed by Edouard Seguin, a French physician who worked with special needs children in France and the United States during the late 19th century. He discovered ways to increase children's cognitive abilities and believed in the importance of developing their self-reliance and independence. Seguin's writings were a major inspiration to Maria Montessori and the source of many of her practical ideas.

Your role as your child's first teacher is not the same as a trained educator. Quite naturally, you have been using the three-period lesson as you communicate with your baby and toddler. Your use of this "lesson" is much more informal than in a classroom setting. It is a tool to allow you to see your child's knowledge of a particular concept, and a technique to keep in mind throughout his childhood.

Girls at Piano"Look, Mom, Girls at the Piano!"

Here's a fond memory I have of the three-period lesson in action with my own family:

When my children were young, my mother sent them postcards of famous artworks. We would briefly talk about the picture, the title, the artist, and then place the card on a small easel on a shelf in their rooms. When she visited, my mother would play games with the children using the postcards. One rainy Sunday afternoon when our family was visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art, my 3 1/2 year-old daughter suddenly shouted out, "Girls at the Piano," as we entered a gallery. There was Auguste Renoir's painting, bigger than life, and one excited little girl, delighted with her discovery.

The First Period: "This is _______."

You have been naming people, places, and things for your baby from the very beginning. These names are used over and over, clearly isolating and identifying objects with one-word descriptions.

The baby hears the sounds and begins to understand language. Children will not distinguish differences at this early age - for example all people may be "mama" or all animals might be called "dogs." Lots of names are learned before a child learns to speak, and understanding often comes before a child is able to verbalize.

Learning takes place through all the senses, not just by hearing. Babies touch, taste, squeeze, smell, push, and manipulate everything. As you identify concepts such as "hot" or "cold," children not only learn the vocabulary but they also experience the quality. They miraculously internalize the world through all their senses. Montessori refers to this innate ability as the "absorbent mind."

The Second Period: "Show me ______."

This stage of learning is the longest, and your child needs to have many, many experiences hearing the names of things.

You may have noticed that your child looks in the direction of an object you name. She is indeed connecting the word with the object. Later, your little one understands simple instructions. Montessori identified how important movement is for learning, so play games that incorporate movement. For example, ask your child to find the ball and bring it to you. Peek-a-Boo games help children learn during the second period. "Where is Teddy? There he is!" Naming games are fun for children whether reading together, riding in the car, or playing "I Spy" at home. "Where's the horse?" "Find the red balloon." "Where is your excavator?"

Enjoy watching your child absorb information about the world, and recognize objects. There is no reason to hurry on to the third period until your child has fully experienced and learned vocabulary during this second level of learning. This process might continue for months, weeks, or days.

The Third Period: "What is this?"

Although some call the third period "the test," don't ask your child a vocabulary question until you know he will be successful. Recall how delighted you were when your child first said "Mama" or "doggie." When the child can name something, it signals cognition, the third step of learning. If you ask, "What is this?" your child might not know. This tells you that more repetition and experience is needed. Never indicate that your child has failed. Just go back to the second period. Play more naming games, reintroduce vocabulary while you talk about what you see, and then enjoy your child's amazing "absorbent mind."

"The purpose of the three-period lesson is to help the child to better understand...and to allow you to see how well the child is grasping and absorbing what you are showing him.
—Elizabeth Hainstock, Teaching Montessori in the Home

— by Jane M. Jacobs, M.A., Montessori Educational Consultant at Montessori Services. She is a trained primary Montessori directress and also a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. She has taught children aged 2 to 7 years in Montessori schools, Headstart, and also in a preschool for children with developmental challenges. In her counseling practice, she helps individuals, couples, and families.

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