A trademark of Montessori education is the three-period lesson. It is a method all Montessori primary teachers use to introduce new vocabulary and concepts to a child that involves three key steps: naming, recognition, and recall (more on this below). It is often introduced in the toddler classroom as well, albeit less formally. Keep in mind that we organically introduce language with our toddlers at home or as we explore new places/things with them; this is just a more specific way to introduce new words and concepts as part of a language lesson, either at home or at school.
With toddlers, it can help to focus on concepts or topics your child is already interested in. Most recently, D (27 months) has been talking a lot about baby and mama animals. So I’ve been teaching her the names of all the baby animals, as well as the names of the female adult, if different than the male counterpart. Six months ago, I would have just introduced one of each animal in a generic form, e.g. cow and sheep, but her comprehension and language has grown so much since then.
Whichever the category or concept you choose, It’s best to start with the the concrete version (e.g. real fruits) rather than the abstract (e.g. pictures of fruits). For many objects, such as animals, toy figurines are the closest we can get to the real thing. Start with just a few objects (up to four for young toddlers and up to eight for older) in one category. You can place these objects in a basket or on a tray on your toddler’s shelf for them to explore and either give a lesson before or after they explore. With toddlers, giving a lesson has to include some flexibility as they don’t sit still for as long as a child in a primary classroom would. You may not get through a whole lesson, and that’s okay! Use some of the tips below to make it more fun, and you may be surprised by your toddler enjoying these language “games”. If your child isn’t interested at all, just move on, and try again later or another day. And keep in mind that some categories/concepts just might not be interesting to your child - I tried, but I could never get D to sit through a lesson on tools!
The Three Period Lesson (adapted for toddlers)
As you introduce a new object or concept, simply label what it is you are showing the child. Hold it and use one simple word to label it, e.g. “Lamb” if you’re introducing farm animals, or “Red” if you’re introducing colors. Set it back down and let the child explore and touch it too. *Note: While we of course want to use lots of descriptive language in our everyday interactions with our toddler, here we are isolating a single concept. The fewer words we use in the naming or labeling, the easier it will be for the toddler to make the connection between the word and the object or concept.
Once you have provided a label for each object or concept, you can ask the child to find each one, one at a time. With toddlers, it can help to make this into a game. Examples of recognition questions include “Where is the calf?” “Can you put the cube in the basket?” “I spy…green.” “Can you hide the motorcycle behind your back?” There are endless ways to play recognition games, which help to get your child more familiar with each object or concept. There is no rush to the next step as you want the child to really grasp what each object is. If your child isn’t talking yet, this is the last step.
This step is only used for a verbal child and when you are confident the toddler knows each word already. The last thing we want to do is set a child up for failure if they don’t yet know the answer. In this final step of the three-period lesson, we ask “What is this?” as we point to each object. You can also make this more fun by asking the toddler a more creative questions such as “Which baby animal is yellow?” or hiding one under a cloth and asking “Which one is missing?”
In general, when teaching something new, we try to avoid pointing out when the child gets something wrong. If your child makes a mistake in the recognition or recall step, you could just acknowledge what they did show you "That's the ____" and remember to show them the correct label/object pairing again next time. We want our toddler to be confident in their abilities, and motivated to keep trying. Often if we are constantly correcting, we see children lose self esteem as well as interest in trying.