MECS Montessori Educational Software

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Parkers Bring Montessori Into Digital Age
By Paul Epstein, Ph.D
Dr. Epstein is a noted Montessorian, Author, Professor, Head of School, Consultant for The Montessori Foundation

Educators are asking serious questions about the use of computer-assisted instruction. While there is considerable agreement that computer programs will not replace teachers, there is uncertainty as to how these programs should become a part of curriculum and instruction.

If the computer program is offered as another "choice" among the many others in the prepared environment, should it mimic additional Montessori curriculum principles such as the three-period lesson and control of error?

Should teachers regard computer programs as a kind of manipulative? Is there an optimal balance between sensorial engagements with "real manipulatives" - The Golden Bead Material, the Puzzle Maps, or Moveable Alphabets - and a computer program animated rendition of these materials?

If children are interested in and are learning from computer-assisted instruction, how long should we allow children to sit in front of computers?

Carol and Dewey Parker, creators of the Montessori Educational Computer Systems (MECS) of Albuquerque, NM are serious about developing computer-assisted instruction for Montessori and non-Montessori schools. Carol is a Montessori educator with 28 years of Montessori teaching and tutoring experience. Dewey is an experienced computer programmer.

Carol began as a "Montessori mother" who initially tried to make materials for her children at home. Enrolling her first child in a Montessori early childhood program in Dallas led Carol to take a St. Nicholas course. She later decided to expand her Montessori knowledge by completing an early childhood AMS course in Dallas. She taught for another 15 years before moving to Albuquerque.

Asked to develop a 6-9 class, Carol attended NCME training in San Diego, CA. She later continued her elementary training with an AMS program in New York state. For the past 20 years she has also worked as a "Montessori tutor" with children challenged by autism, muscular dystrophy, speech problems, dyslexia and ADHD. She says these children taught her that although they struggled to learn with manipulatives, they could successfully use a computer mouse.

 Six topics  (We have added many programs since this article was written - D. Parker - Pres. MECS)

Since 1992, parents, private and public school teachers, and teacher educators in Montessori teacher education centers have been using the Parker's unique line of Montessori-based, fully interactive, multimedia programs. The topics of the programs include:

  • Geography (the states and territories of Australia; the countries of Africa; the countries and flags of Europe and South America; the states and capitals of the United States) (We now have 30 titles covering many topics - D. Parker, Pres. MECS Software)

The MECS programs incorporate several key Montessori curriculum design elements: high interest

(children are "naturally" drawn to computers), a progression or sequence of isolated difficulty, opportunities for repetition, instant feedback, and the three-period lesson format.

The first-period lesson involves a narrated animation or a whole picture that presents an entire concept. In Jurassic Earth, for example, a timeline with pictures of Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous dinosaurs is presented. Each dinosaur picture, such as Coelophysis, Stegosaurus and Protoceratops, is named and then placed in its respective timeline period. 

In the second-period lesson the child is asked to use the computer mouse to "show me the

Stegosaurus." If the child makes a mistake, the program shows the correct dinosaur and asks again. 

The child is asked to drag the correct dinosaur label into place under the dinosaur picture in the third-period lesson to answer, "What is this?"

Each program is designed to provide individualized instruction. A child begins at her or his level and progresses at her or his own rate. Lessons are accessed through menu screens and/or navigation buttons. Children proceed through the programs with CONTINUE, REPEAT, and MENU buttons. Additional support comes from an ANSWER button.

When pressed, on-screen instructions direct the child to make verbal responses or to use the mouse to make interactive patterning movements. These instructions also free the child from depending on an adult presence while working with a learning program. The child can also ask for help at any time by clicking a HELP button. The program responds by repeating the word or phrase that is the current focus of the lesson.

The MECS programs incorporate a multi-sensory format involving animation, sound, and visual displays of various Montessori materials or objects. The multi-sensory format is based on whole brain learning research that concluded a learner retains 90 percent of what she or he says and does. Accordingly, the Parkers have developed their programs with a motto of "see - hear - say - move". When a learner moves her or his hand while speaking a sound or word, attention to that sound or word is increased. This increase of attention results in retention of the word.

The Reading Modules

Five of the programs - the MECS reading modules - are particularly impressive.

Each module offers a comprehensive and carefully sequenced set of lessons that take full advantage of a computer program's animation, visual and auditory capabilities. These lessons will engage children in the various steps that result in knowing how to read.

Montessori teachers will recognize the scope of these lessons (initial consonants, short and long vowel sounds, blends, digraphs, and phonograms) and the use of objects and word labels in the traditional "Moveable alphabet" format. But each module goes further.

Together with their "see - hear - say - move" three-period lesson format, the Parkers have blended the Montessori orientation to teaching reading and writing with compatible materials and methods drawn from the Orton Dyslexia Society and the Spaulding Writing Road to Reading. Carol especially credits Sr. Mary Motz of Montessori Matters for teaching that the vowel is the "leader in the word". This idea takes the form of a vowel ladder, which is used in several modules.

Reading Module One consists of 10 lessons. The first lesson presents an animated alphabet that is analogous to the classic Montessori sandpaper letter/object lessons. Each of the 26 sounds is introduced with a colorful animation, and the child is invited to say the sound of the letter and clap each letter sound contained in the model word. Verbalization, auditory discrimination and body movement (clapping, etc.) are integrated into each presentation.

Each word is repeated three times. According to the Parkers, neurolinguistic research suggests that three repetitions move information into long-term memory. Module One continues with two lessons that compare "b" with "d" and "p" with "q". Three-letter phonetic words are taught next in sequence from initial sound, last sound and middle letter sound.

Using the traditional Montessori format, the child is exposed to consonants colored red and vowels colored blue. The mouse is used to build three-letter words; the child moves a "c", "u", and a "p" into spaces under the picture of the cup. The module next uses an animated vowel ladder to present the short vowel sounds and three-letter word families - pan, fan, tan, ran. This work is followed by lessons that teach consonant blends. 

The lessons in Reading Module Two involve the child with short vowel four-letter words, consonant blends and digraphs. A soft blue background is used in each program; based on whole brain learning research, this color is supposed to relax the right hemisphere and create a mood for learning. "Ch, for example, is shown on the blue background. A train moves across the screen as the narrator say, "See the choo-choo  train? Ch says 'ch". Digraphs are presented using the traditional Moveable Alphabet, three-period lesson format. The child will watch an animated "assistant" name "Monty Sory" move his mouth and clap his hands. Monty will say, for example, "sh" - "e" - "l" - "f". Next, the child uses the mouse to drag a "sh", "e", "l" and "f" to form the word "shelf".

Module Two also includes a 242 three-letter-word list. This is a tremendous classroom resource. The words in this list are presented in a large font size/ the initial consonant is black, and there is a space between the initial consonant and the second two letters which are in yellow. The space offers clarity and a definition of the word according to its vowel family. The child hears the narrator say the word and sees an animated red arrow move from left to right below the spoken words. The child also tracks the movement of the arrow with the computer mouse. The intent here is to promote rapid blending that could lead to speed-reading. The 242 words are presented in four groups. Group One presents same family words (hat, mat, cat); Group Two presents mixed family words (can, hat, car); Group Three presents mixed vowel words (hat, cup, pen); and Group Four presents words in mixed order. 

Reading Module Three is larger still, containing 43 lessons and a 340-word list. Of these words, 143 are animated, and there are 186 pictures for computerized Moveable Alphabet work. Module Three lessons focus on short and long vowels, the names of the 26 letters and animated writing program (the child traces letters with the mouse), the silent final "e", Moveable Alphabet activities for long vowel words and reading from the word lists. The child is taught the diacritical markings for short and long vowels. Through the use of color-coded cards and colored letters, the programs use these markings to teach decoding skills to the child.

As in Reading Module Two, word lists are available for computer work or can be printed for use with other classroom materials. The word lists in Reading Module Three contain final silent "e" words, and short vowel four-letter words with blends and digraphs. As in Module Two, words are spoken; the child follows a moving red arrow and learns to blend letters into words.

Building upon the previous reading modules, Module Four uses animation, music and children's voices to present 74 lessons that focus on "r" vowels (er, or, ar,) vowel diphthongs, and a reading list of 476 words.

Favorable Response

The MECS programs are an outstanding addition to Montessori early childhood and elementary classrooms. Children with various learning styles and needs will benefit. Instead of taking the place of traditional Montessori materials, the MECS programs help connect children to them. 

Teachers frequently call, say Carol and Dewey, to report on children becoming inspired to work with actual materials after using the programs. Recently, for example, Carol observed a five-year-old who had completed the MECS program on Africa reading the names of African countries from the classroom control chart. The program had taught her to read by sight. MECS has developed an excellent set of computer programs that incorporates both Montessori principles and curriculum elements from recent Constructivist-based learning research.

Dr. Paul Epstein

 
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