Montessori Matters: The Three Period Lesson

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We Montessori teachers like to joke about out our passion for naming things. In fact, Nomenclature Cards are a classic Montessori material. We have them for everything, from Types of Transportation to Parts of an Atom. But our work with names begins before that, with something called the Three Period Lesson. Developed by Édouard Séguin, and adapted by Dr. Montessori for use in the classroom, the Three Period Lesson (also known as the Three Stage Lesson) is a tool we use every day. Its purpose is to build the relationship between names and objects, symbols or qualities. For example:

We use the Three Period Lesson to introduce the shapes in the Geometric Cabinet (objects):

Geometric Cabinet from Absorbent Minds Montessori

We use the Three Period Lesson to introduce the sandpaper numerals (symbols):

Sandpaper Numerals from ETC Montessori

And we use the Three Period Lesson to teach Rough and Smooth (qualities):

Nienhuis Montessori Smooth Gradation Tablets

The Three Period Lesson is a multi-use tool–the Montessori version of a Swiss Army Knife:

In the Sensorial Activities, the Three Stage Lesson is used to teach the names of qualities and their various degrees. For Practical and Cultural Activities, it is used to introduce the names of the implements and materials the child is using. The Three Stage Lesson occurs in the Mathematics Activities when the child learns the names of symbols used to represent quantities and functions. For the language activities, it is used to help the child associate written symbols with sounds, and in certain exercises, to increase the child’s vocabulary.

Gettman, David. “Sensorial Activities.” Basic Montessori: Learning Activities for Under-fives. New York: St. Martin’s, 1987. 69-70. Print.
The Three Period Lesson–which is how I’ll refer to it, since that what I learned to call it–is generally a presentation of three objects, symbols or qualities (at this point I’ll simplify by assuming objects). At a minimum, for the sake of contrast, at least two objects need to be presented. Sometimes four objects will be appropriate. With elementary students, four to six objects may be introduced. Working with the students (giving the lesson) is our guide to determining the number that best suits them.
Isolation is also key when giving a Three-Period Lesson. We present the objects on an empty mat or a clear table. Similarly, we keep our language simple and limited. The vocabulary we’re trying to introduce can easily become lost in extraneous explanations. With younger children, Three Period Lessons are generally one-to-one. In Elementary, teachers may introduce vocabulary individually or in small groups. In fact, I think if you were to observe a Montessori classroom, you’d see the influence the Three Period Lesson has much of our work with students, from worksheets, to our approach to error-handling.

Now that we have the foundation for the Three Period Lesson, we can begin! Again, for simplicity’s sake, I’m going to assume in further descriptions, that I’m giving a Three Period Lesson with an object.

The First Period:

  • Teacher Says and Shows

The First Period is where the name and and the object are first associated. The teacher sits down with the student (beside him or her, not across) and introduces the lesson. “Today we’re going to work with some shapes.” Then, moving the object in front of the child, the teacher gives the name, repeating it clearly, enunciating each sound: “This is a triangle. Triangle. Triangle.” If the object is a sandpaper numeral or letter, the teacher should demonstrate how to trace the character; where to start and how many fingers to use. After demonstrating, the teacher can invite the child to feel the object, too. These steps are repeated with each object we’re introducing in the lesson.

It’s important to note, however, that the student doesn’t have to say anything during the first period. We notice spontaneous participation (such as repeating the name after we say it), but don’t require it.

The Second Period:

  • Teacher Says and Student Shows

In the Second Period, the teacher checks to see if the student has remembered the connection between the objects and their names. Even if the student said the names during the First Period, we want to know they weren’t just parroting what they heard. According to Dr. Montessori, the Second Period is the most important because it is the the “test” of knowledge (p. 157, The Discovery of the Child).

To do the checking, the teacher places all of the objects presented in the First Period in front of the student. “Show me the triangle,” the teacher will say. Or, “Point to the square.” If the child doesn’t know, we have two options: Put the lesson away or go through all the objects a few times to see if this was just an accident or a true mistake. Generally speaking, our knowledge of the child and our instincts will help you make this decision. Remember, we’re observers and we’re watching for signs that they’re just guessing. If the errors are being made because the student is inattentive to the lesson, it’s time to set the material aside. The time isn’t right! If it’s a true mistake, we know we need to put the lesson away for another day. As in all things, we must make sure not to show disappointment or disapproval.

Once the student makes the connection correctly each time, shift the objects around and ask again. I like to make it into a game, asking if they think I can trick them. (I never can!)

The Third Period:

  • Teacher Shows and Student Says

If the student is successful with the Second Period, we can move on to the Third. The Third Period is the only part of the Three Period Lesson where the child is asked to speak. They might volunteer words or phrases in earlier parts of the lesson, but it’s important not to require anything until now.

During the Third Period, the teacher will isolate one object from the lesson and place it in front of the student. With the object isolated, the teacher will ask the student to name it. For example, the teacher will place the circle in front of the child and say, “Tell me the name of this shape.” If the student’s pronunciation is off, we help the child. You might have them repeat the word until they can say it correctly. However, it’s worth mentioning that difficulties with pronunciation and difficulties with identification can be two separate issues.

As with many tasks in the Montessori Method, repetition is important. As teachers, we may give the same lesson multiple times. We may repeat the entire Three Period Lesson, or any of the three stages, depending on what we feel will benefit our students. It’s also helpful to give a short summary of the lesson, as you’ll see in the video below. When the teacher and student have completed all Three Stages of the lesson, the teacher can say, “Today, we worked with the circle,” (placing the circle in front of the child), “the triangle,” (placing the triangle next to the circle), “and the square” (placing the last shape on the table). This quick recap completes the work cycle.

To finish up this post, I have a special treat for you! MSO’s own Jenny Lang agreed to be filmed while giving a Three Period Lesson. Here’s a small sample of what this integral lesson looks like:

Further Reading:

  • Homfray, Margaret. “Introducing Terminology with the Use of the Three Period Lesson.” YouTube. Skyincolor. Web. 4 Oct. 2015.
  • Lillard, Paula Polk. “The Montessori Method.” Montessori, a Modern Approach. New York: Schocken, 1972. 69-70. Print.
  • Gettman, David. “Sensorial Activities.” Basic Montessori: Learning Activities for Under-fives. New York: St. Martin’s, 1987. 69-70. Print.
  • Hainstock, Elizabeth G. “The Sensorial Situation.” Teaching Montessori in the Home: The Pre-school Years. New Updated ed. New York: Plume, 1997. 48. Print.
  • Montessori, Maria. “The Technique of the Lessons.” The Discovery of the Child. New York: Ballantine, 1972. 156-158. Print.

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One thought on “Montessori Matters: The Three Period Lesson

  1. Sensorial activities have always proven themselves as one of the best ways to refine the child’s five senses. All the three phases above are clearly described and it’s easy to understand as well.

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