Montessori Minute ~ The Three Part Lesson

The Three Part Lesson ~ A Montessori teaching tool you can use at home

We teach our children so many names for things! Colors, shapes, numbers, letters, names of plants and animals – the list seems endless when you think about it. Dr. Maria Montessori thought about it around 1900, and came up with a neat way to help young children learn the name of anything. She called it the Three Part Lesson. This technique is used in Montessori schools around the world. You can use it at home, too.

We have short term and long term memory. When a child hears a new term, it goes into short term memory. Young children have “absorbent minds”. They often remember words after hearing them only once!  Short term memory is fickle, though, and words can be forgotten. Children often need a little help getting words to move from short term to long term memory. That‟s where the Three Part Lesson shines.

The steps of a Three Part Lesson are Identification, Recognition, and Recall. In the Identification step we show the child three objects – one at a time – and tell the child each object’s name. Then we set the objects in front of the child and do the Recognition step where, you guessed it, we ask the child to point out (recognize) each object when we say its name. We have the child practice naming the objects this way a number of times. Finally, we ask the child to tell us (recall) the name of each object one at a time. That is a Three Part Lesson.

Here is an example. We will teach a child the Primary Colors: red, yellow, and blue:


In the Identification step, show your child just the yellow color. Your child looks at it and says, “Yellow”. You repeat this with the red, then blue colors, each by itself.

In the Recognition step, set out all three colors. Ask your child to point them out when you say their names. Have your child close his eyes while you move the colors around. Ask him to point each one out again. Repeat this 3-5 times, moving the colors to new positions each time.

Finally, in the Recall step, set each color in front of your child one at a time again and ask him to name them. By the way, the color cards shown are sample paint cards from a hardware store.

BIG TIP: More time spent in step two, Recognition, helps young children the most.

All those different layouts and practice in step two are when the information moves from your child‟s short term to long term memory! Play different games. Put the objects on a table across the room and ask your child to go get them. Always be sure to switch roles and have your child ask you to point out the colors. Lay out the objects a number of different ways.

Here is another example of a three Part Lesson, this time to teach amounts 1, 2 & 3:


Now you’re getting the hang of it. To increase your confidence, it helps to practice doing a Three Part Lesson before you do one with your child. Soon it will be second nature.

Here is another example, this time teaching the phonetic sounds of m, a, & t:


Those neat letters are Montessori Sandpaper Letters. We will talk more about them in a future post on learning to read. When your child uses the sandpaper letters and numbers, she traces, looks at, and says the letter sound or number name all at the same time. This creates tactile, visual, and auditory impressions simultaneously. That really helps get information into long term memory.


Montessori Sandpaper Letters & Numerals from Kid Advance Montessori. Use lower case, block letters. These are fantastic tools for the first step in the Reading Sequence – Phonics. The numerals teach your child the written symbols 0-10. Both materials prepare your child for writing.

Okay, bring on the questions!

How old should my child be before I do Three Part Lessons?

By about 4 years old most kids will participate in a Three Part Lesson. Your child’s interest and enthusiasm for any material or activity should always be your guide. Montessori is all about trusting and following the natural inner guide that is leading your child’s development along. If you ask your child if she wants to learn the names of some colors and she agrees, go for it. If not, don‟t push it – find something she is interested in.

What if my child does not remember the names?

Very common, no worries. If you get to step three and your child cannot remember the names, your child is either not ready for the activity, not interested on that particular day, or you didn’t spend enough time in step two. I’ll leave it to you to decide which. If your child is not ready or interested, remember that nothing is ever gained by pressuring a young child to learn. You have to follow their lead and enthusiasm. “Go with the flow”.

If you get to step three and your child cannot remember the names stay positive, praise your child for what she has done right, and start over in step one. More time in step two will help get the information into your child’s long term memory.

If your child does not remember the names days later, another three step lesson or two will get the job done. The important thing is to:

Be patient, be positive, and encourage your child’s efforts.

Why use three objects, wouldn’t using more be faster?

More than three objects tends to be cumbersome and a bit confusing for a young child, although sometimes it can work with four or even five objects. One or two objects isn’t quite enough. It’s like Goldilocks & the Three Bears – three seems just about right most of the time.

Should we review names we have learned in past lessons?

Absolutely.  Before you do the next lesson to learn more colors, amounts, letters, etc., always get out the ones you did before and see if your child still remembers them. This gives you a constant check on how your child is progressing and insures you don’t move ahead before your child has really mastered what came earlier.

With practice, your child will soon learn how the Three Part Lesson works and get comfortable with it. So will you! You will find it a very helpful tool for teaching your child the name of anything.

My child is too hyper to sit through an entire Three Part Lesson. What to do?

The first goal of Montessori activities is to find materials that attract your child’s interest so that he focuses his attention on them. Concentration and focusing attention are skills a child learns like any other skill. Once a child begins to spend time concentrating his attention on materials he is really interested in, he will calm down enough to start learning through Three Part Lessons. He will also become more able to learn advanced skills like math and reading. Children who learn to concentrate usually become calmer and more satisfied with life in general. Maria Montessori called this ‘Normalization’.

So, keep trying materials and activities until your child latches onto one & go from there!

John Bowman is the author of  Help Your Preschooler Build a Better Brain.
© 2011 John Bowman

My thanks to John for writing this extensive article for us here at 1+1+1=1!

Did you miss earlier Montessori Minute Posts?