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When (and How) do Waldorf Students Learn to Read?

When (and How) do Waldorf Students Learn to Read?
Emma Hamlin

The question of literacy takes many forms as parents begin their Waldorf journey. Three-quarters of the way through their first visit to our school, a parent may gently say "So, I noticed there are no letters on the walls in the kindergarten…" or "So, what if my kindergartener already is reading?" Or perhaps the very first question might be "I heard your children don't read until third grade – is that true?" (It isn't.) One way or another, parents often come with an open mind but the clear understanding that the Waldorf approach to literacy is different. And that is true! So what is it?

The concise answer I give is that we teach reading backward (not backward reading, but a reversed process). Just like the language of humankind started with oral tradition, we begin with storytelling. The children hear simple stories of nature, gentle fairy tales, and pedagogical stories that ignite their imagination, as well as verses and poems to recite. These teach vocabulary, enunciation, diction, working memory, and more.

Vocabulary: Teachers do not limit their language to words the children know, but use elevated language to teach through context clues and examples in order that once children see those words in writing, they might recognize their use and understand their definitions.

Enunciation and Diction: My husband used to say my teacher voice sounded like Mary Poppins, and you may notice our teachers exaggerate the ending sounds of words, making them sound formal and proper (see Mary Poppins). This is in order for the children to hear the full word, whereas if I'm speaking casually, I might do something called "clipping" or "elision" — if I’m saying "Is it time to go?," it would sound more like "Is ih time to go" — dropping the "t" sound because another "t" follows. Through careful enunciation, the children begin to hear spelling conventions, building a foundation for dictation in the grades.

Working Memory: Through the process of hearing stories, the children hold images and portions of the story in their minds, which are then built upon, allowing them to train their working memory. Working memory is a skill that allows us to hold sums of numbers in our minds and add or subtract from them, hold phrases that we need to copy onto paper, and so many more learning techniques that we might not even realize we are capable of. Neuroplasticity makes children so ready for information absorption at this age that some can hear a poem once and recite it in its entirety. Which is why…

Quality of Information: …We strive to make what the children are hearing of the highest quality. We tell stories rich in imagery, using language that paints pictures worthy of remembering.

 

drawing of two children playing, one climbing a tree

The next phase of learning begins after the children have met the markers of first grade readiness and are in first grade. Their physiological development has stabilized enough that they are ready to prioritize academic learning, and so the next stage of human development indicates that they are ready for writing. Just like ancient civilizations moved on from the oral tradition to symbolic writing, we introduce each letter through a story and a picture. Hidden in that picture is the letter it is intended to represent — a mmmmmMountain, a hhhhHouse, and so on through the alphabet. After enough letters are collected to form words, the class begins with wild enthusiasm to put them together. "I have that one in my name!" they shout. The unfolding of language in this way cultivates a relationship with each letter, and the sense of discovery and innovation never fails to excite them, even the ones who already know how to read. It does not matter if they picked it up along the way or are coming to first grade from another school — the spirit of enthusiasm is still there, and the new connection to language means that they are never bored.

After writing comes reading for many children. They read their own writing, use the sounds connected to the stories (Thomas sat at the top of the tall tree) to sound out short stories, and off they go.*

So what is gained by this method? A few things. Richness of language, joy of learning, love of reading, and engagement of thought. Are they behind? Momentarily, perhaps, but ahead in vocabulary, memorization, imaginative thinking, and more. Will they catch up? Absolutely, and then often launch ahead like a slingshot, with skills that surpass the realm of simple literacy, and prepare them for a lifetime of learning beyond the classroom.

 


*If they do not, as sometimes happens, we have literacy tutoring. It is important to know that for some children, direct instruction and additional support is necessary and available.

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