top of page

"Waldorf Reading Instruction" Series, Pt 1: What is the Ideal Time to Begin Reading Instruction?

By: Rev Bowen

It does not take long to encounter some version of this question once one becomes a little bit familiar with Waldorf Education, especially if one has a student in the lower grades of a Waldorf elementary school, or one is homeschooling a child in that grade range. There are a lot of ideas floating around out there, and unfortunately some of them are simply inaccurate. I will name the most blatant inaccuracy: Waldorf does not teach reading until third grade. This is simply false. However, rather than start with a negative position, and attempt to disprove it, I would rather approach the topic more fully and more positively. I hope the this article--and this entire series of articles--will help you have a better understanding of this topic and a better appreciation for why the answer is not simple one-liner. In Waldorf Education, it is a fairly complex question, and it takes more than a simple phrase or two to fully answer. I think this is why it is so often misunderstood and misrepresented.

Before I dive into this topic, let me clearly state that these are my personal answers as a trained and certified Waldorf Grades teacher. I taught in a private Waldorf School in North America for 22 years (18 as a class teacher, 2 as a Pedagogical Director, 1 as the School Administrator, and 1 as a part-time subject teacher).

As you will see, there are very good reasons for why there is no standard answer to this important question. Instead, the answer is found in (at least) three ways, and these three ways lead us to many different points of consideration. First, we need to have a clear understanding of human development. Second, we need to have a clear understanding of the Waldorf curriculum and pedagogy, so that we see all that is done to "teach reading", including those activities and practices which provide a beneficial foundation for the acquisition of language skills such as reading. We must raise such things into our awareness, because sometimes these foundational activities are not as obviously related to reading skills, at first glance. Finally, the initial question itself requires us to understand what we are really saying when we talk about "reading". So, we will explore each of these three aspects in order to gain a more reliable understanding of how and when reading is taught in Waldorf Education.

I cannot address each of these in one article, without making the article much, much longer than it should be. So, in this article we will look at the human development pictures that will provide some insights and relevance for the next topics.

Understanding Human Development

I will give a brief overview of the stages of human development that children go through from kindergarten through the first three elementary grades, specifically as Waldorf Educators are trained to understand them, and in accordance with the views laid out by Rudolf Steiner in his broad philosophy, called Anthroposophy (anthropo: Greek, human being; sophia: Greek, wisdom).

Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Waldorf Education, set out a picture or model of human development in order to support the work of educators, as well as the work of medical practitioners. He presented many lectures and wrote many books on this subject; so I can only present a brief and simplified portion of what he set out. We will look at the three-fold organization of forces at work in the human being: the will forces, the feeling forces, and the thinking forces. We will also consider the first three seven-year cycles.

Let us start with the forces. If you already have a good understanding of this three-fold view of human developmental forces, you can skip ahead to

The Will Forces

The w

ill forces are just what they sound like they would be: the inner drive to do or not do. In early life, the will forces are very strong and almost completely unconscious. The baby naturally has the urge to wiggle, kick, raise its head, put things in its mouth, etc. In this stage, will and instinct can be seen as very similar things. However, this would not be a complete picture. Studies have shown that a child will not attempt to stand and/or walk if it does not see other human beings standing and/or walking. So, it is not mere instinct that drives the human being to do some things. There is a strong will force at work, an unconscious urge to imitate those in the immediate social sphere, usually family members. Still, the will forces can further develop as the human being matures. Eventually, as the human being's consciousness evolves, the will forces can be consciously engaged--to some extent. We can decide that we are going to exercise every day. This will be a test of our will forces. We can decide that we are not going to each refined sugar. This will be a test of our will forces. There is nothing instinctual about these willful acts. That being said, most expressions of will force will remain unconscious within the human being throughout their life. Just think of a common act, such as writing. If we had to consciously control every single muscle in the arm, hand, and fingers, we would be overwhelmed by the act. What if we had to remember to breathe all day and all night? What if we had to be in total control of the digestive process? Instead we do have a small conscious role in the intake of food and the exit of metabolic waste, but we do not consciously control the vast array of activities in between.

So there is an interesting balance when we step back from the will forces. These forces, which are the most involved in physical activity in the human body, are the forces which are the most "asleep" in terms of our conscious role in using and controlling them.

Another interesting note is that the will forces are quite universal. If I am marching along with a baton in an early childhood setting, it is quite possible that some child or children might join in and march along too. This willful activity of marching would not necessarily communicate much between us, but we could nevertheless unite in the activity.

The last thing to say about the will forces is that we see them in their purest expressions in the limbs of the body. Certainly, the will forces are present throughout the body, but they are in their purest forms in the limbs.

The Feeling Forces

When we consider feeling forces, we need to encompass the two most common meanings for "feeling". The most obvious meaning pertains to the emotions, our feelings. In addition, there is the ability to feel--in a broad sense, the ability to perceive. I do not think I need to explain the former. We can easily understand that the emotions are strong forces within the human being. The emotions of fear, joy, love, and embarrassment, just to name a few, will each elicit dif

ferent experiences and actions and reactions for human beings, whether we "feel" these within ourselves or sense these "feelings" in others. Also for the latter version of feeling forces, those of perception, think about staring into another person's eyes. The will forces are minimized, in terms of outward activity. They are managing the focus and gaze, our uprightness, etc, but we are not doing so very much with our conscious will forces. Instead, while we stare into another person's eyes, we can have a strong feeling sense of the other person. Subtle changes in expressions, almost unnoticeable, will have in impact on us if we are carefully paying attention. The slightest looks in the eyes can "say" so much to us. We may create ideas with our thinking forces, based off of these cues from the other ('This person is nice', or 'This person is really serious', for example), but our immediate sense is more of a feeling sense, before words or ideas even form. If you encounter a stranger whose body language and movements make you feel threatened or uncomfortable, these responses arise within the feeling forces before you even have time to postulate some kind of thinking level story about who they are and what they might be about. An even more direct example is the feeling sense we have when we encounter an animal that is dangerous or threatening. The "gut reaction" or "adrenaline response", etc--these are examples of how immediate our feeling senses really are. Even though these are "fight or flight" responses I just mentioned, the sense of warmth, or joy, or openness, or shyness--these feeling senses are also immediate.

These feeling forces, in all their myriad forms, play a major role in our abilities to function in the world. They play a huge part in how we are able to use our will forces. When we feel safe and calm, we almost always function better. When we feel anxiety, our digestion might be negatively affected. When we feel excited, we might be able to stay awake and attentive longer. The list goes on and on.

Of course, the relationship works in the reverse order as well. When we are active, when we have a regular habit of some exercise, we tend to "feel" better. When we have some rhythm and order to our daily activities, we usually feel better about life, because most human beings are more efficient, effective, and successful with a good balance of rhythm and order. Spontaneity is also needed, of course, which is why I say a good balance.

In comparison to the will forces, the feeling forces are more awake. Of course they are not wide awake. Think of those experiences a human being can have when they are trying to work through an issue or problem with another. There can be so many emotions at work. It is difficult sometimes to speak logically, or to hear what the other has to say with calmness and openness--even though as adults we know that we need to do these things. We know that we should not be reactive. We know that we need to listen carefully. We know that we should consider our words rather than just blurt out the first things that pop into our minds in such situations. Instead, the feelings get the better of us quite often. We try to sort them out and be aware of our tendencies, but it is an ongoing struggle for most people. That is because it is very difficult to be fully conscious in the feeling forces. Typically, there is some consciousness, but it is more akin to a dream state of consciousness.

Also, the feelings are not as universal as the will forces. In other words, even though I have experienced the death of a parent, and this allows me to relate to someone else who is going through that experience as well, my feelings to not apply universally to others. Yes, we both express a feeling of sadness, let us say, but the other's sadness is not quite the same as mine. Besides that, we really don't experience one pure emotion at a time. If the basic emotions were given the basic colors of the rainbow, then our emotional experiences in any given moment or life event are more like looking at a rainbow with a kaleidoscope. We can certainly relate to one another's feelings, and there are also aspects of our feeling lives that are individual and unique to ourselves.

The feeling forces express themselves most purely in the trunk of the body. Not only do we say things like "I have a gut feeling about this" or "Listen to your heart" or "That is a weight off of my shoulders", but we can even look at the physiology of the trunk. Our feelings directly affect the organs of the trunk. The heart rate rises when we feel excited. Our breath slows when we relax. The adrenal glands, located atop each kidney, secrete adrenaline and/or cortisol into the blood stream when we are in fight-or-flight response. Our back muscles grow tense and even sore when we feel stress or anxiety. Like the will forces, the feelings forces certainly express in other parts of the body, but their purest and most immediate expressions are in the trunk region.

The Thinking Forces

The thinking forces are just what they sound like they would be: those forces that work within us to form thoughts, ideas, and concepts. Our thinking forces are by far the most conscious forces. We are very much awake in our thoughts, especially when we are truly focused.

It is also obvious that the thinking forces manifest most purely in the head region. Like the other forces, though, this is not an absolute. Modern research has confirmed the existence of neural cells in the heart and in the gut. These are often referred to as the 'cardiac brain' and the 'enteric brain'. Yet, while these are real, the purest forms of thinking forces are manifested in the head/brain. By "purest forms of thinking" I refer to those forces that are as far from the will forces as possible. Where the will forces are universal, the thinking forces are individual. Where the will forces can easily unite us with others, the thinking forces can rarely ever do so. This last statement might sound a bit extreme. Yet, we can see this when we consider a simple example. Ask a collection of people to write an essay on what it means to be awake, or what it means to be a human, or what it means to be alive. We can choose

concepts (awake, human, alive) that are completely universal, it would seem, and yet we know that every single essay would be unique. They would be unique because we are the most individualized in our thinking forces. Our ideas, our concepts, our opinions, our judgments, our thoughts--these continually individuate us. When people attempt to unite in this area alone, the union lacks something. If the common ground is only ideological, the relationships will be cold. If I have an ideology with which I align, I can find others who also align with it and thus identify a "community" or a "group" in which I seem to belong. But this will never be enough. I will need to find congruence on the feeling level with at least some of the others and I will also need to find shared activities, practices, or deeds that will complete a genuine sense of community. These additional levels of alignment and relationship act to create the warmth that is necessary. Thus we see that the thinking forces are cold. If I always insist on evaluating my interactions with others on the basis of right/wrong, I will find great difficulties and few if any friendships. Certainly right and wrong are part of the human experience, but these cold conceptions are only part of it. Alone, they are clinically cold. Eventually we must find other ways to relate, to support, to empathize and sympathize. A wise man once said to me, when I was speaking about a difficulty I was having with my partner at the time, "Well, it sounds like you have a choice. Would you rather be right or would you rather find happiness?"

The balance of forces will be different in each individual. Some people come into this life with very strong will forces, and others with weaker will forces, for instance. The course of one's life and experiences will play a role in how much the will forces develop as well. The same goes for the feeling forces and the thinking forces.

This three-fold view of the human developmental forces corresponds to the seven-year cycles of development. So, let us consider the first three seven-year cycles. If you already have a good understanding of the seven-year cycles, you can skip ahead to

The Seven Year Cycles

Rudolf Steiner was not the first to notice or speak about developmental stages or even stages that occur on roughly seven-year intervals, but he did urge teachers and medical practitioners to become familiar with them. That being said, Rudolf Steiner did organize these kinds of ideas in new ways that are unique to Anthroposophy while also providing new insights into these ways of viewing human development.

The seven-year cycles continue throughout a person's life, for however many years that person may live in a physical body. So, this model of human development is much more comprehensive in scope and in detail than I will attempt to provide here. This is naturally a cursory view, and it is limited to the first three seven-year cycles.

First let us establish the "boundaries", because using the term "seven-year" can be a bit misleading. There is nothing hard and fast about the completion of seven years in this regard. Nothing changes dramatically when a child blows out the seven candles on their birthday cake. As you might be able to relate, I did not suddenly become a rational, mature adult on my twenty-first birthday. (Some might suggest I still have not done so, but let's not digress!) The point here is the understand that the numbers are to be held as estimates. Fortunately the "boundaries" between the first and second, as well as the second and third, cycles of development are signified by easily recognizable physiological changes.

At the end of the first developmental cycle (in roughly the seventh year of life), the body goes through the process of tooth exfoliation. In other words, the baby teeth begin to fall out so that the permanent teeth can grow in. Then, at the end of the second developmental cycle (in roughly the fourteenth year of life), the human being experiences the onset of puberty. Both of these events, the loss of the baby teeth and the process of puberty, are clear physical markers that indicate a real change in human development. There are no other developmental cycle transitions that are as clearly accompanied by physical changes.

Now let us look, in brief, and the characteristics of each of these developmental stages. I have already hinted at these, but I return to them again in order to emphasize the relationships.

The First Developmental Cycle:

Birth to Change of Teeth

In the first cycle, the young child is naturally willful. Indeed, the will forces are unlike the feeling and thinking forces in that they are "born" with the child. There is not a period of time to wait for the will forces to reveal themselves more clearly--as is the case with the feeling forces and the thinking forces.

This should make sense to us with simple observations of young children. They love to move, and the movement begins early in life. They have lots of energy. They love to play. Through all this movement and energetic play, they quickly achieve remarkable feats in skill development. In the first three years alone, they learn to sit up, crawl, stand, walk, and to speak. What is perhaps most remarkable of all is that they do all of these things naturally. There is no "teaching" needed, no "lessons", assuming that the child is healthy. The will forces have a strong momentum in these early years. This continues throughout this first cycle.

What we should also note is that the child in this cycle, before the change of teeth, is not so great at developing emotional and/or social balance--nor should they be great at this yet. We can certainly help and guide them in these early years, but we cannot expect the young child to develop any real "understanding" of these things, anymore than we might expect the six-year-old to learn trigonometry. These are skill sets more suited for later stages of development.

What is paramount is to understand that these years between birth and the change of teeth are permeated by the force of will. This force expresses itself the most strongly--in its unconscious form--in these years of life. The feeling and thinking forces are quite weak in comparison. In fact Steiner said these forces are still developing within the human being, not ready to be expressed, like a fetus that is developing in utero. Yes, there are signs of a development taking place, but the forces themselves, like the baby growing in the mother's womb, are not yet "born".

I will come back to this thought. For now, let us proceed to the second developmental cycle.

The Second Developmental Cycle:

Change of Teeth to Puberty

This second cycle is characterized most strongly by the "birth" of the feeling forces. In these years, there is a dim and steadily growing awareness of the feeling forces, in the forms of the emotional life as well as the emotional-level perception of the world around us. As we saw before, the feeling forces are semi-awake. Our consciousness within the work of these forces is more like that of a person h

aving a dream during sleep. Like dreams, our feeling life can seem vivid in the experience and we can even have recollections of our feeling experiences, but these impressions can fade and morph just like our recollections of dreams can fade by the time we have finished our morning shower or that first cup of a warm beverage. The child in these years gradually becomes more aware of these experiences. The child is able, to some extent, to develop a rudimentary emotional intelligence. The child starts to have more consciousness, still quite dim, in choices such as who their friends are, what activities they most like, what their favorite animal is, and so on. All of these things emerge from the child on a feeling

level. If a ten-year-old says they dream of becoming an astronaut, it is simply not the time to begin a conversation about all the steps of education and training that will be required and how likely or unlikely it may be for this child to ever achieve this dream. In other words, it is absolutely not the time to bring the thinking forces into the conversation. Most folks naturally sense this. We hear the child dream of being an astronaut and we support it with loving acceptance. There is no need to take any kind of position on the matter. Of course, from time to time, you find that adult who does not have this same sense of the situation and they begin some kind of misguided adult-level conversation with the child. It is not that the adult is providing inaccurate information, it is that the adult is engaging a feeling-level consciousness, in the child, with their own thinking-level consciousness.

Remember the teacher in the "Peanuts" cartoons? "Wuh-wah-wah, wah-wuh, wuh-wuh." Genius portrayal of this divide between the thinking and the feeling forces! It is not an absolute divide, but it is a very significant one.

We can see that the young child, before the change of teeth, has a feeling life--or perhaps it is better to say that the young child clearly emotes, but there is almost no awareness at play in the emotions or feelings at that time. Emotion, for the young child, exists as an experience almost entirely in the moment.

The real feeling forces, are instead somewhat awake, and these come after the change of teeth. When the feeling forces are truly expressed, we become aware of the expressions. We realize that we are crying. We realize that we are really feeling angry. We realize that we feel joyous. We do not realize these things all the time, but we have more awareness of the feeling forces at work in us than we did for the will forces that were working in us as we learned to stand and walk.

The Third Developmental Cycle:

Puberty to Adulthood

Even before the youth reaches puberty, there can be the first stirrings of what will later be the true expressions of the thinking forces, but they are not true expressions of thinking with the wakeful and self-aware qualities that qualify the thinking forces.

I am going to take a moment to address a common assertion I hear from parents who are encountering this model of human development for the first time. These parents understandably have some questions and perhaps some preconceived notions about these subjects. When I tell them that the true thinking forces are not truly "born" until the child reaches puberty, they have a hard time with that. "How then," they sometimes ask, "does the young child understand math, or learn to speak and write and read?" This is a very fair question and requires repeated discussion. There are many questions like this that might arise, but I think this one encapsulates the common denominator of all such questions about the thinking forces being latent within the child before puberty.

As I said before, there is no hard line, no set date at which one phase of development ends and another begins. So, there is always an extended period of transition that a given child will experience. Still this does not really address the question. When we see young child learning so many things that require levels of cognitive development, how can we maintain that "thinking forces" are not truly born until after puberty?

This is where we must be really careful in what we are identifying as the pure thinking forces. These are the forces that are fully awake, the forces in which the human being is able to be fully conscious, reflective, self-aware, logical, analytical, philosophical, etc. So, while we clearly observe the acquisition of skills such as learning to speak, read, and write happening in children before they reach puberty, it is as if we are seeing these forces still developing "in utero". The pure thinking forces are not yet as free for the human being to utilize before puberty. Even after puberty, the human being spends the rest of life developing more and more skill in using the thinking forces freely. At least, that is the ideal.

Before puberty, the learning of skills are based on the work of the will forces and the feeling forces--which have their own levels of intelligence. After puberty, the thinking forces come to the fore. We notice many changes in the youth, besides the obvious physical changes. We notice that they are more rebellious, quicker to disagree, quicker to question and challenge. They are going through the process of individuation, and they are exercising their thinking forces the same way that the toddler exercises the limbs--quite actively, but not with the

level of skillfulness that comes over the course of time and exercise. Slowly, their consciousness is dimly awakening, however. The ability to understand abstract concepts takes a huge leap forward after puberty. In fact, they actually need to wrestle with concepts, with ideas and themes, just as a teething child needs something to chew on. Throughout these years between puberty and approximately the twenty-first year, the waking consciousness, the budding self-awareness, and the ability to engage in the completely objective side of pure thinking will make tremendous strides. Still, with that being said, we also know from modern brain research, that the prefrontal cortex, which helps with the myriad functions that are involved in consideration, decision-making, organization, evaluation, planning, etc, this part of the brain is the last to mature and only does so in the mid-twenties. (There is a very good reason that automobile insurance companies will lower the premiums for a male driver, for example, on his 25th birthday. The numbers of accidents and the reasons for them are clearly reflective of a statistically measurable change in driving trends, i.e., maturity, that is reached in the mid-twenties.)

Here is another example. The teenager can actually begin to grasp a completely philosophical or abstract concept such as a perfect circle. A perfect circle does not actually exist in the physical world. It is impossible for a perfect circle to exist because of how we understand a perfect circle mathematically, its actual mathematical definition. In geometry, we define a circle as a continuous set of points that are equidistant from a center point--and a point has do dimension (no volume, no width, no height). In other words, a point does not take up any actual space at all. None. Yet, even without seeing a point, we can imagine that such things could be arranged in a continuous curve around a center point. We can understand the idea of a circle even though we have never ever seen an actual example. We have certainly seen representations of circles, and these have helped us with our understanding. Yet, it is only when we have matured enough that we are able to truly contemplate such abstractions as the definition of a perfect circle. I am not suggesting that a prepubescent youth could not begin to grasp such ideas: I am saying that the average youth at that age will only dimly grasp the idea compared to how a person can take hold of such abstractions after puberty.

So, now we have taken a brief survey of human development, arranged in seven-year cycles, along with the three-fold model of forces that express themselves most prominently in each cycle. There is so much more we could consider, of course. However, my hope is that this will provide enough context for us to consider our primary question about the ideal time to teach reading in Waldorf education.

In the next article of this series, we will take an overview of Waldorf curriculum and pedagogy, considering the principles and practices in light of these models of human development.

290 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page