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"Waldorf Reading Instruction" Series, Pt 2: What is the Ideal Time to Begin Reading Instruction?

By: Rev Bowen


If you have not yet read Part 1 of this series, I suggest that it is rather important to do so, unless you are already quite familiar with the models of human development presented by Rudolf Steiner, particularly the threefold model of forces (willing, feeling, and thinking) and the first three seven-year cycles of human development.

As I stated before, these are my personal views and suggestions, reached 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).

Finally, I will reiterate the central, overarching theme in regards to these articles. When we attempt to explore and even answer the question proposed in the title of this series, "When Is the Ideal Time to Begin Reading Instruction in Waldorf Education", it becomes clear that there is no single or simple answer. Waldorf Education is designed to first see the individual child and then to adapt the curriculum to meet that child--and of course a class of children in a school setting--just where that child is in their process of development and learning.

This is a very important distinction. Many schooling/educational systems--especially those with centralized standards and testing systems--approach the process of educating students the other way around entirely. Such systems will go to great lengths to develop curriculum--and tests--and then require the students to meet that curriculum.

Let us avoid portraying anything close to extremism. This picture is not absolute on either side, of course. Those other schooling systems usually have alternative tracks or programs for students who truly cannot rise to meet such standards and tests. Furthermore, there are usually programs to support children with learning challenges and/or children who are found to be "neuro-divergent". So, I am far from attempting to cast Waldorf Education as the heroic cowboy in the white hat and all other systems as the villains in black ones. What I am highlighting is the basic approach to education we can see in contrast often times. Waldorf education starts with seeing and understanding the child, then to create and/or adapt a curriculum pedagogically to meet the child. In most other systems, this is not the case.

Again, lest I seem to be making extreme statements about this ever flexible and adaptable curriculum in Waldorf education, we must recognize that there are standards and goals for which teachers strive in Waldorf schools. Waldorf schools do have certain goals, particularly in terms of academic skill sets to be achieved. Because most Waldorf schools are elementary schools and their grades do not extend into the high school levels, it is important that there is a clear recognition of external academic standards and goals. After all, the students will need to make a transition, and we hope to make it as smooth as possible. So, when I contrast the approach of these educational systems, I speak in relative terms and overall trends, not extremes.

Because Waldorf Education strives to begin with the child and children before us, the following steps of exploration become necessary. 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 in "reading instruction", 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".

As I said before, in Part One, I gave a rather brief overview of a couple of models of human development. With those in mind, this second article will explore the Waldorf curriculum and pedagogy in relation to reading instruction. Please understand that this is only a brief approach, meant to highlight important themes and aspects. Thus, this is not an attempt to be exhaustive. Rather, I hope that what I will present will be emblematic, helping readers come to a deeper understanding of the question and the process we must go through in Waldorf education in order to address it.

Understanding the Waldorf Curriculum and Pedagogy in Relation to Reading Instruction

I will start with a surprising revelation and attempt to work backward from it. When speaking with teachers in the very infancy of Waldorf Education, Rudolf Steiner said that if it were feasible, he would not want to teach reading before a child reaches puberty.

What?! This is an odd way for me to correct what I said was the false belief that Waldorf Education does not teach reading until third grade.

So, it is firstly important to follow up with Steiner's recognition that such a practice would not be feasible, given the nature of our societies. Reading is a cultural practice and something that so many children naturally begin to do on their own many years before puberty. His point, at the time, was to illustrate how we are able to use certain forces earlier in life than they would otherwise naturally be used. The use of forces "prematurely" is not tragic necessarily; it is something to understand and balance when possible. In fact, this balancing gesture is at the heart of Waldorf education.

He went on to say that we will occasionally see children who do not acquire the symbolic language skills until a bit later, say, after the nine-year-change (which happens to most often occur in third grade). Steiner said that such children will often demonstrate a greater natural facility in their relationship to space. He did not mean outer space, mind you, but their spatial awareness. These children will often have almost intuitive skillfulness working in three-dimensions, showing the skills that would be wonderfully suited for pursuits such as architecture and engineering.

Even in suggesting this, Steiner did not ever encourage a delay of reading instruction. Indeed, throughout everything that he said and wrote about writing and reading, Steiner encouraged a patient, balanced approach. In other words, there is no need to rush it, nor is there a need to delay it. We simply need to understand that skills such as writing and reading will require the use of those thinking forces that are developing within the child, but not yet fully expressed. These thinking forces exist, growing and maturing much like a baby's physical body develops in utero. Eventually, these thinking forces will be fully expressed and freer to use.

Before we go on, let us think about the child in utero for a moment. We human beings will easily accept that we should not design physical exercises for a fetus that is in utero. There are no weights or bands that are sold to expecting parents so that they might strengthen their child's legs and thereby help that child to walk sooner. It is so clear to us, perhaps because of the actual physical barrier of the mother's body, that it is impossible, unnecessary, and frankly ridiculous. Moreover, we recognize that it is in a healthy baby's best interest to stay in the womb and develop for the full term. Again, the physical evidence makes this very clear. Premature babies often survive, of course, if they are not too premature, but they do face added challenges that are not faced by healthy, full-term babies. This is all very plain and obvious.

Because of this, no parent ever says to their doctor, "Rather than let this child go full-term, I would like to induce labor at the end of the eighth month. I really want to get my child into a program as soon as possible so that it can raise its head and roll over sooner than other babies. I am certain that this early start will help my child get into the best possible schools, find the best possible career, and enjoy the best possible relationships so that it will live a happy, healthy, meaningful, and fulfilling life."

Can you imagine the absurdity?

We know that it is in a child's best interests to remain in utero for the full term of development. Why then is it difficult for some to extend the same patient wisdom to other stages of development after birth?

Physical evidence obviates that there is an ideal duration for in utero development of a child. Why, then, does it become so difficult for human beings to extend this understanding to other phases of human development? So many folks treat the growing child, once born, as if it were in a desperate race to develop skills as quickly as possible, rather than recognize that there are other developmental stages that need to go "full term" for the child's best interests. Granted, these stages are not quite as universal or have a standard duration, such as the nine-month development of a fetus. Some children are ready to enjoy reading, writing, and arithmetic before others. That is plain to anyone who has worked with children. At the same time, there remains the understanding of "readiness" and full development. For parents and educators, this understanding begins with making the child's development the primary focus of our considerations for education.

Now let us look at the Waldorf curriculum and pedagogy in the Early Childhood programs.

Waldorf Early Childhood Programs: Nursery/Preschool, Kindergarten

I have never worked in a Waldorf early childhood program. I have only read about it, observed in early childhood classes, and listened to my early childhood colleagues. Okay, I did substitute teach for a kindergarten lead teacher for two days, but this hardly counts! We survived those two days and had fun together, but I would not suggest that my educational efforts were anything other than attempting to imitate what the lead teacher had been doing up to that point. So, acknowledging my lack of any expertise in this area, my assertions will be broad generalizations.

These programs are designed to be home-like environments. Basic rhythms are established and maintained by the calm, loving, guiding presence of the teachers. Free play is certainly a part of the day/morning because the children are right in the thick of their first development cycle, which sees the will forces clearly expresses. The teachers can likewise rely of the forces of imitation for the child to engage in learning. This is the primary expression of the will force in learning for the young child, in fact. The use of these forces comes in myriad forms and activities, with all of them bearing the same core characteristic of being "guided playfulness".

In the earlier programs, the activities are quite simple and do not require much in the way of materials or variety. What does become quite regular is some portion of the morning in which the teacher presents some simple "story". This may be as simple as a nursery rhyme that is presented with a finger play, for instance. Think "Itsy-bitsy spider". This will be presented daily for an extended period of time. There can be more, of course, but let us focus on this one activity as a clear example.

With this daily rhythm established, the children cannot help but engage through their forces of imitation. In so doing, they begin to experience language, enhanced by simple movements, presented for something other than practical communication. They experience language connected to gesture and movements. It helps them experience language outside of themselves while they also develop it within themselves. They learn new words, improve their pronunciation and articulation, develop their sense for tonality, phrasing, and syntax. And it is all playful! The young child plays upon the linguistic monkey bars of nursery rhymes, verses, and songs.

The young child plays upon the linguistic monkey bars of nursery rhymes, verses, and songs.

The climbing is fun, of course; this is key. Also, the climbing helps them develop strength and coordination, not just with their physical speech, but also with their relationship to the mother tongue. This is guided play within language! In kindergarten, this is further developed with an expanded morning circle of playful verses, songs, and movements which is repeated daily for weeks. These circles will only occasionally change, perhaps in relation to the seasons. Thus, the kindergartener "masters" the words, verses, songs, and movements, adding more experience and skill to their living relationship with language. They are not only climbing on the monkey bars of language; they are able move hand-over-hand, hang upside-down, and even flip around the bars!

It is not completely inaccurate to suggest that some of this would occur naturally for any healthy child who lives among people who speak a common language. Yes, of course! At the same time, these daily activities enhance this growth of experiences and skills, meeting the child in their stage of will-force development. For instance, the kindergarten teacher will not tell Timmy that he should put his tongue between his lower lip and upper teeth in order to properly pronounce the /th/ sound. This would bring an inappropriate consciousness, namely the thinking forces, into the process for the child. Instead, the teacher notices the difficulty Timmy might be having with that sound and plans accordingly. The teacher may very well choose to include verses and songs that use the /th/ sound in circle activities throughout the seasons, so that Timmy has more opportunities to develop that ability naturally through the imitative will forces. The teacher may find/create playful ways to exercise that sound in a verse or story that the children can imitate. There are many ways to help a child work a bit more in a certain area, without making it a formal "lesson".

So, here we see some simple examples of how Waldorf Education consciously provides a rich developmental foundation in regards to the child's language acquisition and skillfulness. Within the Early Childhood programs, this is achieved through what I call "guided playfulness", relying on repetition and the engagement of will forces in a warm, safe, and enjoyable environment.

The Journey in the Early Waldorf Grades

I have taught first, second, and third grades twice each. Both classes were large (27 and 28 students respectively) and they were taught 8 years apart. The first class started first grade in the Autumn of 2000. The second started first grade in the Autumn of 2008. Unless I specify something unique, what I will relate was true for both of these classes.

In first grade, Waldorf teachers take the classes through a process to discover the symbolic representation of the mother tongue. This process develops the student's awareness of the phonemes of the spoken language and then connects that awareness to the letters that are used to represent those phonemes, words, phrases and common patterns of expression such as sentences, questions, exclamations, etc. This follows a three-day process. On the first day, the class hears a story. This is usually a fairy tale from around the world, (not always from the Grimms' collections). While listening to the story, the child engages their feeling and willing forces inwardly in order to build up the story they hear. This is the power of imagination. The story then lives within them. On the second day, we awaken that story from day one, reviewing it through an artistic process such as drawing, acting, modeling, or poetry. This helps them process the content on new levels, again through their feeling and willing forces, with perhaps a dab of thinking forces in there too. Then we guide the students through a drawing that we all do together. This drawing will contain a form that the teacher knows will lead to the more academic content of the day 3 lesson, but on day 2 it is just a drawing. This further connects the child to the story. On day 3, the teacher then points out, let's say, the mountains in the background of the picture. In classic fashion, there are two peaks. The teacher reminds the students that these are called "mountains" and has the students say the word a few times before then focusing on the first sound in the word: the /m/ sound. Then the class writes the whole word 'MOUNTAINS'. Finally, they write the first letter, the letter that says '/m/'. Last of all, the teacher reveals what many already know, that the letter has a name, M. Three days are devoted to this process which some schooling systems will reduce to a few moments in which the teacher says, "Look at this letter. It is the letter M and it makes the sound /m/." Three days are devoted to imbue the child with a deep sense of meaning and connection. The otherwise abstract representation of the spoken language becomes full of warmth and connection. In other words the thinking-force content of the lesson is enhanced by the power of the will forces and the warmth of the feeling forces.

Many teachers will use this three-day process to introduce/discover all of the consonants of the English language. Rudolf Steiner was very clear that this was not necessary. He suggested that teachers do this for enough of the letters. How many is that? Good question! Thus there is the freedom to move into working with word families, simple sentences, questions, and exclamations, basic punctuation, and basic spelling conventions at some point in the school year.

However far a first grade class goes in that first year, the experience is meaningful. Imagine how much this contrasts with the more intellectual and abstract approach to the writing and reading instruction we see in other schooling systems!

In second grade, this three day rhythm extends into working with more word families, spelling rules and conventions, punctuation, and basic grammar, original composition, and so on. And, the same goes for third grade: continuing to develop language arts skills and capacities.

Throughout first, second, and third grades, I watched as children came to moments where they suddenly took great leaps ahead in terms of their capacities and their skills. These students were engaged in the same activities in the classroom as their classmates, but this did not (and does not) create a uniformity in capacity development or skills achievement among all the individual students. Children become ready to take their next steps at different times.

There are sometimes children who reach as high as third grade and they have not started "reading"--as most people would refer to that activity. Specifically, there are sometimes third grade students who cannot pick up a book that is new to them, even what might be considered a first grade level reader, and read that book with fluency.

This can be rather alarming for Waldorf parents and even Waldorf teachers. For the parents, this puts their choice of an alternative educational system to a rigorous test. Holidays spent with younger cousins who are reading at higher levels can generate all sorts of emotional reactions and judgmental thoughts. I have heard so many such stories of similar situations! It is often about this time that parents start wondering and asking if they should look into tutoring for their child.

Naturally it must be said that the adults must be sure that their child's development is unfolding healthily. How is the child's eyesight developing? How is the child's hearing? How is the child's speech? How well does this child process visual stimuli? How well does this child process auditory stimuli? And so on. Long before we consider a tutor, for instance, we must do all that is necessary to ensure that the basic skills and abilities are in place to make learning and achievement possible at all. A child who cannot see what is written on the black board will never read from the blackboard, no matter how much we practice that skill together.

It is natural to wonder if coming to true "reading" as late as third grade will impair or hinder a child's learning development. Does such a delay set them back to a position from which they cannot possibly recover? Are they being "lapped" in the great race?

There are many former students of classes I taught who have reached high levels of academic and professional success, even though they did not truly read at "grade level" until second, third, or fourth grade. At least one of these students went on to be a valedictorian of the public high school attended after Waldorf eighth grade. These students were not taken to reading tutors. Their parents and I made certain that the developmental progress of each child was healthy and I just continued teaching them. To utilize the old adage: I was leading the horses to the water each day and they drank when they were ready.

These students received the language arts education that they needed and they started reading and writing when they were ready.

Now what do I mean by reading and writing? Are we all using these terms in the same way? What are we talking about when we refer to reading and writing capacities and skills and does this differ from reading and writing instruction? What did I mean when I wrote "language arts education"? These are what we will explore together in the next part of this series.

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