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"Waldorf Reading Instruction" Series, Pt 3: What is the Ideal Time to Begin Reading Instruction


By: Rev Bowen

Opening


If you have not yet read Parts 1 and 2 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, as well as the tenets of Waldorf pedagogy and curriculum in the Early Childhood programs as well as the first three grades.


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).


While we keep in mind all that was presented and explored in the first two parts of this series, let us look at the very activities in question: writing and reading. If we are attempting to answer the question about ideal timing for the instruction of reading (and therefore writing as well), then we must be quite clear in what we are talking about.


Encoding and Decoding--What does this mean?



It is all too easy for us to forget that our written language is a code system. Of course, an easy reminder is to look at written language codes, such as Egyptian Hieroglyphics or Sumerian Cuneiform.

When we realize that ideas and language can be "encoded" in many different ways, then we remember that our own system is yet another system of codes. In our system, we use letters, words, and punctuations to encode our spoken language. We attempt to represent the actual phonemes of our spoken language in a written form. Because the English language has been the heir and recipient of many other linguistic systems, including the vocabulary and spelling conventions often based on the sounds of the original language, our system of encoding the spoken English language is quite complex. The word "light" is a good example. We might know the phonemes associated with each of the letters, but we know that when these letters are arranged in the word "light", the resultant word does not logically follow the combination of the sounds of these individual letters. Indeed, most experts suggest that the English language is composed of words that total 40-50% exceptions to phonetic spelling. This is why a spelling bee in English is more difficult than a spelling bee in another language where phonetic spelling is more consistent.


Nevertheless, the English writing and spelling system is still one that is based in the representation of sounds with letters and letter combinations to make words and expressions. In other words, we do not represent ideas with symbols, such as was done with hieroglyphs in Egypt.


Because our written language system is based on the representation of sound, it is very important that a child has a healthy relationship to the sounds of the spoken language. This includes and transcends the simple phonemes of words to include the tonality of speech and the nuances of clear articulation. This is a living relationship to the spoken language, the mother tongue, and is therefore a critical step in language development, including the ability to acquire the skills of writing and reading.


As we have already explored, the pedagogy of the Waldorf Early Childhood programs, as well as the Grades, is designed to follow and optimize this natural path. So, what some might view as mere activity--such as the repetitive use of nursery rhymes, verses, and songs--are actually important steps in language development, providing a solid foundation for future skill set acquisition and development.

The pedagogy of the Waldorf Early Childhood programs, as well as the Grades, is designed to follow and optimize the natural path of language development in human beings.


It is true that Waldorf gives this kind of activity a good deal of time. For this reason, many people mistakenly believe that Waldorf Education does not bring reading instruction until third grade. This is an unfortunate misunderstanding and one that proves to be as persistent as a deep-rooted garden weed.


Besides the misunderstanding of the Waldorf curriculum and pedagogy, there is the additional confusion around what is meant by "reading" and "writing." In many cases, these terms refer to "decoding" and "encoding" respectively. In other words, can a child encounter a new word and "decode" it (read it with correct pronunciation)? Also, can a child hear a word and accurately "encode" it (write it with correct spelling)? To many, these are the abilities to read and write. On a certain level, we can say "fair enough".


Yet even if this is the extent of how we define writing and reading, we can see that this level of instruction begins early in first grade in a Waldorf school. We bring the lessons to begin connecting what the child hears (the living language) with what they are being shown (the symbolic or encoded representation of the language). We do this in the very first language arts block and continue this path of language development thereafter. This is basically a process of "leading the horse to water". We do not force the child to drink by using a rote drilling method of reading instruction. We bring the child to meaningful activities and experiences and the child begins to read quite naturally as their development supports it. This often happens in first and second grades, but sometimes even later.

Reading and Writing Fluency at Grade Level


As I said, we devote a good deal of time to establishing this meaningful connection between the living language and the abstracted, symbolic representation of it with a coded system. Some children are ready to read quite fluently early in first grade. Others do not come to true reading fluency until later. Yes, some are not even ready until--gasp!--third grade. This does not mean that the latter child was not given language instruction. It does not mean that the latter child has a learning difficulty. It does not mean that the latter child needs tutoring. It means that the teacher and parents were careful to work with the natural timing of the child. They did not--to harken back to an earlier image--attempt to induce labor and birth the reader before it had come to its full term of development. Instead, having made sure that the child's capacities, such as good vision and hearing, were developing healthily, they trusted that the child would come to reading fluency in due time. It is important to ensure that the vision and hearing are healthy. As long as everything is in "working order" it is just a matter of time before the child will take to reading.


This is an exceptional case, of course, the child who is not reading until third grade. In my experience, some children read with grade-level fluency in first grade and most meet it in second grade in Waldorf schools. There are a few who reach it in third grade, and this can be shocking to those who are concerned by it and/or those who do not understand the process of language instruction used in Waldorf Education. Unfortunately, such exceptional cases become more talked about, because most people were taught that children should be reading in first grade. This more patient approach seems strange and that can be frightening. Thus, this gets a lot of attention, which leads to more widely spread rumors and misunderstandings.


What we see with standardized testing in middle school is that Waldorf students meet and even exceed the reading and writing skill levels of the national mean by the seventh and eighth grades, if not before. All three of the classes I taught in these grades averaged significantly higher in their language arts scores than the national means. Knowing many of the scores of other classes taught by Waldorf colleagues, I can say that this has been true for virtually all classes I have heard about.


I would be remiss if I were not to include a few notes about modern times.


Today, for various reasons that have yet to be conclusively identified in a way that most people fully accept, there are more children with "learning difficulties", "learning challenges", or "learning disabilities" than ever before. We must admit that some portion of these can be attributed to more rigorous efforts to identify such things today than, say, forty years ago. At the same time, we must also allow for the possibility that we are more rigorously identifying these things today, because they are actually more prevalent.


I acknowledge that while it is at best anecdotal, I still must say that my own experience leads me to believe that the latter scenario is the primary phenomenon. In recent years, I have encountered far more learning challenges, on many different levels and in many different subjects, than I encountered as a new teacher almost twenty-five years ago. Furthermore, the differences are not subtle. It has been fairly dramatic.


We could explore many different topics that look at why this might be the case, assuming that my conclusion is an accurate reflection of reality. Books have been published for decades, and continue to be published, looking at what causes might be accountable for these changes. I will not attempt to cover that here.


Reversals


I will close, as I usually closed each day's main lesson, with a story. Then I will offer a brief bit of advice to all parents.


In the first class I taught, I was nervous about this question of language development, specifically reading and writing. By early third grade, I was relieved that most children were well on their way to fluent reading and writing. It was a big "Whew!", but unfortunately not a complete one.


There was one particular little girl who exhibited "brightness" in every way, but she was quite slowly coming to reading. Her parents and I had spoken about her development. Through screenings, they had made sure that her eyesight and hearing were healthy. In the school setting, I could see that she was mentally capable; indeed, as I said she was bright. So, why was she not reading at grade level?


Just before I sat with the parents for our Fall Parent-Teacher Conference, I was shocked to notice something. In the bottom right corner of the weekly painting, the little girl had written her name. This was not unusual; I asked the students to do so. What was shocking to me, at the time, was the fact that she had written it in perfect mirror image. The letters themselves were reversed and in backward order. It was if she had literally written her name in a mirror. Fortunately I had colleagues in the Waldorf Remedial Education field to whom I could turn with my concerns. This proved to be incredibly helpful. According to several such educators and therapists, this was not terribly uncommon. They admitted that such things are usually seen in second grade rather than third grade, but the phenomenon was not unique. This little girl's brain and body, it was suggested, were still establishing cross-lateral connections. In that process, which we all go through, the right/left sensation can become reversed. Basically, the full establishment of the right and left sides had not been completed. With the full reversal of the name, rather than just one or two letters, they believed that she was very close to resolving this stage of development because her visual memory was clearly very strong and she had the letters in the correct order (even though "backward"). The child's strong visual memory explained why she could write her entire name in mirror image. As soon as she resolved this stage of development, it was suggested, she will likely become a "sight reader" quickly. In other words, she would not need to "sound out" words so often, but would quickly acquire a long list of easily-recognized sight words. This is a big part of what leads to reading fluency--the ability to move from sounding out to recognizing sight words.


It was quite a relief for me to hear these words. Still, for the time being, they were theoretical.


I shared this with the parents, of course, and they remained patiently curious along with me. By the middle of the third grade, just a couple of months later, that little girl was reading at grade level. Once she started reading, her progress was significant from one week to the next. In fact, I cannot remember any child making more progress more quickly. Perhaps even more amazing, by eighth grade, that same little girl chose to write her first novel as her year-long eighth grade project. So, even though she did not read at grade level until third grade, language skills such as reading and writing were never an issue for her once she did begin.


She is just one of several examples of "late" readers who benefitted from the solid foundation and patient work with the timing of her own learning development.



A Brief Bit of Advice


The Waldorf curriculum and pedagogy strives to optimize all aspects of language development. Still, it has its limitations. The classroom setting does not allow for what I believe to be an equally important learning experience: daily reading with a parent. There is no way to replicate this activity at school and no way to replicate its value. Without this daily experience, half the process is missing.


The classroom setting does not allow for what I believe to be an equally important learning experience: daily reading with a parent.


My advice is to read to and eventually read with your child for 15-30 minutes every night before bedtime. They see that you show up for them and that you value reading as a worthy activity. They learn to love stories and reading them. They learn to imitate how you speak and how you read. Eventually, they want to participate in the process of the reading itself. Then you can create a transition of them reading a bit and then you reading the rest. At last, they will take over the reading themselves. Even then, the daily reading time together can continue--and please do continue it. It is impossible to overstate the importance of this daily practice.


I hope you have enjoyed this series and that it has contributed to the ongoing conversation we must return to again and again about Waldorf Education and Reading Instruction.


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