This is a guest post written by Barbara Dewey of Waldorf Without Walls about learning to read the Waldorf way. Barbara was one of the first to offer consulting to homeschooling families and to publish books for Waldorf homeschoolers. She spends her spare time with her husband Quimby, family and friends, enjoying her unique solar home, and developing her farmland. She is the mother of four and grandmother to six. Barbara holds an M.S. in Waldorf education from the Waldorf Institute of Sunbridge College in Spring Valley, NY. She has been teaching for 54 years.
I met Barbara in 1994 when my boys were little and soon after she began commuting to Cleveland to teach a small Waldorf kindergarten group in a friend’s attic. Barbara has been my mentor in our family’s 20 plus years of homeschooling and I am so grateful to have her wisdom and support. This post is an excerpt from her book, Waldorf Reading for Homeschoolers.
Barbara started the annual Taproot Teacher Training in 2007. She passed the baton to me in 2015. Together, Barbara and I host a wonderful summer weekend for Waldorf homeschoolers. You can find more information about the Taproot Teacher Training here.
Learning to Read the Waldorf Way
Starting in Early Childhood
The parent will take time out a few times a day to tell a story to the child, thus developing a sense of good language and expression. Singing songs, reciting poems, doing finger plays and little puppet shows are also important. Telling stories is better than reading them, because the child must imagine his own pictures. This ability to imagine is an important step in preparation for reading. This doesn’t mean that a parent has to memorize two or three stories a day. Children prefer to hear the same story over and over, sometimes for weeks! And it doesn’t hurt to read some of the stories to your children. But do tell as many as you can. Even make some of them up, or tell stories about your own childhood.
One of the hardest tasks for a parent involved in helping a child to learn to read in the Waldorf way is divesting yourself from the ingrown attitudes about reading prevalent in our culture, and then defending your method from well-meaning but critical relatives and neighbors.
Children learn to read in the same way they learn to potty train or talk. Children learn these things when they are ready and the age of success varies greatly with the child. To me, a child is not really potty trained until she has the skills necessary to take herself into the bathroom, pull down her pants, do it, and re-fasten her clothes.
A child learns to talk by listening to others speak and gradually learns by imitation, attaining a huge vocabulary somewhere between ages 1 ½ and 3.
We are fooling ourselves when we think we are teaching a child to read. The child cracks the code, and does a lot of memory work, just as he did when he was learning to speak. If you watch a child who is at the stage where he is ready and wants to learn to read, you will see him repeating words and sounds to himself, memorizing books that are read to him, and suddenly he goes from memorizing to really reading, seemingly overnight! Then he can read everything, including newspapers, and big chapter books. All this will not happen until the child is ready, and forcing it may make him avoid reading for life. To me, just as in potty training, a child is not really a reader until he can pick up any piece of written material and read it.
Rudolf Steiner believed that the child recapitulates human cultural evolution in his development. Children do not enter a Waldorf first grade until they are at least 6 1/2 or 7. At age 6-7 the child is living through the period of human cultural evolution when human beings developed a written, pictorial alphabet, so it makes sense to develop the alphabet using pictures. Human beings had to write something before they could read it. The child is still interested in fantasy and fairy tale, so we develop a picture alphabet using fairy tale stories. From this grows the writing of simple sentences which they have made up. They can “read” what they have written. Probably they have memorized it, but that’s OK. Reading English is mostly memory anyway.
No reading is required in Waldorf schools until the end of grade 3, or later. The Waldorf curriculum is based on the developmental interests of children, and does not require reading in the early grades. Material is presented by the teacher in dramatic, interesting ways and the children make use of the material in their play and hands-on dramatic and artistic activities.
Waldorf schools have several rules-of-thumb to determine readiness for first grade in a child.
- Change of teeth – Steiner’s theory was that a child was ready for academic learning, including reading when he was getting his second teeth. Throughout history this has happened around age 7. It seems to be occurring earlier in modern children, so it is not necessarily as good a guide as it used to be. There are various theories about this phenomenon. One is the growth hormones to be found in modern foods, mostly milk, which could speed up certain signs of maturity. Another is light exposure. Few children ever experience true darkness in our culture. Farmers speed up the maturity of poultry and cattle by keeping the lights on continuously, so it is supposed that extended light exposure could also speed up signs of maturity.
- Body proportions – Around age seven, again give or take a year or two, a child’s limbs lengthen and the head becomes smaller in relation to the rest of the body. An infant has a ratio of head to body of 1:4. At around age 7 it becomes 1:6. As a sign of this change, the child becomes able to reach his arm over his head and completely cover his ear with his hand.
- Visible joints, knuckles and kneecaps instead of dimples
- An observable arch in the foot
- Individualized facial features: enlarged chin and nose, loss of fat on cheeks
- S-curve in spine
- Consistent heartbeat of about 60 beats/minute and respiration once for every four heartbeats
- Walk a beam forward, maintaining balance
- Catch and throw a large ball
- Climb stairs, alternating feet with each step
- Tie knots and bows, and zip and button clothing
- Hop on either foot
- Hop with both feet together
- Habitually walk by swinging opposite arm when stepping out with one foot
- Shake hands by offering hand with thumb outstretched
- Sew, finger knit, play finger games, etc.
- Have established dominance (handedness), although this may not be firm in some children until age 9, and may be a predictor of late reading.
- Have a conscious goal in drawing or painting a picture.
There are many other subtle indications of readiness in the child that a parent may be able to recognize. The kindest attitude you can take is one of leisure and lack of hurry, a difficult one in our culture of the “hurried child.” See Glöckler and Goebel A Guide to Child’s Health.
How the Brain Develops
The human brain is divided in two halves, the right and the left side. The right side of the brain controls the left side of the body and the left side of the brain controls the right side of the body. In most people, the left side of the brain dominates and the person is right handed. However, in a significant number of people, the right side dominates and those people are left handed. Some people do not have a dominant hand. It is often children who are either left-handed or who are ambidextrous who are also late readers.
The two sides of the brain are connected by a bundle of nerves called the corpus callosum, a late developing organ in the brain. This organ becomes complete somewhere around the age of seven, give or take a year or two. Learning to read is not possible until this organ is fully developed. Late readers are not less intelligent children! If you think about it, it makes sense that a better brain might take longer to develop, and therefore late readers may indeed be more intelligent!
Until the corpus callosum is developed, nearly all children are dyslexic, that is they see p, d, q, and b as the same letter and often reverse them as well as other letters. A person who remains dyslexic is often a person who not only sees things as they are but as they could be, a bit of hindrance in learning to read, but an indispensable talent for a creative inventor, architect, or artist! The interconnectedness of handedness, dyslexia, creativity and brain development is a fascinating subject, one which is largely ignored in our culture’s rush to get children reading at an earlier and earlier age. For more on this topic, see David Elkind’s The Hurried Child, and Miseducation: Preschoolers at Risk, and Joseph Chilton Pearce’s Magical Child.
English is a very difficult language to learn. The phonetic and spelling rules are only correct 50% of the time! That means 50% of the words have to be memorized. So how can one learn to read by phonics alone?!
Phonics can be somewhat useful and a lot of fun if done in a playful way. But your child will perceive you as a liar if you try to tell him that these are rules of the language and he later discovers how many exceptions there are! You can play with phonics and then joke about the exceptions.
Here is an example for your own amusement:
THE PULLET SURPRISE
by Jerrold H .Zar
The Graduate School
Northern Illinois University
I have a spelling checker.
It came with my PC.
It plane lee marks four my revue
Miss steaks aye can knot sea.
Eye ran this poem threw it,
Your sure reel glad two no.
Its vary polished in its weigh.
My checker tolled me sew.
A checker is a bless sing,
It freeze yew lodes of thyme.
It helps me right awl stiles two reed,
And aides me when aye rime.
Each frays come posed up on my screen
Eye trussed too bee a joule.
The checker pours o’er every word
To cheque sum spelling rule.
Bee fore a veiling checker’s
Hour spelling mite decline,
And if we’re lacks oar have a laps,
We wood bee maid too wine.
Butt now bee cause my spelling
Is checked with such grate flare,
Their are know fault’s with in my cite,
Of nun eye am a wear.
Now spelling does knot phase me,
It does knot bring a tier.
My pay purrs awl due glad den
With wrapped word’s fare as hear.
To rite with care is quite a feet
Of witch won should bee proud,
And wee mussed dew the best wee can,
Sew flaw’s are knot aloud.
Sow ewe can sea why aye dew prays
Such soft wear four pea seas,
And why eye brake in two averse
Buy righting want too pleas.3
- Title suggested by Pamela Brown.
- Based on opening lines suggested by Mark Eckman.
- By the author’s count, 127 of the 225 words of the
poem are incorrect (although all words are correctly spelled).
It is interesting to note that Steiner’s work was all done in the German language, a language of very strict rules with nearly no exceptions. Even in such a strict language, he recommended later rather than early literacy, approached with a sense of play. How much more important it is in English, which is so much more difficult to read!
Your child WILL learn to read. You merely need to be a patient, enthusiastic, and playful, willing accomplice. You are helping your young spy to crack the code!
Thank you Barbara for this great post full of your wisdom and humor! You can find more of Barbara’s work on her website, Waldorf Without Walls.
Below are some of my favorite early readers for learning to read the Waldorf way.
If you enjoyed this post, you might also like Reading Stories to Children and Drawing, Writing, and Reading in the Waldorf Approach.
If you want more help planning out your stories and lessons for your homeschool, check out my guidebook, Planning for Waldorf Homeschooling: Keeping It Simple.