Originally published by the Nelson Waldorf School
Waldorf Education starts to set the foundation for reading in kindergarten. Learning to read is allowed to evolve for each child in the same form as it evolved from the beginning of humanity: spoken language developed first, then people drew pictures to communicate their ideas, followed by symbols such as hieroglyphics and finally the abstract letters of our modern alphabets. Once there was a written language, people learned to read. This is exactly the sequence in which children master language, and it also is the sequence in which reading is taught in Waldorf schools.
1. Importance of the Spoken Word
At Waldorf schools, from birth to age seven, the focus is on the spoken word.
In kindergarten, the curriculum emphasis is on spoken verses and stories: nature stories, folktales and fairy tales. Teachers are ‘storytellers’ and are careful not to “dumb down” or simplify the language of fairy tales. The teacher is careful to use clear speech and to enunciate well as this immersion in literature is the basis of literacy. This immersion in the spoken word will also help children later when it comes time to learn to write and spell.
2. Repetition Helps Retention
The same sequence and stories are repeated in daily circle time for weeks at a time. Children learn these stories, songs and verses “by heart,”. Rudolf Steiner, founder of Waldorf education, stressed the importance of repetition when he developed the first Waldorf school in Germany in the 1920’s. Current brain research confirms that repetition aids a child’s brain development. The connections of billions of neural pathways in the brain are strengthened through repeated experiences.
3. Writing Begins Holistically
In the first grade of Waldorf the alphabet is formally introduced in an imaginative, pictorial way. There are no photo-copied worksheets here! Each letter of the alphabet is presented as a picture representing an element from a story the children are told. For example, they might hear the story of a knight on a quest who had to cross mountains and a valley. The children will then draw a picture with the letter “M” forming the Mountains on either side of the “V” for Valley.
In this way, the child develops a living relationship with each letter rather than going straight to the abstraction of the alphabet letters themselves. These ‘pictures’ can be described as the rainbow bridge between the pictorial thinking of the child and the abstract thinking of the adult.
After learning all the letters, the next step is to copy the teacher’s writing into their beautiful ‘main lesson books’, the books that children in a Waldorf school create themselves. These first written sentences and stories come from the children’s own experience and the children’s first practice of ‘reading’ is the reading of their own text.
This progression can be illustrated by the following typical activity: the teacher will write a poem on the board that the children already ‘know’ by heart. Through joyful recognition of familiar sounds and words they begin to ‘read’ the poem and then write it in their books.
4. Reading Starts Naturally
The final step is learning to read, which generally starts in second grade and continues into third grade. It is important to know that reading requires decoding skills that develop in children at varying ages. In Waldorf education we understand that learning to read will unfold naturally in its own time for the vast majority of children, when given the proper support.
Just as a normal, healthy child will learn to walk without our teaching her, and just as a child miraculously learns to speak her native language by the age of three without lessons, worksheets or a dictionary, so will a child naturally learn to read when she has a positive relationship with the spoken and written word and has been provided with the necessary tools and skills.
5. Classic Books Expand Vocabulary
Once students are fully reading providing them with age appropriate, well written literature will keep their love for reading alive.
6. Avoids Risks In Pushing Reading Too Early
Much research has shown the negative impacts of pushing “academics”, such as reading, at too early an age. Forcing children to read too early often hurts their self-confidence and general passion for books. This research clearly indicates that kindergartens and preschools should focus on age-appropriate activities such as playing, exploring and socializing. Finland is a great example of this, given that its schools lead the world in education standards. Finnish children generally don’t start kindergarten until age 6. And kindergarten is focused mainly on play and socialization, there is no reading or writing. Additionally, their school days are not more than 4 hours long.
7. Does Not Rely On Phonics
It is interesting to note that as much as 60% of common English words cannot be easily sounded out. English also has 205 ways to spell 44 sounds! Many words have the same sounds but are spelled differently or contain silent letters. Learning such a language takes a long time and requires many abilities that develop over time.
Being able to decode words is essential for beginning readers. However, decoding isn’t just about sounding out words. It involves taking apart the sounds in a word (“segmenting”) and blending the sounds together. Another important skill for beginning readers is learning to recognize words at a glance. Kids need to build up a large group of “sight words.” and this takes time.
The Waldorf approach, in its own way, sets the foundation for reading starting in Kindergarten. However, reading is not rushed before writing and soon Waldorf students are typically reading at or above government standardized levels and with improved comprehension. Most importantly, children who read when they are ready are able to maintain a passion for stories and love of reading further into their older years.