Is it true that Waldorf students are not taught to read until second grade?
No! Learning to read is an entire process with many contributory facets. Waldorf education undertakes reading instruction in almost the opposite way that it is introduced in most schools across the nation Indeed, the foundation for reading instruction is laid already in the kindergarten.
In the United States, the mainstream approach to reading has been to introduce decoding skills as the first step in the reading process. This entails memorizing the alphabet and its corresponding sounds through repetitive drills and then linking these sounds together to read simple words and sentences. This is the approach that is built into early readers. You probably remember: “See Dick run. Run, Dick, run. Run, run, run.” or some similar type of reading material when you were in school. Because the content of these early readers must be very simple to restrict words to those that can be easily sounded out, teachers are forced to wait until the middle and upper elementary years to work on more sophisticated texts. Then teachers must work hard to improve comprehension since the pupils at this age have already moved beyond the phase of where imaginative thinking is at its peak.
There is a second concern about teaching reading skills in this sequence. This approach is difficult for many young children because, in many cases, their eye muscles have not matured to the point where they can track properly on a page. Thus, a number of children will be labeled as slow or remedial readers simply because their eyes may not have matured as early as other children.
Waldorf Education approaches reading instruction from an almost opposite direction specifically so that instruction is synchronous with the development of children. Reading is much more than recognizing sound/symbol relationships. For true reading to occur, there must be a corresponding inner activity that takes place as the child decodes words: that is, the child must form an inner picture of what he or she is reading so that comprehension develops. The rich life of the imagination is most potent in a child during kindergarten and early elementary years and is present at the same time that the child’s sense for the sound and rhythm of language is at its peak.
To capture these capacities at the time that they are most present in the child is the rationale for a foundation of reading that begins first with spoken language. The rich language of fairy tales, the pictorial imagery of songs and poems and the desire of the young child to listen to stories and repeat rhymes and sing songs all become the basis for a language arts curriculum through which a child may come to love “the word”. Imagine how much more complex and imaginative are the stories to which a child may be introduced if they are orally presented rather than through the simplistic language of a reader. Imagine how much a child’s vocabulary can develop from listening to the content that the teacher brings. Imagine also how much more sophisticated a child’s understanding (comprehension) of the world can become through hearing the rich and complex language in the teacher’s presentations and stories.
For all of these reasons, Waldorf students will be given a strong foundation in comprehension, vocabulary and in the sounds and meanings of their native tongue. Then students will be introduced to writing and spelling the letters and words that are part of their stories. And, as a final step, the students will read from their own texts describing the stories that they have heard. In this way, students have the proper time to develop all of the skills that are part of the complex skill of reading at the time when it is most appropriate for them to do so. When reading is approached in this way, children become voracious readers who love and understand what they choose to read.