Literacy, Not Just Reading

by Arthur M. Pittis

Published: 1988 in Leading Forth.


To appreciate fully how and when reading is taught in Waldorf Schools, one must first understand the purpose of the curriculum. Rudolf Steiner hoped that Waldorf schools would serve as centres for the reawakening of spiritual life. The curriculum and pedagogy would serve as practical tools for this task, by directly countering the hardening and narrowing forces of materialism in modern life. One focus of this work was to develop in children faculties of imaginative thinking, capable of inspiring them in their adult lives to morally purposeful deeds.


No one would think of giving a child one pair of rugged steel shoes that must last a lifetime. But as a society we think nothing of giving our children ready-made concepts and, without much reflection, expect them to go forth with these bits of information and meet life. But true knowledge springs from understanding, and understanding grows out of experience. Just like a child’s foot, experience, understanding and knowledge change and grow. A shoe which is flexible and supports one’s foot is a good one, and when it is worn out one tosses it aside, regretfully but appreciative of the service given. A shoe that can never be outgrown, worn out or cast aside will only maim and cripple its wearer. Materialistic, informational education is such a shoe: it cripples thinking and thinking’s ability to engage one’s feelings so they can inspire one’s will.


The goal of the Waldorf approach to the language arts, of which reading is only one part, is to inspire in every child a love of language. In Waldorf education the introduction of reading grows out of the child’s own experience of living language. Reading, like all the traditional academic subjects, is not taught in the Waldorf kindergarten. If a child teaches herself how to read at this time, fine and good; no attempt is made to actively suppress or develop this skill. What we are seeing in such children is a loving imitation of an adult activity.


Like standing, walking and speaking, children learn to read at their own pace. While children can be rushed into reading earlier than they would normally master this skill, it is always at a cost, either emotionally, physiologically or academically. One of the saddest signs that children are being rushed in reading prematurely, are the escalating numbers of reading difficulties among children of normal ability and intelligence in the early elementary grades. (Television and electronic entertainment bear no small share of this responsibility.) Children who would have learned to read perfectly well in an unhurried and stress-free environment now often carry a deep resentment towards and fear of reading.


In Waldorf education there are no rigid, time-specific goals for reading or any other subject. Rather a class teacher works broadly and flexibly with the materials to be learned and the differing temperaments, maturational rates and abilities of the children in a class. The goal is not test-oriented skill levels, but rather an environment in which the picture-forming faculties of imagination are nourished and learning becomes a living force within each child.


When a teacher gives imaginative pictures to a class each individual in the class can then transform these pictures into personal experiences that will form the foundation for a healthy and inspired relationship to knowledge. An education founded on imagination, as opposed to one founded on bits of information, permits children to develop flexibility in their conceptual lives. Education, which is full of life and life’s pictures, is healthy education and acts as a seed for the future, both for the individual and human cultural and social life as a whole.


Now back to reading and how it is taught. In the first grade the picture-making quality of Waldorf education is clearly visible in the introductory work with letters. The first lessons in reading grow out of the archetypal images of the fairy tales. Say a tale has a magical snake. After the teacher has told the story, the class draws pictures of the snake. In the course of drawing, the undulating gesture of the snake emerges. The teacher then shows the children how the sound of the snake can be found in its picture image as well as the initial letter of its word. The letter ‘s’ thereby emerges. In a similar manner other pictographic relations between the archetypal sounds of the consonants and their modern representations are developed. The work of the eurythmist who creates parallel images of language in the archetypal gestures of speech eurythmy supports and deepens the class teacher’s work. Not every consonant needs to be presented in this way; imaginative images are a very economical way of educating, and the child himself will be able to develop additional imaginations of his own. Once all the letters have been presented, the teaching of writing begins.


Writing is slightly more important than reading in that writing is active while reading is passive. Historically, people had to write before they could read, and Waldorf education tries to follow the development of human consciousness as faithfully as possible. So, the Waldorf reading curriculum is actually a writing curriculum, and the ability to read emerges out of the activity of writing. One of the most important experiences for a child is the realization that the markings on a page suddenly make sense and that she can now read.


Taught through writing, reading starts with the imaginative presentation of letters, moves onto the copying of simple sentences and, in turn, whole stories. Parallel to these imaginative experiences, phonics and sight word skills are developed as essential tools for decoding. It is important to emphasize that in first grade the pedagogical intent is to build deep and strong foundations, capable of supporting the very demanding language arts curriculum of later grades. Throughout first grade the child is given a rich experience of language through the daily use of poetry and storytelling. Poetry trains a sense for language’s beauty, while developing memory. The fairy tales present profound archetypal soul images, while developing a sense for narration. The teacher’s own compositions, copied from the board by the children, are designed to address the particular developmental needs of that class. The language and syntax are controlled and specific phonetic patterns are emphasized. No textbook can ever achieve this degree of relevance. The children receive this type of writing as they would a handmade versus a store bought gift.


People often ask: How does the Waldorf approach challenge children who enter first grade already knowing how to read? What will such children learn? Won’t they be bored? It all depends on how open parents are to the goals of Waldorf education. If a child experiences doubt or hostility towards their school from a parent, the child will naturally and rightly assume the attitudes of that parent, and the work of even the finest teacher will be of no benefit. But if parents want a child’s power of imagination to be nourished and cultivated, if they have faith that not learning to read as quickly as a neighbour or relative expects is fine, then even the most academically advanced child will retain the openness necessary to enjoy and benefit from the Waldorf approach. All children are nourished by imaginative activities, which resonate in a child’s soul and impart a purpose and flexibility to life which quantitative, informational-based curricula are incapable of giving.


In second grade reading instruction more closely resembles conventional methods of phonetic and sight vocabulary instruction. Second grade is also the time when the majority of Waldorf children discover that they know how to read. This discovery takes place in the most wonderful manner. Each day during a writing block the class teacher reads from that day’s writing assignment. The class “reads” along, following the teacher’s voice. One by one the individual children come to the wonderful realization that the teacher’s voice is no longer needed, that the reading can be done alone. The child lowers her eyes to her own book, looks upon the writing from a previous day and realizes she can read her own hand. One of life’s great thresholds has been crossed.


In third grade the students read from “real” (printed) books as well as their own lesson books. The use of readers may happen as early as second grade, and this decision is left to the discretion of the teacher. But by third grade it is an integral part of the reading program. Third grade is also the time when the students begin to write out most of the lesson book stories in their own words. This independent work was first introduced in second grade, but now it becomes a focal point of the language arts curriculum. Using the class teacher’s presentations as starting points, each individual student explores his or her own individual voice. Some students write copiously, some cautiously, and others eloquently. The important thing, however, is that each is drawing up to the level of consciousness all that they have experienced of narration, character and description in the earlier grades.


From fourth grade on very little of the teacher’s writing is copied into the students’ books. Only in cases where very concise information or stylistic examples are needed, should the writings be anyone’s other than the students’ themselves. By now reading is a regular part of each individual’s day. Students should be reading at home on a daily basis, and book-reports, oral and written, can be continually in process for sharing with the class.


Parallel to and supportive of the work with composition and literature, is the study of grammar. The work with the modern languages also reinforces and deepens the students’ understanding of their mother tongue. By the beginning of middle school children in a Waldorf school have a strong sense for living language and excellent foundations upon which to explore its forms, as well as find their own voices in the succeeding years.


All learning in Waldorf schools strives to imbue the child with a deep appreciation for and love of knowledge. Out of experience develops understanding, and out of understanding develops thought. Through imaginative experiences, the language arts curriculum assists each child to develop the visions and thoughts capable of inspiring the strength, faith and courage needed for meeting what comes to us out of the future. We rebel as human beings against being programed like machines. Inflexible information deadens us. We feel, if not understand, that our future and, thereby, our freedom is being stolen. Waldorf education, on the other hand, stands in opposition to such materialistic education. It is able to do so because at their very core is a spiritual image of the human being which recognizes the evolutionary implications of all our deeds, even something as remote as how we learned to read.



*This article has been shortened.

Informed parenting

Michael Mount
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