Literacy at Waldorf Schools:  How Waldorf Schools Teach Reading and Writing

There is a widely held belief that if we start teaching children to write, read, and spell in preschool, they will become good writers, readers, and spellers by the time they reach the first and second grades.  This belief, however, is not true.  The truth is that children should be taught to write, read, and spell in a manner that makes sense with their brain and overall development.  Many neuropsychologists, developmental specialists, and teachers are concerned that the current trend of pushing “academics” in preschool and kindergarten will result in even greater increases in the number of children with learning challenges, particularly related to visual processing, that could be altogether avoided if children develop other capacities first before reading takes place.

In Waldorf Schools, there is a method of teaching writing and reading that compliments child and brain development.  One of the first steps to literacy is for a child to develop their proprioceptive system.  In order for children to be able to sit still, pay attention, and remember abstract shapes like letters and numbers, they first need to have developed their proprioceptive system. This system gives children the ability to experience the awareness of their bodies, where their bodies are in space.  When a child has a developed proprioceptive system, he will have the ability to sit still and visually remember abstract forms. He will be able to look at the shapes of letters and numbers, his eyes will follow and track the lines and curves. The memory of these movements can now imprint upon his brain. He has the capacity to make mental pictures or images of these letters and to be able to easily remember the correct orientation of letters.  Without this system being developed, a child may have difficulties just sitting still at a desk, fidgeting or paying attention.  They may have poor fine motor skills or difficulty orienting letters and numbers on a page.  It can create learning difficulties down the road.

Understanding how the brain develops is important to understand in teaching reading and writing.  The right hemisphere brain which develops between 4‐7 years of age allows children to recognize words by site (simple words), to focus on the firstand last letter in a word, to see the overall length and shape of a word, to guess at words without paying attention to spelling, and to see abstract forms such as letters in pictures.  The left hemisphere of the brain develops later between 7 to 9 years of age.  It allows children to match sounds to letters, sound out words phonetically, and remember how words are spelled.  The connecting pathways between the right and left hemisphere does not develop until the ages between 7 and 9 years.  Girls may develop these pathways a little earlier, while some boys won’t develop these pathways until ten or eleven.

Children who can simultaneously access the reading centers in both the right and left hemisphere of their brain will read easily and will be able to create visual images and pictures in their mind related to the content of what they are reading. They will be able to discuss or write about what they have read using their own words, because they can replay the scenes in their mind (recall) and don’t have to think so much about the specific words used in each sentence. Therefore, they will have an easier time understanding the meaning behind the stories and books they are reading (comprehension). Learning to spell will be easier, too.

When we push young children to read and they only have access to their right hemisphere for reading, we create learning problems for them in the future.  Just a few examples:

1. Look at the first and last letter of a word and guess: STAMP may guess it as STOP or STUMP. (guessing)

2. Show them TGOEHTER they may read it as TOGETHER but will not realize the word is misspelled. (poor spelling abilities)

3. Words like FRIEND, FIND, AND FOUND, AS WELL AS FILLED, FILED, AND FLOOD will all seem the same to them. (cannot differentiate)

When they finally develop the left hemisphere and the pathways between the hemispheres, some children might have trouble using them both because using the right one alone has become entrenched.  Many of these children will need tutoring to relearn how to read using both hemispheres.

The Waldorf preschool and kindergarten years are devoted to developing the proprioceptive system and filling their curriculum with play involving lots of sensory integration activities. These play activities will strengthen fine motor movements, visual motor abilities, balance, muscle tone, and proprioception, as well as promote social and emotional development.  Activities like imaginary play, climbing, running, jumping, hopping, skipping, walking the balance beam, playing circle games, singing, playing catch, doing meaningful chores, painting, coloring, playing hand clapping games, doing string games, and knitting, will strengthen their minds for learning. Children need these healthy, harmonious, rhythmic, and noncompetitive movements to develop their brains.  It is these movements of the body that create the neural pathways crucial for reading, writing, spelling, mathematics, and creative thinking.  Also during these years the teacher is encouraging imagination and creativity.  An education founded on imagination, as opposed to one that is a product of “bits” of information, permits children to develop flexibility in their conceptual lives”  (Waldorf Education:  A Family Guide).  The teacher tells rich stories to build comprehension, vocabulary, and auditory memory.  The class does word play with rhyming and rhythm, poetry and songs.  Overall the teacher is creating interest in and love of words and language through the stories, poetry and playing with words.

In Waldorf schools throughout first grade we continue with all of the above.  The child is given a rich experience of language through the daily use of poetry and story telling.  Poetry trains a sense for the language’s beauty while developing memory and vocabulary.  The fairy tales present a profound archetypal soul images while developing a sense of narration and building comprehension.  Letters are introduced through the stories and pictures since the right brain sees symbols like letters as pictures.  For example, P might be introduced through the story of the Frog Prince using pictures and stories about the letter P.  Sight words are introduced.  The teacher writes compositions developed with the class and are copied down by the students into their main lesson books.  The material is “alive” and created for this particular class keeping the students involved and interested.  Form drawing is introduced which trains motor skills, awakens the child’s power of observation and provides a foundation for the introduction of the alphabet.

In second grade reading instruction more closely resembles conventional methods of phonetic and sight vocabulary instruction.  The majority of children discover they can read and their discovery is wonderful.  They realize they no longer need the teacher to read with them but they can read for themselves.  In third grade students read from printed books not just their main lesson books.  It becomes an integral  part of the reading program.  In third grade the students start to write in their own words and work independently.  This work builds on their knowledge of narration, comprehension and vocabulary from the earlier years.

In fourth grade students are reading regularly as part of each day and should be reading at home.  They will be expected to perform book reports, oral and written.  The study of grammar begins.   By the beginning of middle school children in a Waldorf school have the 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 ( Waldorf Education:  A Family Guide).

Taken from Kathleen Smith’s talk and Waldorf Education:  A Family Guide.