One of the most common questions I hear in Waldorf education is, “How do children learn how to read?”
Parents are amazed that traditionally Waldorf educators start teaching letters in first grade and don’t even start reading until second grade in some cases. Of course if a child is ready before then, a teacher can take their lead and gently provide them with additional resources. However, to force an artificial situation on the child is detrimental to their learning process. Children’s minds are like a garden of roses. They will open and bloom with the right ingredients, but if you rip them open instead they will have to settle for their knowledge and understanding of the subject being partial, or being “glued back” together in some semblance of order.
The same happens when children learn how to read. In the methods most common today children are taught the abstract before the understanding. This leaves a gap in their relationship with language so that even if they do learn how to read, they may never really have the love of reading and writing that they could. In some cases, other gaps may show up later like poor spelling ability or difficulty with composition.
To approach reading from the standpoint of Waldorf education one must also learn as a teacher to understand reading before thinking of it in the abstract. We talk about reading as if it was an abstract foreign concept. However, it is as natural as learning how to speak. As teachers, we need to see reading as something natural rather than abstract. We start from there. Keep this in mind as you read this information below. I am writing this to allow you, as the teacher, to enter into a different way of seeing reading and to provide you with some translation of ideas from mainstream to Waldorf.
Most of what you will read below is intended for the teacher. The only items that should be shared with the students are the lessons. What I (or you) did to create the lessons should be seen only with our adult minds – because it is abstract. So children should not be given lists of “Dolch words” and told to copy them or learn them with flash cards, they should not be given worksheets with phonics on them with the endings in big bold letters. Both of these methods alienate the child from the concept of reading. We can see these worksheets and lists and understand them. However, the child can better understand a lesson coming from them and not the lists themselves.
However, first, before we start the lessons we need to understand what reading is. So what is reading? Reading is a process by where we learn to associate symbols with meanings. To be good at this we need to have a skill for imagination, creation, and visualization.
Think of all the stories that exist about books coming alive and words coming off the page into pictures. These books have brought to life what is happening inside a child’s head when they read. But how can this happen if a child is not allowed to cultivate their imagination and visualization skills?
Imagine a child who is asked to sit and look at a letter “R” at a young age. They are told this letter has a sound and if you put that with an “ED” it has another sound and it actually means the color red. You are asking a child to do abstract thinking when they are much too young for this kind of thought. In fact, most classes that are commonly known to involve abstract thinking (philosophy for one) are not even taught until High School or College.
Now imagine that you tell a child to look at an “R” and imagine all that this “R” can be. There is a story about the “R” and the “R” has adventures and the child is allowed to feel the “R” and be the “R” and identify with it as a character with personality. Stories are told about all the letters and they come alive in form, pictures and verse.
Now, tell this child that this letter is going to transform itself into a word to mean “red”. This is now in the realm of the imagination where anything is possible. Princesses can have hair as tall as a castle tower, birds can talk, swans can turn into boys and “R”s can turn into the word “red”. Anything is possible. This is not abstract – it is imagination.
So how can you cultivate this imagination and ability to see words in a different way? By reading, telling stories, telling many fairytales and allowing the child to slowly develop a relationship with the language.
The second most important change we need to make in our minds as teachers is to allow ourselves to believe that reading is natural. It was a natural progression of humankind to develop reading and writing, It is a natural progression in the human being themselves.
Traditional methods approach reading as if it were unnatural. Reading is IMPOSED into a structure and into an environment as if it was “work” – it is put forth as “now we will do our reading now”. We have language homework and language workbooks and even entire reading classes and programs. And many people argue that “they work” and are so happy when their 3-year-old is reading. But have they ever asked themselves HOW it happened? Or have they contemplated the long-term effects on the child? I have seen some children ready to read at early ages and approach it with joy and intuition. However, for so many children it is imposed upon them.
Think of reading as an extension of language. Telling stories to a child develops the ability to tell stories, just as speaking to a child develops their ability to converse. In the same way reading to a child and letting them become familiar with language develops their ability to read. When your child is just learning how to talk do you remove them from their daily life and say “ok, now we are going to practice talking now”?
We need to think of reading in the same way. Instead of removing the child from their life and saying “we are going to practice reading now” you can make it part of their life in the form of telling stories, reading them stories, doing activities with letters, reciting verses and simply enjoying language.
You can find the rest of this article and lessons in the First Grade Language Lesson Block.