Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Reading at Our Waldorf School

It seems that reading education is one of the most misunderstood areas of Waldorf education. I have only my first child's experience at the Charlottesville Waldorf School to go by but, having attending a talk led by a teacher in the middle school, I feel fairly safe about talking about it here.

Waldorf loves books and words and letters. CWS just had a gorgeous library donated to our school. Your child can want to learn to read and still thrive in a Waldorf environment! No administrator has ever ever said "do not read to your child" or "keep books away." (Perhaps some of the early literature about introducing reading said something like this? I have no idea, I am not a Steiner scholar). I do know this--if your child already knows how to read when he or she begins first grade, aren't you grateful that the curriculum focuses other areas besides (actually in addition to) "reading?" How bored would your child be if reading is coming naturally and that is all the teacher was focusing on hour after hour...

Now, again, this is my personal experience and my son is one of those self-taught children. I am writing this to parents who are worried that their children love books and don't understand why this isn't embraced by Waldorf. "But what if my child is READY? Is Waldorf holding her back?" Well, it is fine if she is ready! If she is ready, she will be already be learning how to read! At least this is how I saw it and how I feel the CWS community supports its earlier readers. I don't know a single family that doesn't read to their preschool-aged kids. It just wasn't the be all end all in what makes a child ready for kindergarten, first grade, or second. My son learned to read, after years of being read to by his parents, on his own and in his own time. The "H" for "hospital" off of our local bypass was my first signal that some form of "reading" was going on--that letters and signs were of use to those of us out here in the adult world. He began asking me what things said. There was no big deal about it, either from my own point of view or from the perspective of "Waldorf parent" (I may not have even been one yet). He asked a question, I answered it.

Now in his second half of first grade I am so thrilled with how reading and the other subjects are handled. Some children are still learning to decode in first grade and beyond. What I learned from the talk by the middle school teacher is that children in other schools are also learning to decode in first grade as well. It was nice to see the Waldorf parents who work for the public school nodding their heads and affirming so much of what she was telling us. Not for me so much as for me to relay to you right now... "Reading," as I had understood it, included "comprehension." I learned that many of us consider "decoding" to be "reading". I loved reading the book Raising Readers so much when my first born was a baby that I had long since forgotten the bits and pieces of "reading." As long as we all know what we are talking about, we're fine, but it seems like we are very worried that the Waldorf way to [comprehension + decoding =] reading puts one's child at risk for being illiterate at 4th grade. I am not witnessing this.

The Waldorf way is to keep letters out of Early Childhood. My house is full of books and the world is full of letters and words. I sort of liked the idea of having this one last space completely open to the child's imagination. Sort of a break from the busyness of our adult world. Usually children want to write their name on their artwork. The teachers will show them what their name looks like, let them copy it and usually, that is quite enough for that age group. Meanwhile the teachers are great storytellers and the children are allowed to hear a story repeated over and over. This allows them to build a vocabulary that may include words that you might not expect small children to understand. (This will help them read real stories later.)

Then...what if..what if your child has learned to read and the first grade teacher is only now introducing the alphabet. Now, is your child too advanced? Is he bored? Will he be a troublemaker?

My son has never complained of being bored. I think he is fairly well-behaved in class. He has plenty of other things to work on to even notice if he is that much ahead of his peers. The letters and sentences are taught through storytelling, handwriting, shapes and lines. This allows the child who perhaps knows how to read already an "a-ha" moment or two along the way when it comes to letter formation or some tricks to remember some quirks to letters in the English language ("c" says "s" and "k"! etc.). Our middle school teacher said that the teachers use aspects of what might be considered both "whole language" and "phonics", just like other school teachers. They aren't so worried about classifying which style they use when, they just present the best way of introducing a word for the children who are learning it. This speaker used the example "sure". This is not a word you teach using a phonetic approach. But meanwhile, you will also see "word families" listed on the side of the chalkboard. Honestly, that part of it didn't seem that different to me than what I felt like I would've been doing reading-wise as a first grader. All the other stuff--the artistry and the storytelling...that seems different, and my son loves it.

My first grader just filled out his lunch form today where he had to read the menu, decide what he wanted, add up the cost of each meal plus drink and total it at the end of the row. Not all first graders should be expected to know how to do this and I was pretty wowed that he sat down and did it. What amazes me is how quickly he "5,10,15"'ed and then "1, 2,3"ed and then 15 + 3 is "18" which he wrote down very carefully on the line. Sometimes I chuckle wondering why more families don't ask "why aren't my children learning how to multiply in first grade like they do at the Waldorf school?" Witnessing how seamless it has been to introduce all four math operations in first grade has me in great awe of the idea that loving math might be just as common as loving to read. I did like math as a child, but I don't remember math without a worksheet or flash cards. My son counts by 2's, 3's, and 5's and he can do this while bouncing a ball from hand to hand. Pretty cool, and I am grateful my family got to witness this last November at Friends and Family Day.

I'm throwing this online quickly because I would like to invite other Waldorf families to comment here about how a Waldorf education produced their own literate children. Race to Nowhere has recently hit Charlottesville and, having seen it, I feel like I must share what I see at the Charlottesville Waldorf School. Waldorf is working and working well for my family.


11/7/11 Please listen to this lecture by the 8th Grade Charlottesville Waldorf School teacher about how Waldorf Schools teach reading.