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.


Nikki said...

My daughter is now in 5th grade at the Charlottesville Waldorf School. When she wasn't actively reading by the age of 6, my parents were worried that this education wasn't giving her what she needed to learn. This came partly from the fact that I was a "self-taught" reader before kindergarten. When she did begin reading it was like a lightbulb suddenly turned on and she went right from being read to to reading chapter books. She devours books now and my mother recently commented, "If it weren't for the public library, I don't know how you could afford to keep this child in books!" Learning at her own pace has made my child love reading and she is doing so much more than a labored "decoding" and really comprehends what she is reading. If she had been "pushed" into it, she would likely have rebelled and reading would have become a chore rather than an enjoyment.

zoe krylova said...

i remember when we first moved to charlottesville someone asked us where we were sending our daughter to school. when we said waldorf, they said, "good decision if you want her to be illiterate!"

our daughter, now a seventh grader at cws, devours books. and so do most of her friends.

within a couple of months she went from not reading to reading the first few harry potter books and beyond. she has an amazing vocabulary, loves to write and has been praised by her teacher for her comprehension of literature. she is rarely bored, because she can always pick up a book to fill the time.

i loved how the teaching of the alphabet was handled in first grade, how every letter was treated like a sentient being!

even though we read to her from the time she was an infant, she really didn't start reading on her own until she was in the latter half of second grade. i'll never forget how very excited she was when it all fell together, and how quickly she went from reading early reader books to reading books that adults enjoy. we were visiting our family in another country the summer after second grade, and i kept having to find english language book stores to keep books in her hands, she read through them so quickly.

just this evening we played boggle together and she beat me, and not for the first time! i was an english major in college!!!!

my son, who is almost two, is already reciting the alphabet. it's not something we've tried to teach him, he's simply picked it up through our daughter's old books. he is very different from her and i have a feeling he will be a self taught reader. i appreciate cynthia's take on this: if he knows how to read already, then he won't be bored focusing on other subjects in his early education. and i truly believe the alphabet will come to life for him in the unique way only waldorf can teach.

waldorf encourages children to be children, it nurtures a love of learning and it provides a safe space for their imaginations to soar so they can truly appreciate alternate literary worlds. i hope we can manage to bless our son with the same education.

Jennifer said...

I have had 2 children go through the learning-to-read process at Waldorf and am currently watching my 3rd child experience it. Both my older children (now 7th and 9th graders) knew how to read in 1st grade, but didn't start to devour chapter books until 4th grade. I don't know if this was a direct result of the way Waldorf teaches reading or if, for my kids, 4th grade seemed to be when they were developmentally ready to take on reading on a larger scale. My oldest son, literally went from reading Tin Tin comic books in the fall of 4th grade to reading all the Harry Potter books (however many were out at that time - 5 or 6?) over the two weeks of Christmas break. I have to admit that there were times with my oldest child that I worried he wasn't reading soon enough or well enough, but having been through it twice I am simply enjoying watching the process unfold for my current 2nd grader. Technically, he can read, but he is still a long way off from reading Harry Potter or the like. It does not concern me at all. I know it will happen for him as it did for my older children and, in the meantime, he can still enjoy playing outside more and forming his own stories by looking at the pictures. Because as much as I love to see my children curled up on the window seat with a book, I have to admit there were times with my older kids that I had to say "put the book down and go outside for awhile". Once the reading begins, there is no stopping them - so why rush it?