Learning to read in an organic way cultivates avid readers for life.
Here in the South, where Waldorf schools are less common, when I tell a new friend that my children are enrolled at Alabama Waldorf School, I often receive comments like, “Oh, isn’t that the school where they discourage reading before 3rd grade?” or, “That’s such a sweet school — but we want something more academically rigorous and challenging for our child.”
Needless to say, Waldorf’s reputation can be slightly misleading, especially in terms of academics. It’s a completely different process of education, which may throw off the type of person who gets all excited about grade reports, test scores and hours of tedious homework.
But a different process of education does not at all mean less rigorous. Waldorf education is cyclical, long-range, organic and holistic. It actually challenges and engages kids in ways that a conventional system cannot. In fact, it helps students to better comprehend and retain academic material — and to enjoy learning for the rest of their lives.
In a Waldorf school, the process of learning to read begins in the preschool, with the oral tradition of storytelling, and repetition of stories and poems. Teachers lead the children in a circle with whole-body movements to mimic the action of the stories, in a social setting. This engages both auditory and visual learners. By the time a child graduates kindergarten and moves into 1st grade, she has digested these words with her whole being (socially, intellectually and physically), and has memorized thousands of lines of verse. My sons, for example, at the ages of 5 and 9, can recite hundreds of stories, songs and poems. This stage is like tilling and preparing the soil, and planting seeds in a garden.
Then, the sprouts begin to push up through the soil. As students move through the lower grades, they learn the forms and shapes and sounds of letters together as a class — first on the chalkboard, and then copied into their own main lesson books. Children learn to write letters before they learn to read words, often moving their arms in the gesture of the letters and drawing beautiful pictures using the letter as a symbol within the drawing (“M” used as the peaks of a mountain, for example). Fairy tales, fables, myths and other stories are recited or read aloud in the classroom every day, repeating and continuing the oral immersion of literary concepts begun in preschool. At the same time, foreign languages are also introduced, immersion-style, through oral and visual exercises.
Around the age of 3rd or 4th grade, children make a developmental leap. This change is social, emotional, intellectual and physical, and is reflected in a student’s grasp of written material. (Now the leaves begin to burst out all over the little tree.) He begins to better understand the abstract connection between written letters and what those symbols mean. The practice of spelling and vocabulary begins in earnest, based on the solid literary foundation he’s already received. Reading, writing and vocabulary is continued through the upper grades, and broadened to include writing reports and giving presentations in other subjects such as history, science and foreign languages.
Whatever the learning style or temperament, this method of education empowers kids. It places no pressure on the individual student to perform or excel before she is perfectly ready to do so, giving her an incredible sense of confidence. In this non-competitive classroom environment, children learn to read at different ages, but they do so in a social way, together as a class, with no demands for arbitrary results placed on them. This method cultivates a much less stressful learning environment, and makes reading fun and fulfilling. Students grow to see reading for what it truly is — a fascinating way to engage with the world around them, rather than a dreaded task. By the time students complete the full cycle of Waldorf education, they tend to be the most well-read, literate, and self-confident among their peers.
For more information on Waldorf curriculum, click here.
For another viewpoint from a parent on how Waldorf teaches reading, click here.
Also sponsored by Signature Health and Agoge Fitness