The Misunderstanding of Waldorf Schools and Late Reading

The most recent issue of Birmingham Parent features an article about how to go about choosing a private school for your child(ren). One of the sidebars in the article features a list of “Questions to ask when considering a private school.” For the next few blog entries I thought it would be worthwhile to feature some of these questions, accompanied by answers from Alabama Waldorf School.

What is the school’s philosophy on teaching reading?

In the preschool and early grades, Waldorf teachers focus on building in the child the capacity to create and hold mental pictures (imagination). On a surface level, the process of reading text is merely the act of decoding symbols. Below the surface is where many children in traditional schools struggle. Reading comprehension, especially in the later grades, proves to be more difficult if the student has not learned how to form mental pictures. In Waldorf schools, students ages 2 ½ to grade 8 listen to stories told by the teacher every week. An emphasis on rich language and evocative imagery encourages the child’s imagination to develop.

In the preschool, the child often participates in the storytelling by creating simple costumes out of play silks and acting out a role as the teacher narrates. In the grades, the students participate in re-telling Main Lesson stories through pictures drawn or painted on paper, through performing skits, and also through class discussions.

Recent evidence shows that normal, healthy children who learn to read after age 7 (considered relatively late by mainstream education) are not disadvantaged. Rather, these students are able to catch up quickly with, and may even overtake, children who have learned to read early.

And one article (see “Late Readers Close Learning Gap”), which addresses Waldorf schools in particular, notes that just because students aren’t learning the formal decoding of symbols later doesn’t mean they’re not learning foundational skills in the meantime. “Because later starters at reading are still learning through play, language, and interactions with adults, their long-term learning is not disadvantaged. Instead, these activities prepare the soil well for later development of reading.”

Additionally, children who learn to read after age 7 have been shown to be much less likely to develop the “tiredness toward reading” that many children who are taught to read at a very early age experience. Instead of tiredness or boredom, there is a lively interest in reading and learning that continues into adulthood. An excerpt entitled  Better Late than Early notes, “The child will grow into an enthusiastic reader, and thus view reading not only as a tool for obtaining knowledge or keeping up with others but as an enjoyable activity.”

Some children will, out of their own initiative, want to learn to read at an early age. This interest can and should be met, as long as it comes from the child. One good pre-reading activity is scaffolding: as you’re reading a book with your child, follow the words with your finger as you read from left to right across the page. This introduces the child to the basics of how reading works and how sounds connect to words on the page.

Each child has his or her own optimal time for “taking off.” Without being pushed, a healthy child will generally pick up reading quite quickly and easily. Some Waldorf parents become anxious if their child is slower to learn to read than his/her public school peers. Eventually, though, their patience is rewarded when they see their child pick up a book only to put it down once the last page has been reached!

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