When you visit a Waldorf nursery or kindergarten, you notice something unique about it. There are no worksheets in hand or sight words on the walls. Waldorf teachers know language skills are built through the repetition of stories, songs and verses. They are preparing children to read and write through the spoken word.
The process of learning to read starts in Kindergarten with a focus on comprehension first, reading and writing second. Strengthening a child’s ability to create mental images of what is being said will strengthen their ability to comprehend the written word later. Deep understanding of language is the focus in the early years, rather than rote memorization of sight words or phonetics which are taken up in the early grades.
How does a Waldorf teacher build reading comprehension skills?
How does a child strengthen the ability to make mental images inwardly when stories are told? In the early childhood years, the teacher tells stories through puppet shows, stories, poems, and songs with props. The stories are told more than once: sometimes a story will be told five times using the same language, word-for-word. Waldorf teachers understand that repetition aids a child’s brain development, and the connections of billions of neural pathways in the brain are strengthened through repeated experiences.
Gradually, the puppet shows and stories will have less props until by mid-winter there are very few. As this happens, the child begins to use his/her imagination more to make inner pictures of the story. This practice of inner picturing develops over time and later is an essential part of comprehending the written word. It also aids in strengthening attention and the ability to focus.
Building language comprehension skills prior to reading skills is important. If one knows how to listen and comprehend what is being heard, one can then learn to read well. Rules about language will be better understood therefore more easily followed. If a child is able to make inner pictures of what is being read or spoken, comprehension will be strengthened. Reading words is not the ultimate goal at this stage, understanding them is.
In summary, Waldorf education focuses first on many modes of deep language comprehension prior to learning the specifics of reading and writing. This allows students to have a deep appreciation for and understanding of language, thereby creating confidence and deep language competencies. Ultimately, through learning in this way, students develop a strong connection with the written and spoken word.
By Anita Warren, Grades Teacher