How Reading, Writing, Literature, and Language are Taught in a Waldorf Education
By Dianne McGaunn and Kat Marsh
The Waldorf approach to literacy is unique in two very important ways.
First, Waldorf education builds a foundation for literacy learning through attention to the physical body and its importance in learning and the significance of social and emotional health in education.
Second, literacy education in Waldorf schools is an elaborate, thoughtful sequence starting with speech development, listening, and only then more formal academic learning.
Underlying all of this is Rudolf Steiner’s unique philosophy of child development which, among other aspects, considers the importance of movement, imagination and healthy social experiences in developing a foundation for overall health and deep and lasting learning. In essence, the Waldorf approach to literacy is purposefully patient and thoughtfully builds a foundation for a life-long love of literacy, in its many forms.
A common misconception about Waldorf literacy education is that Waldorf schools do not teach children how to read until second grade. While it is true that decoding (learning how to read through a phonics approach) is not specifically taught until late first or second grade, early childhood educators and first grade teachers concentrate on building a strong foundation for literacy learning through drama, artistic endeavors, writing what students know by heart, healthy play and movement experiences, beautiful recitation of poetry and many other forms of learning that are multi-sensory experiences. Therefore, when students are taught a traditional phonics approach in second grade, they have a deep foundation to aid in the reading process.
The Importance of Movement in Learning
In the early twentieth century, Rudolf Steiner, the creator of Waldorf education, emphasized the three faculties of walking, speaking and thinking (in that order) for their importance in healthy development and all learning (1). Waldorf educators understand that walking and coordinated movement requires a strong sense of proprioception (awareness of the position and movement of the body) and balance, among many other capacities. Walking, the ability to command one’s body in defiance of gravity, is a complex developmental milestone which signifies a new sense of spatial relationships which is critical to the learning process. The proprioceptive system is further developed by activities in the Waldorf early childhood classroom such as circle time, sweeping and pushing a wheelbarrow (2). Thus, the physical foundation for learning is being built through imitating the teacher’s purposeful movements.
Waldorf educators know that when children engage in these activities, nerve endings that develop spatial relationships are stimulated, which prepares students to sit still in class, remember the shapes of letters and numbers, and other important activities.
Of course, this proprioceptive capacity and sense of self in relationship to others is also needed for a child’s healthy social learning throughout the school years and beyond.
Furthermore, Waldorf teachers understand the importance of developing fine and gross motor movement skills for writing and reading. In the early childhood classroom, activities such as cutting food for snacks, drawing with crayons, sewing, and modeling with beeswax help develop fine motor skills for smooth writing experiences.
Other gross movement activities such as cross-lateral skipping help develop the connecting “bridge” of the brain that orchestrates the processes between the left and right hemispheres of the brain (3), which is not fully developed until seven or nine years of age (2). This bilateral brain integration is critical for whole-word recognition and decoding words, two essential reading skills. Additionally, rhythmic exercises are an integral part of early childhood and early grades classrooms, as moving in rhythm teaches children to be aware of rhythm in literary works and to internalize the beat when they are being read to (4). Therefore, developing healthy movement patterns is a major focus of the Waldorf early childhood classroom in preparation for literacy learning.
Thoughtfully and Gradually Building Retention and Comprehension
In addition to the importance of healthy movement in brain development and learning, the Waldorf approach to literacy follows the course of literacy development throughout human history: oral learning (speaking and listening), then writing (as in hieroglyphics), and only then reading. This progression and sequence or order of skills (movement, speaking and listening as precursors to reading and writing) supports a child’s development because it strengthens inherent skills aforementioned, and only then introduces writing skills which are the next step toward developing a broad understanding of literacy. Children taught in this sequence have a better understanding of the meaning of print and will come to the task of reading with purpose, comprehension, and confident engagement.
For millennia, humans relied on oral traditions for learning. In fact, storytelling remains one of the most effective tools for teaching (5), and it is indeed one of the most important learning methodologies used by Waldorf educators. Early childhood educators cultivate a love of language in their students through playful nursery rhymes, poems, songs, and stories all spoken with beautiful articulation and vocabulary.
Through listening to these imaginative, engaging stories and subsequent story recall activities such as student retelling, drama and drawing, language comprehension is strengthened and the repetition of these stories develops memory, attention, and retention. Moreover, students develop a sense of narrative structure and style and the rhythm of language. Students make meaning of what they hear using their imaginations and non-verbal memory to construct their own pictures of the story while expanding their oral vocabulary. Thus, because students need to first develop word meanings and a broad understanding of language, listening and speaking are central to Waldorf nursery and kindergarten programs and continue to be a focus of language learning from the first day of first grade.
Research demonstrates the benefits of early emphasis on oral, narrative listening and comprehension skills, which are predictive of expository reading level and provide a basis for students to develop listening and reading skills for different genres of text (6). In addition, listening comprehension skills are a strong predictor of reading comprehension skills in later grades (7). The varieties of formal and informal language used in poems, stories, texts, songs, and by teachers when speaking in the Waldorf early childhood and first grade classroom is rich and varied, preparing students to more easily access complex texts when reading independently.
Furthermore, listening to and reciting poems, songs, and tongue twisters builds on the phonemic awareness (awareness of the sounds of language) that students have already acquired (8) in the early childhood years. Then, in first grade, letters are introduced along with the varied sounds of each as students become familiar with the basic phonological and morphological arrangements of letter-sound relationships. This progression of literacy skills in the Waldorf curriculum aligns with a fundamental connection between printed letters and speech sounds that are developed in the brain by practice with associating the visual information of speech with the mental representations of printed letters (9).
Additional research suggests that there is an interactive relationship between phonemic awareness and early reading skills such as those where students develop reading skills from personal experiences and oral language (10).
The Waldorf early grades curriculum is rich in phonological awareness and emphasizes holistic literacy skills along with informal print writing to give students a stronger basis for formal print reading.
Current research supports the idea that teachers can improve reading skills by having students write about what they are reading, teaching them writing skills, and increasing how much they write (11). In the Waldorf first grade classroom, writing the letters of the alphabet emerges from daily imaginative stories thus giving students a meaningful basis for linking printed letters with sounds (as in the early relationships to humans with hieroglyphics). Students write simple words that they know, and gradually the skill of writing words and recognizing word families is used to build simple sentences. The beginning skill of associating sounds with letters guides students to sound out and read basic words, and emphasis on the morphology of words (such as the meanings that come from prefixes and suffixes) gives students access to meaning as they attempt to sound out words in more complex texts. Later in first grade and in second grade, Waldorf students are introduced to word families such as “ag” and “at” and encouraged to build reading from a basis of sound-to-letter(s) relationships. The emphasis on students writing letters, words, and phrases that they know increases confidence and this propels them deeper into literacy learning.
All of this deep, elaborate learning and processing leads to better memory retention. Students process the shapes of letters and words least deeply, the sounds of letters and words more deeply, and the meanings of words most deeply (12). In addition, research supports the Waldorf approach of integrating movement skills with visual skills which link action and perception to enhance letter recognition and knowledge to prepare children for visual reading tasks (13).
Indeed, current trends of emphasis on academic tasks in non-Waldorf early childhood classrooms (preschool through grade one) are not well supported by research or by early childhood experts (14). Furthermore, recent research indicates that early reading gains dissipate by the end of first grade (17). In fact, current brain-based evidence supports a generous balance between play and academic work in early childhood and highlights the harm that can be done when academics are emphasized (15) or when reading is expected too soon (16), or earlier than when the brain is truly ready to read, which is around seven to nine years old (2).
The Importance of Play and Social-Emotional Health in Learning
Waldorf early childhood classrooms are largely play-based, and these activities further strengthen the foundation for literacy learning as well as executive function development. Current research is uncovering the crucial functions that play and social-emotional learning have in preparing children to engage with literacy.
In the Waldorf approach, play is essential to the social, emotional, behavioral, and cognitive development of children when they engage and interact with the world around them through self-initiated, imaginative and playful experiences. In an academic sense, play helps children adjust to the school setting, thereby fostering school engagement.
Play enhances children’s learning readiness, learning behaviors, and problem-solving skills.
In addition, play and recess may increase children’s capacity to store new information, as their cognitive capacity is enhanced when they are offered a drastic change in activity (18). Current research also shows that children’s executive functions and social-emotional learning are fundamental to academic success (21), and play is an important practice ground for the development of executive function skills. School environments that foster executive functioning emphasize caring adult-child relationships that guide children from complete dependence on adult support to gradual assumption of the “executive” role for themselves. Thus, early education policies that primarily emphasize literacy instruction are missing an important opportunity to increase their effectiveness by including attention to the development of executive functioning skills. Indeed, there is also evidence that emerging executive function skills contribute to early reading and math achievement during the pre-kindergarten years and into kindergarten (21).
Furthermore, recent research indicates that a teacher’s emotional support during preschool has a positive effect on children’s reading attitudes, which in turn has a positive effect on their reading and vocabulary learning outcomes in later grades (19). The emphasis on warmth and loving relationships in the Waldorf early childhood classrooms and in the grades (in which class teachers remain with their students for eight years) are consistent with these findings. As teachers and students develop strong relationships in the grades, literacy learning continues with beautiful speech recitation, many modes of writing, drama experiences (20), several public speaking experiences in school-wide assemblies and presentations, and other artistic experiences that further enhance literacy learning.
Even with all the above-mentioned modes of learning, it is possible that a minority of children will still struggle with reading. While most Waldorf students are reading by third grade, Waldorf schools screen for reading difficulties early, regularly, and informally so as not to trigger anxiety in students or parents. Teachers take an active role in developing individualized intervention activities and assist struggling readers to focus on and improve reading skills, all in the context of lessons that ground students in the purpose of and engagement with reading.
In summary, the unique philosophy of Waldorf literacy learning includes careful development of movement, listening and speaking, and play and imagination. All of this forms a mindfully tended, fertile ground for literacy learning and all future learning.
In this context, Waldorf students build a rich fund of literacy knowledge that includes a strong vocabulary and the ability to focus attention on stories while listening or reading. In addition, students develop the ability to attend to the structure and details of information while reading to gain the most meaning from texts and to leverage that knowledge when writing both academically and creatively. Literacy development in Waldorf schools cultivates awareness, appreciation, and skill in both the spoken and written word, following a developmentally sound approach that helps to ensure that students claim a love of literature, language and writing as part of their birthright.
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