Reading

Myth Busting: How Reading is Taught in a Waldorf School

waldorf reading

Photo by Lord Marmalade

Soon after I discovered Waldorf education, I had a conversation with a friend whose daughter, like my son, was approaching kindergarten age. We lived in Los Angeles, where getting one’s child into the “right” kindergarten had as much significance as getting accepted to Harvard or Yale.

“Have you considered the Waldorf school?” I asked her.

“Oh, we looked at it, but ruled it out because they don’t believe in books. We are a family of readers,” she emphasized.

I was taken aback. Did my friend think that my husband I, both college graduates, didn’t value books or reading?

I knew that reading wasn’t formally taught in a Waldorf kindergarten, and I’d heard that children created their own textbooks, but in all my research, I’d never heard that Waldorf schools were anti-books. I would soon learn that this was one of many common misconceptions about Waldorf education.

In the coming years, I not only enrolled my son in the Waldorf school, but I also enrolled myself in Waldorf teacher training and came to a deeper understanding of how reading is taught. I hope that the insights I’ve gained will help some of you who may be considering Waldorf education.

Blackboard Drawing by Allen Stovall

The Evolution of Language

In the evolution of humanity, spoken language developed first. Then came written language, originally through symbols (think hieroglyphics). Finally, once there was a written language, people learned to read.

This is exactly the sequence in which children master language, and so is the sequence in which reading is taught in Waldorf education. From birth to age seven, the focus is on the spoken word.

The children hear stories – nursery rhymes, nature stories, folktales and fairy tales. Teachers are careful to use the original language of fairy tales without “dumbing them down” or simplifying the language. The teacher is careful to use clear speech and to enunciate. This will help children later when it comes time to learn to write and spell.

In early childhood, language is taught through story time and circle time: songs, verses, rhymes and poems are all incorporated. It may look like play, but language skills are being developed daily.

Repetition

Because the same circle time sequence is repeated daily for 2-3 weeks at a time, children learn the songs and verses “by heart,” and will retain them for life.

Rudolf Steiner, founder of Waldorf education, stressed the importance of repetition when he developed the first Waldorf school in Germany in the 1920’s. Current brain research confirms that repetition aids a child’s brain development. The connections of billions of neural pathways in the brain are strengthened through repeated experiences.

Speaking

A visitor to a Waldorf kindergarten might notice the children are not being taught the ABC’s. They are not given worksheets, nor do they practice reading from books. But we Waldorf teachers know that language skills are being built through the repetition of stories, songs and verses. We are preparing children to read and write through the spoken word.

On the other hand, that same observer is likely to be impressed by the children’s precocious verbal abilities; their impressive vocabulary, and the number of poems and stories that they can recite by heart.

In addition to our work with speech, we work on building a child’s fine motor skills—through activities such drawing, finger knitting and sewing—to prepare children for the next stage of language development: writing.

Writing

It is during first grade in a Waldorf School when the alphabet is formally introduced, but in an imaginative, pictorial way. Think again of hieroglypics. Each letter of the alphabet is introduced as a symbol, representing an element from a story the children are told. For example, they might hear the story of a knight on a quest who had to cross mountains and a valley. The children will then draw a picture with the letter “M” forming the Mountains on either side of the “V” for Valley.

Waldorf Reading

Blackboard Drawing by Allen Stovall

In this way, the child develops a living relationship with each letter and the written word. It is not dry and abstract. Writing is taught in a way that engages the child’s imagination.

After learning all the letters, the next step is to copy the teacher’s writing. Typically the children will recite a poem together until it is learned by heart.

Then the teacher will write the poem on the board, and the children will copy it into their “main lesson books,” the books that children in a Waldorf school create themselves.

Because the children already know the poem and they have learned the alphabet, they will begin to make connections. “Oh, this must spell “brown bear” because both these words start with “B” and those are the first two words of the poem!”

waldorf-reading

Reading

The final step is learning to read, which generally starts in second grade and continues into third grade.

It is important to know that reading requires decoding skills that develop in children at varying ages. In Waldorf education we understand that learning to read will unfold naturally in its own time when a child is given the proper support.

Just as a normal, healthy child will learn to walk without our teaching her, and just as a child miraculously learns to speak her native language by the age of three without lessons, worksheets or a dictionary, so will a child naturally learn to read when she has a positive relationship with the spoken and written word.

Books

Yes, it is true that early readers and textbooks are generally not used in Waldorf education. Instead, the children are fed real literature starting in the earliest years.

Once students are fully reading, they turn to original source texts such as classic literature and biographies, and students will read many great books throughout their grade school years.

What they avoid are early readers of the “See Spot run” variety, and dry, lifeless textbooks.

My Children

It can be hard to trust that this system works, especially when your child’s public school peers are reading at 5, 6 or 7. But I offer you the example of my two sons.

My younger son Will taught himself to read in kindergarten; my older son Harper wasn’t fully reading until third grade. Yet, for each of them, once the decoding skill was unlocked, they became voracious and insatiable readers, consuming piles of books for pleasure throughout their childhood. In high school, Harper scored in the 98th percentile for reading on the SAT.

The age at which they learned to read had no bearing on their lifetime love of reading. However, I believe that the way they were educated had everything to do with it.

Thinking again of my old friend, I wish I knew then what I know now, and could have corrected her misguided perception. Perhaps her children, like mine, might have reaped the bounteous fruits of Waldorf education.

Are your children in a Waldorf school? Are you a Waldorf homeschooler? Considering Waldorf education? Is your child reading yet? Are you concerned about late reading? I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments!

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86 Comments

  • Reply Lisa Pond June 6, 2011 at 1:49 pm

    Thank you so much for posting this information about reading, my son is in the First grade at a Waldorf Charter school. My parents are very angry that I have my child in this school and he can not read. They feel it is a problem and a horrible thing to do to my child. My child is amazing because he is Waldorf educated. I have explained the information you have given and they can not see it. I am just happy to read your post to remind myself what the Waldorf education is great!

    Thanks Lisa

    • Reply Ramona von Moritz November 19, 2011 at 4:24 pm

      Hello, Lisa…I am a semi-retired Waldorf teacher who now substitutes in pre-school through 7th grade at a Waldorf school. I recently had the experience of subbing in a fourth grade, where a girl had just come from another school and had been reading since kindergarten….one of the other girls in the class was telling me about a book she was reading, and how much she was enjoying it, when the new girl loudly interrupted her to say, “I’m reading ALL the classics. My parents bought them ALL. I’m on Number 21.” This she uttered, in all seriousness, with a very superior air. The title of the current book she was reading, when I asked about it, had slipped her mind, as had all of the previous titles but one…even so, she was inordinately proud of how many she had consumed…consumed, but not cherished or remembered…I have experienced similar episodes with many children not taught in Waldorf schools. Even with some home-schooled children.

      In my experience, Waldorf children (and their parents) are like another tribe of human beings altogether…a group of caring, responsible, reliable human beings who have a sense for what is right and good, and who learn to love each other and help each other. All while learning, even if rather “late”…how to read….

      I met a Vietnam veteran one day in the grocery store a few years ago, and we struck up a conversation. He was giving lectures to students, all through the country, in grade schools through universities, on the true history of the Vietnam War. He had just come from giving a lecture at Skidmore. He was depressed about the state of education, and children and young people in general. He was so down, that I tried to encourage him, speaking enthusiastically about the children I worked with, and my hope for the future. He said, “You must work in a Waldorf school.” He then proceeded to tell me that in his many years of giving these lectures, the only children he had ever met who gave him hope for the future were Waldorf children!!

      Be strong, Lisa, and keep up your enthusiasm for what is right…not what is popular!!! I applaud you and support you all the way!!!

      sincerely, and with great hope for the future,
      Ramona von Moritz

  • Reply Sarah Baldwin June 6, 2011 at 2:06 pm

    One thing to point out to them, Lisa, is that when children are pushed to read too early (as so many are these days) it can lead to frustration and anxiety if a child’s brain isn’t yet wired to do the decoding that’s necessary for reading. Children are apt to be turned off to reading or, worse, think that they’re dumb. They’re not; they’re just young!

    In Waldorf education, reading is allowed to unfold when the time is right, which can be a wide range of ages, as evidenced by my two children. Both of my boys are very bright, academically successful and voracious readers. The fact that my younger son learned to read in kindergarten and my older son in third grade has made no difference.

    What has made a difference is that because they grew to love words and language in early childhood, and because neither was pushed before they were ready, they have grown up love books and read voraciously. Reading is viewed as pleasure, and not a chore.

    Trust your instincts. Your parents will learn in time that your child was not at a disadvantage, and they’ll wonder how he grew to be so creative and intellectually curious!

  • Reply Anita Sacco June 6, 2011 at 5:48 pm

    This is an excellent piece of writing to explain reading and Waldorf education. My daughter is going to be 23 years old this year and I taught her reading based on Waldorf education many, many years ago. She graduated third in her class in high school, received a full academic scholarship to a major university, graduated with a Bachelors in Education in three years, received a teaching position right after graduation and continued to earn her Masters in Education the following year. She will be teaching in her third year come this fall. I am not bragging, just giving real life “proof” that the concepts of Waldorf work…they truly do. Twenty plus years ago, I finally decided that I couldn’t explain the concept to people who didn’t want to really understand. So I didn’t try to and just kept following the path that I knew was right for my child. Thank you for your website and your blog.

    • Reply Sarah Baldwin June 6, 2011 at 5:54 pm

      Thanks, Anita.

      As I mentioned in the piece, my eldest, who didn’t start reading until third grade, scored in the 98th percentile for reading and writing on his SAT in high school. He just finished his freshman year of college, where he is studying filmmaking with a 3.9 GPA. More importantly, his professors love his original an creative thinking. (Typical for Waldorf grads.)

      It’s easy for those of us who have lived through it and witnessed the fruits to trust that the system works!

  • Reply Lisbeth Whitney June 6, 2011 at 6:37 pm

    Sarah, Thank you for this post! It reassures me that we are still on the right path for Michael though he is slower to grasp reading and arithmetic than many of the other 3rd graders. It is hard to remain patient and continue to have faith when the rest of the world is pushing for the main stream method, which I deeply know would be the wrong path for him at this point of his life. We have been at our Waldorf School long enough to have seen older children with similar experiences just bloom into readers and mathematicians as they have moved on into the 5th, 6th and even 7th grades.

  • Reply Kim Lewis June 6, 2011 at 8:20 pm

    Hi Sarah,

    I think it’s better framed when we say that Waldorf education does teach reading, it’s just that we teach it in a more enlightened way, a way that has proved successful. Most people think of reading education in one way: formal instruction. That happens to be inappropriate for most children in preschool and kindergarten. What IS appropriate and necessary is the living word, shared not just through verses, songs and stories, but also through conversations about activities and being together, relating. I don’t think most people understand that the longer a country puts off formal instruction, the higher the literacy rates of the country. In other words, the countries with the highest literacy rates are also the countries that delay formal instruction. Lisa, maybe you can share that with your parents. It takes a lot of confidence in the children’s emerging capacities to let them be where they are without pushing them into something they aren’t mature enough for.

    • Reply Sarah Baldwin June 6, 2011 at 8:34 pm

      Thanks for the excellent additions, Kim. There is so much more that can be said about how parents can can support reading education.

      For example:

      “Sing to your baby; talk to your children; tell them stories; have family conversations at mealtimes, and read your children books, books and more books!”

      All of which will develop a child’s love of language and the eventual desire to read.

      So interesting to note the higher literacy rates in countries that delay formal instruction. Thanks for adding that!

  • Reply Nicole Justice June 6, 2011 at 8:26 pm

    I love this post, thank you for doing this. I have had so many people- when sharing that I want to do Waldorf homeschooling- tell me that Waldorf is anti-reading. Now I have a great response!

  • Reply Alison June 6, 2011 at 9:25 pm

    My son does NOT go to Waldorf, he is in grade 1. He has ben struggling with reading in the regular school system – although he is fantastic at math (yes there are 210 seconds in 3 and a half minutes sweetie). I think he would have benefited from being taugh this way, especially as he complains about how boring school is. Do you think it is too late to try this approach with himÉ Maybe over the summerÉ Sorry I am on a french keyboard and the question marks come out as as french letters.

    • Reply Sarah Baldwin June 6, 2011 at 10:56 pm

      Alison,
      My suggestion would be to let him relax about reading over the summer. Give him a break from any stress or anxiety he might have felt during the school year over it. Read books with him or to him. If he mentions it, assure him that he will learn to read when he is ready.

      That said, once a child is beginning to learn to read, it’s important to be aware signs of dyslexia or struggles learning to read, especially if dyslexia runs in the family. Teachers will usually be alert to this. But I wouldn’t worry if your child is a first grader, and a teacher hasn’t mentioned any concerns.

  • Reply Leigh June 6, 2011 at 9:38 pm

    thank you for the thoughtful post. I love the way that reading is taught in the Waldorf method. However I have a question from the other end. My 4 year old is asking me about sounds and letters and she sounds things out and reads simple words and sentences. I’m not sure what to do because I DON’T want to introduce the early readers, or push academics on her. But I also want to honor her curiosity and her own path. I don’t want to do nothing because I want to be a support for her and give her something so that I can join her at this point. I didn’t read until I was 8 and I am a lover of words, so I was very prepared for a late reader. I’m not sure what to do with an early reader.

    • Reply Sarah Baldwin June 6, 2011 at 11:13 pm

      I’m glad you asked this question, Leigh. My opinion differs from that of some of my colleagues who feel that a child should be protected from learning to read to early. What I’ve always advised parents in this situation is a phrase I learned in La Leche League in regards to weaning: “Don’t offer, don’t refuse.”

      This means, don’t start buying flashcards and workbooks before a child has shown any interest in reading, just because you (or someone else) thinks it’s time the child learn to read. On the other hand, when a child begins to show an interest in words and how to spell them, that indicates that her brain is developing toward that eventual decoding process. So, don’t refuse. If a child asks how to spell a word, tell her! But don’t assume because she’s asking that now it’s time to break out the workbooks. There’s a slow and natural progression that starts with wanting to write words, to learning to read printed words on a page. It can take up to a couple of years. Just give the child as much information as she’s asking for. She knows what she needs!

      As I mentioned, my younger son taught himself to read, and was reading fluently in kindergarten without having been taught. One day I was lying on my bed reading a book, and he read the title out loud: “Digestive Wellness.” It blew our minds! I asked him how he learned to read. He told me that he just figured it out after having been read to so regularly. The decoding just happened for him, as if overnight. He was an early reader, and there was nothing we could do to turn it off.

      It happened in a similar way for my other son in third grade. He was still struggling to recognize words early in third grade, then at one point mid-year, it was as if someone flipped a switch and suddenly he could read anything you put in front of him. Once that decoding happens, assuming that you haven’t turned a child off to reading by pushing her before she’s ready, she’ll usually just take off!

      • Reply LindaLion June 21, 2011 at 4:33 am

        I do like your “Don’t offer, don’t refuse” approach. A friend had her daughter in a Waldorf kindergarten with a very strict teacher (I call them Anthropops with a capital A) who discouraged her from answering her child’s questions about reading and spelling. The child lost interest as a result, and really only started reading properly in grade 5. I think the child’s interest is a good benchmark.

      • Reply Carla November 18, 2011 at 6:06 pm

        I wanted to comment on this because I have also run into it. My 4.5 y old daughter is in a Waldorf Kindergarten. She has shown extensive interest in books from the earliest age – I have pictures and videos of her, turning pages of picture books when she could just about sit up straight. I love books and my house is full of them so it was just always something around. Real books I mean, not learning-to-read ones etc. By age 2 she knew all the letters, just from asking. So I really support the “answer their questions” approach. She would stand in front of a sign on the playground and ask me what this or the other letter was, and I’d answer.
        This being said, she didn’t start putting letters together to words until past 4 years, and I think that really confirms the “flip the switch” idea. I never pushed her and this is when she was ready by herself. She has good visual memory so she would “recognize” quite a few words before that, but not read/decipher them. I just sat back and watched, and now she surprises me with long words she can read, and she reads in all 3 languages that she speaks although because of the sometimes irreglular English phonetics, that is the trickiest one.
        I am most certainly not a fan of the “don’t tell them” approach, but I also don’t believe in pushing them too early. It gives them such pride and confidence, glow in their eyes, when they have really figured it out by themselves. And Waldorf is really great with that, I think.

  • Reply Brandy June 7, 2011 at 12:44 am

    Thank you for such a well written post. I feel I have a better understanding of the process now. I would love to read more information on the decoding process that happens as a step towards reading. Any suggestions?

  • Reply Allen Stovall June 7, 2011 at 2:37 am

    This is definitely a contentious issue which, as I witnessed in my year of teaching Grade One at a small Waldorf School, can divide families and even cause tension among Waldorf children, especially if they have friends and peers who attend public school. Within my small class of only ten children, reading skills varied from advanced (for a 7-year old) to absolute beginner. The challenge was daunting, of finding and keeping a balance in daily lessons which would hold the readers’ interest while simultaneously trying to maintain a slower pace for the benefit of the non-readers. The key to striking such a balance was through a daily immersion in, and a full integration of, the arts– the art of the spoken word, the art of the written word, the art of Eurythmy (when we were fortunate enough to have a Eurythmy teacher), the art of singing as well as instrumental music, but most of all the visual arts. My class loved, on a daily basis, to draw illustrations in block crayon from the many stories I presented– some integrated math lessons, some language arts lessons, some Nature stories, and some were drawing for the sake of drawing. Most of the time they equally enjoyed writing and drawing in their workbooks on subjects ranging from arithmetic to insects to foreign languages (German and French, in this case) as well their own native language. Once a week there was also wet-in-wet watercolor painting, but the weekly session they looked forward to with special anticipation was beeswax sculpting. Those children created some amazing, very original pieces in beeswax.

    To tie all of the above rambling together and bring it back to the subject at hand: Grade One students of every reading level, from advanced to beginner, can find common ground, excitement and full engagement in the Arts, especially in the manner which Waldorf schools engage. And it is through this seamless weaving of language and the Arts that the foundation of a life-long love of reading can be subtly but effectively laid, without forcing the children into an artificial and very regimented structure.

  • Reply Shayne Jackman June 7, 2011 at 7:03 am

    Thank you Sarah – it is always great to be reminded of why we do the things we do! I have a hand drawn Steiner/Waldorf inspired alphabet book available on the website I’ve listed here, called ‘Old Freedom Train’. It comes with a little nursery rhyme, song or verse for each letter to re-inforce the heart connection children make with each “heiroglyph”. ‘A’ is an angel, ‘E’ is an elephant, ‘J’ is a jug, ‘L’ is lantern, etc. It’s so important for children to have an experience of the symbols of our alphabet that is more than just memorising an abstract symbol. The heart connection they make with these “pictures” is truly deep and long lasting.

  • Reply Shayne Jackman June 7, 2011 at 7:04 am

    Oh – and the website is http://www.oldfreedomtrain.com.au :)

  • Reply Earth Mama June 7, 2011 at 12:58 pm

    My oldest wasn’t reading at all until the summer after third grade. She was almost 9! I worried (as all mamas do at times), but at heart I knew she sould get it in her own time. The kicker for us…was piano lessons. We do suzuki, and as soon as we started lessons, my 10 year old and my 6 year old began to read. I have been learning a lot about how different parts of the brain can be naturally coaxed and nurtured into place to have bigger steps achieved. Amazing!! Really!! Such a great post Sarah!

    :)Lisa

  • Reply Alex June 7, 2011 at 10:21 pm

    Hi Sarah
    I’d like to share this article with the readers of phillywaldorf blog, so I posted a link. Hope you don’t mind.
    Alex

    • Reply Sarah Baldwin June 8, 2011 at 8:04 am

      Share away, Alex! The reason I write these posts is to spread the word about Waldorf education, and to deepen people’s understanding of it.

      As long as I am credited as the author with a link to this site, I am honored to have you share it.

  • Reply Karyn @kloppenmum June 8, 2011 at 3:42 am

    Fabulous, fabulous post. Thanks so much for this. As parents who chose to send their children to a Waldorf school – we are on the receiving end of lots of ‘interesting’ comments. Mostly about the delays in learning to read. This post has helped to explain the approach immensely.

    • Reply Sarah Baldwin June 8, 2011 at 8:05 am

      Thank you, Karyn. Nothing makes me happier to hear!

  • Reply Flic June 8, 2011 at 8:57 am

    Thank you for this post. I have 3 year old twins and a 1 year old and I have been lucky enough not to have to put them in childcare, or (so far) push them into formal kindergarten. I want so much to let my children learn and discover the world around them on their terms – we live on a rural property and we have loads of fun checking out trees, flowers, rocks, spiders, lizards, birds etc.

    I was introduced to Steiner by a couple of friends and have quizzed them at length on it. Everything about it has appealed to me (not sure I have my husband over the line just yet…) and I want our girls to attend our local school. Funny thing is, every time I mention it to anyone else, I get absolutely pummeled about how it is ‘just a bunch of hippies’ and ‘your kids won’t be able to read – you have been warned!!!’. I am still researching, but each time I lean towards this. And I am so saddened by friends around me who are pushing their clearly not ready kids into formal schooling. It just makes me worry that kids are pushed because of someone elses agenda (teachers, parents, policy makers or otherwise)and what damage they are doing.

    One thing I love is that my girls have a wonderful fascination of books and even like to make up their own stories for each other. They can’t read yet, and I am not at all worried. We paint, draw, do playdoh, build with blocks, and generally have a wonderful time doing it. I wish all parents were able to enjoy their little ones like I have been able to.

  • Reply Sarah Baldwin June 8, 2011 at 12:13 pm

    You are doing all the right things, Flic! Trust your instincts, and don’t listen to others who don’t have a first-hand knowledge of Waldorf education. If you’re concerned that your children won’t learn to read, talk to parents of Waldorf grads (or read some of the responses here).

    There is so much misinformation about Waldorf education out in the world, based on hearsay and uninformed opinions. My goal with this blog is to dispel some of those rumors.

    If I had listened to my friend 15 years ago, and believed her statement that Waldorf schools were “anti-books,” and turned my back on Waldorf education, my children would have missed having the most amazing education that has turned them into lifelong lovers of learning.

    Just remember to listen to your heart. Your mothering instinct will rarely lead you astray.

  • Reply Holly June 9, 2011 at 7:30 pm

    Thank you sincerely for sharing this, Sarah! Your photos and personal stories are just what I needed to hone my own understanding. This article may also prove useful as a resource to my family members who are confused by our choice to follow the Waldorf path.

  • Reply puppyloveprincess June 12, 2011 at 12:17 pm

    lovely post and lovely blog. thanks so much for sharing!

  • Reply Julie June 12, 2011 at 8:51 pm

    I homeschooled my son with a Waldorf-based curriculum for first and second grades. A divorce necessitated my return to work, and he entered public school for third grade. They were reading and writing cursive. My son had a fantastic vocabulary, and caught up quickly. He was recognized by his teacher as her “most improved” student. Whatever.

  • Reply JS June 14, 2011 at 5:28 pm

    Much of waldorf education resonates with me, and I really appreciate your articulate explanation about reading philosophy. But i am often stuck on this one point: where does the child with special needs fit in Waldorf education? Especially a child with an intellectual disability? Are Waldorf schools inclusive? Or are home education or the segregated special needs Waldorf school in PA the only options?

  • Reply Christine Natale June 16, 2011 at 9:08 am

    Lovely article, Sarah!

    I recently discovered some interesting information on our local public school district’s website. Their stated protocol is to have children reading by the end of third grade! Where people have gotten the idea that public school children actually read in first or even second grade, I just don’t know.

    I wrote an article on Waldorf Reading, too. It’s fairly long and certainly dovetails with and confirms your points here. I haven’t actually published it, but it is stored on the internet here:

    The Waldorf Approach to Reading
    http://community.eons.com/uploads/0/7/07499568_The_Waldorf%20Approach%20to%20Reading.pdf

    I think it is very important to emphasize that we DO teach reading just, as you have said so well, in a different way.

    Christine

  • Reply Christine Natale June 16, 2011 at 9:15 am

    PS – I also believe viz children who seem to “naturally” read early, that considering the idea of reincarnation many children are “born knowing how to read.” Looking at the development of western society over the past 150 to 200 years, we can say that it is possible that we are seeing younger generations who were literate in their former lifetime for the first time in history. Reading is no longer a foreign activity that has to be “beaten into” them (as in the middle ages!) They do access the former ability just as many do music and art. Also, most western children are now being born to literate parents. Reading is an “activity” that they see everyone around them doing, like walking and talking, and they bring their imitative impulses to it. It is more natural for a modern child to imitate reading than plowing a field or raking hay. : )

  • Reply Christine Natale June 16, 2011 at 9:23 am

    PPS – sorry, I forgot to say –

    Just because our children have this “natural” affinity, it doesn’t mean that we should exploit it in an intellectual way. Allowing them to re-connect with reading through poetry, stories, drama, puppetry, painting, drawing, movement and whole language integration brings the experience and the ability to deeper levels. Even children who can read in Kindergarten or First Grade are more than able to live into the enjoyment of the stories, poems and beauty of exploring the letters in our artistic way. When issues do arise, most times it is because of misunderstandings on the part of parents and a conflict between them, with one parent allowing the child to witness their lack of support for the process. In such a situation, the child cannot relax and enjoy the process but is always feeling conflicted about their school experience. It is vital that Waldorf teachers really are able to speak to the more “intellectually” oriented parents about the process and the long term goals and recognized achievements.

  • Reply HomeGrownLife June 26, 2011 at 10:50 pm

    What a lovely and encouraging post. We are mostly Charlotte Mason homeschoolers with a real fondness for Waldorf philosophies. My second child- a boy of nearly 8- is just starting to decode. I am trying to trust my instincts but have fears and pressures weighing in on me. This post really helped me to focus on not rushing the ‘timeline’ and following our instincts when it comes to our children and home education.

  • Reply Diana June 30, 2011 at 1:56 am

    Sarah, with your insight as a Waldorf teacher in training, how would you compare it to Montessori schools? We don’t have Waldorf schools in our area, but Montessori schools abound.

  • Reply Wooden Toy Shopper July 1, 2011 at 10:08 am

    hey sarah, this is a very insightful post. if there was a Waldorf school in my area, its where i’d send my kids to.

    i’ve always believed that school shouldn’t just be about books and worksheets handed down by insituitions to fulfill a standardized, template-based government-approved curriculum. every kid is different, just like you said, different kids unlock these decoding skills at different times at their own pace,. it doesnt surprise me that most children these days in public schools find reading or writing tedious and boring – it’s because they have been taught that way!

    for me, it’s the way language is taught that appeals to me. the beauty of language, the sounds, the images they conjure, it makes children appreciate the art of meaning and communciation at a very young age. no wonder your children became insatiable readers themselves.
    excellent post.

  • Reply cynthia aldinger July 4, 2011 at 6:49 pm

    Dear Sarah,

    We have interesting parallels when it comes to our sons’ reading journies. We were never quite sure how our eldest learned to read. He just seemed to pick it up when he was around six years old. His younger brother, however, had other interests and was nine years old before he fully learned to read.

    I read and/or told stories to both of our sons every day, and we did our best to create a homelife based upon the ideals of human development espoused by Rudolf Steiner. They each attended a Steiner school when we lived in England while I attended the Waldorf teacher training.

    Both are prolific readers, both ranked close to the top of their high school classes (interestingly the younger one was Salutatorian of his class), and both are very successful in their careers and their relationships.

    Conventional education has seemingly given “deity” status to the skill of reading and has created a fully print-based education system. This is rapidly moving down in age and entering the field of very early childhood through new standard practices expected in early childhood settings, such as child care and preschool.

    Though I do not wish to be negative, I have some concerns that some of these educational decisions are driven by economic interests – more products to sell.

    Thank you, Sarah, (and your readers as well) for being active advocates for the protection of childhood. Any time we can help parents to feel “safe” about giving their children time . . . to explore, listen, and, yes, “play” with words, rhymes, stories, and books, we are supporting their children’s well being and strengthening our culture.

    In gratitude,
    Cynthia

  • Reply Suzan@Cubic Zirconia Place July 5, 2011 at 11:50 pm

    Thanks for posting this. It allows parents to have a deeper understanding of the Waldorf way of teaching. And I agree, Waldorf education is not anti-books. These kindergarten children are taught to read but teachers don’t just focus on the conventional way of teaching the ABC’s. When kids listen to stories, their verbal and reading skills are improved.

  • Reply Jessica Eastman July 6, 2011 at 1:12 pm

    We have a Waldorf-Inspired home and the boys will all be attending our Waldorf school in the fall. The very thing that initially drew me to Waldorf education was the way reading is “taught.” Thinking back to my own lessons in public school inspired me to find a better way for my children. I wanted to avoid the lifeless and stressful drilling and memorization. I knew there was a method out there the would inspire and engage my children’s hearts and turn them into passionate learners. Waldorf is the very thing we were looking for. Thank you for posting this fabulous explanation, and the pictures of the drawings are breathtakingly inspirational.

  • Reply Katie Berryhill July 7, 2011 at 5:08 pm

    My kids are in a Waldorf school. My oldest is now 11 (going into 5th grade). His reading didn’t get fluent until the end of 3rd grade/beginning of 4th, but he now loves reading (we take lots of trips to the library). I knew the world would open up for him when his reading took off, so I was patient and let it happen…and it did! If I (or a teacher) had pushed him before he was ready, he might have been turned off. My youngest (age 7, going into 2nd grade) is a lot more interested in reading than her brother was at that age, so I’m guessing her fluency will take off sooner. But that is precisely the beauty of the Waldorf method…each can achieve reading fluency at their own developmentally appropriate rate without being labelled as a “slow reader” or a “fast reader” (labels that stick with a person for life…just ask any group of adults about their early reading experience and you’ll find those who were labelled early on).

    My nephew just graduated after 14 years of Waldorf education. He started really reading in 3rd grade and became a voracious reader. When reading first clicked for him, he literally went from reading “The Cat in the Hat” to his sister to reading Harry Potter within a month. He’d check books out of the school library and be done with them by morning. The real proof is in the pudding: he got perfect scores on the SATs and early decision admission to a top college.

    Oh, and one more thing…my mother (the grandmother of all three kids mentioned above) earned a master’s degree in elementary education from Harvard and founded a school of education at a college in Pennsylvania. Her master’s thesis was about reading differences between boys and girls. She has called the Waldorf reading readiness method “the finest [she] has ever seen.”

  • Reply Linda July 25, 2011 at 12:46 am

    Hi Sarah, great post, I like Waldorf’s style of teaching. They understand our children, and knows that instead of pressuring them, we should show them the value and fun in reading. The school focuses on teaching children to appreciate reading. I often hear that though it takes some time for the child to learn how to read, they develop a love for reading afterwards. Thank you for the info Sarah, this made me understand and appreciate Waldorf School much more.

  • Reply Claire July 25, 2011 at 2:43 am

    Thank you for sharing about your sons’ reading experiences. My children attended a waldorf school until last year, when we began to homeschool. I have been intentionally very relaxed about any curriculum because I knew we needed to adjust. Now, my 8 yr. old seems interested in reading, but not enough to really work on it. I’m trusting that it will naturally emerge when she is truly ready, but there are moments when I wonder if I’m not doing enough. Please share more about the reading process of your later reader! What did you do to build up to reading? Did the switch just flip one day? Thank you!

  • Reply John August 2, 2011 at 10:27 am

    My wife and I are both licensed elementary teachers and I taught grades K-3 in the public schools. I was attracted to Waldorf education (and convinced my wife to come around) because I disliked the pressure we put on young children to learn to read when so many aren’t ready or interested. It’s well known that, because of politicians criticizing our public schools, the traditional first grade curriculum was moved down to kindergarten, and the traditional kindergarten curriculum was moved down to preschool, and so on (whether children are ready or not).

    However, before we decided on Waldorf, I taught my five-year-old daughter her letters and letter sounds and had her reading simple words by age four. Like many, and for ego reasons I now realize, I dreamed of her being able to read when she entered kindergarten.

    It’s been tough to let that go and wait, and I admit that I have had days when I wanted her to sit down and read “Bob Books” or other easy readers with me. But then she gets frustrated, I get frustrated, and I know that if I continue, I’ll turn her off to reading.

    Your article gives me the encouragement I need to relax until we start school in the fall, when we’ll have the support and encouragement of other Waldorf parents.

    Here’s to letting children be children!

  • Reply Erika August 25, 2011 at 8:43 pm

    Thank you a thousand times for your article. And especially thank you for your previous advice on children who are curious about reading at an early age. Your advice of “Don’t offer, don’t refuse” is perfect. My daughter, who will be six in the fall, has been reading for well over a year now. Last year was her first year of kindergarten homeschooling. Although it was earlier than for most Waldorf students, we worked on the alphabet through stories, poems, and tongue twisters. She was already aware of the symbols and sounds they make, and was able to read some words, but I wanted something more for her, especially at such a young age. I wanted her to feel the magic of unlocking the secrets of letters and words. It was an amazing experience for her, and the timing was perfect (for her.) Despite the fact that we’re slightly ahead of the typical Waldorf schedule, I believe that this is the best way to teach my children. I used to teach Kindergarten (and some upper grades) in a public school, and the kids, especially the Kindies, were just so stressed at such a young age. It was hard to see. I look forward to watching my daughter’s learning path unfold before us this fall and will continue on our Waldorf journey in our own way.

  • Reply Shannon September 16, 2011 at 2:51 am

    Wonderful, informative post Sarah — my husband didn’t quite know what to expect initially, he was new to waldorf education, but after experiencing how the Waldorf method approached reading through my oldest son, he is amazed at the effectiveness. And we are also both so appreciative of the love that my son has for reading, which we know is partly because of how he was taught to do it.

  • Reply Bethany Chaffin November 2, 2011 at 1:02 am

    Dear Sarah,
    Would it be possible for me to repost this wonderfully well written explanation in our newsletter? We have had many parents ask this same question and your explanation is one of the best I had read!!

    Thank you for your consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.

  • Reply Paulina Galindo November 18, 2011 at 8:13 pm

    Hello Sarah,

    We just opened a Waldorf kindergarten near Puerto Vallarta in Bucerías, Nay., and I would love to translate your article to include in our FB and blog web pages, may I?

    Many thanks and blessings from Mexico!
    Paulina.

  • Reply Danielle Epifani November 19, 2011 at 11:34 am

    Thank you for the wonderful explanation. In response to Erika’s post: “She was already aware of the symbols and sounds they make, and was able to read some words, but I wanted something more for her, especially at such a young age. I wanted her to feel the magic of unlocking the secrets of letters and words.” This is really a gift. To know that the sounds and letters/symbols are magic, and have a long history. That the spoken and written word can be delivered with intention- what a gift! While my son went onto public school for formal reading I fondly remember offering him a summer ‘curriculum’ by reading to him The Wise Enchanter. I knew that reading would be taught in a somewhat mechanical way and this story traces the journey of a group of children who travel the world unlocking the mystery of each gathered letter on their quest. Though he was placed a grade ‘behind’ due to lack of pre-academic skills (fine by me), he naturally caught up within 2 mos and the following year in 3rd grade, was reading at a 6th grade level-). To see the world through magic eyes is a gift of childhood worth nourishing.

  • Reply Danielle Epifani November 19, 2011 at 11:35 am

    The Wise Enchanter can be found here:

    http://www.steinerbooks.org/detail.html?id=9780880105620

  • Reply Lisa M. November 20, 2011 at 2:05 pm

    Sarah, I wish someone would do a large scale study on this! I can only add more anecdotal evidence. My daughter who is highly intelligent and was an early talker with a large vocabulary, read spontaneously at age 9 years 3 months (I was amazed to read recently that Steiner stated that children will typically read at 9 years, 3 months if taught via Waldorf methods!). The same month, my younger daughter (then almost 8) also began to read spontaneously. Both girls started to read violin music the same month! My older daughter never read at the “Little Bear” level, she immediately read at or above “grade level”. This year, she took the Iowa tests for the first time at the end of 7th grade and scored in the 98th percentile (highest possible) in reading comprehension and 95th or above in every other reading test. Best of all, she is an avid reader who devours books by the dozen.

  • Reply Marcia January 6, 2012 at 3:32 am

    I recently observed that Waldorf schools may not be meeting the needs of first and second graders very well. It seems to me they could benefit from a hybrid between the Kindergarten and the Lower School classes (gade 3 – 8). I wondered if anyone was incorporating activity centers in addition to the main lesson and specials? Such centers could include a choice between activities such as coached dramatic free play, dictating stories to a volunteer or teacher, craft table time, math, or science activities, or going outdoors for a nature walk etc…?

    • Reply Sarah Baldwin January 27, 2012 at 9:52 pm

      What needs of first and second graders do you feel are not being met in Waldorf school, Marcia? So many of the activities you describe take place (in one form or another) in first and second grade.

  • Reply Shel January 24, 2012 at 6:06 pm

    Hi Sarah, I really loved this post! Reading that today was just what I needed as I have been wondering what to do about my daughter and learning her letters. Even though we have been homeschoolers pretty much since the day she was born (July 2006) we did send her to preschool where even though she was not developmentally ready they introduced her and the rest of the class to upper and lower case letters and their sounds last year (and expected them to write them too). She did not do well, struggled through it and now I have the arduous task of “reprogramming” this. Really we should have pulled her out last year. It’s the one area I have allowed myself to have “mommy guilt” about.

    We have always been “unschoolers with a Waldorf flavor” but we chose to buy the Oak Meadow kindergarten curriculum since I knew that *I* needed a different way to introduce letters and sounds to her beyond how I was taught to do as a teacher (in my life pre-kids) when it comes to teaching letters and sounds. While OM is a nice fit with our family (it doesn’t feel too contrived or schooly when we do use things from the book) she is still struggling with some sounds and letters and I am left thinking that maybe she is infact still not totally ready. I was wondering about your thoughts on this. Given her young age should I just leave well enough alone? Or since she has asked to learn her letters should we continue on and then repeat them again “next year” too? And in the Waldorf world would she be in kindergarten again “next year” (since she only turns six in July) or first grade? Thanks for any thoughts you have on this topic! ♥

    • Reply Sarah Baldwin January 27, 2012 at 9:39 pm

      Hi Shel! Thanks for reposting your comments here.

      First of all, let go of your “mommy guilt.” It serves no constructive purpose at all. As parents, we all make the best decisions we can in the moment, based on the information we have at the time. Experience, and gaining more information, help us make better decisions along the way. If we carefully observe our children, they will teach us what they need.

      As a child turning six in July, your daughter most likely would do another year of kindergarten if she were in a Waldorf school. Traditionally in Waldorf schools, a child must turn six by June to be considered for the next year’s first grade, though more schools seem to be making exceptions these days. (These exceptions seem to made more due to parental pressure or budget needs than for the child’s benefit, in my opinion.)

      As I wrote in my piece, many children under seven aren’t ready yet to do the decoding necessary for reading, and forcing reading prematurely can lead to stress and frustation. Again, observation will clue you in to readiness. If she asks how to spell a word, tell her! But give her only as much as she asks for.
      There is a long progression between a child’s initial interest in learning to spell and her being ready to read.

      I always like to use a phrase I learned from La Leche League that was advice about weaning, but I think is equally applicale to teaching a child to read — “Don’t offer, don’t refuse.”

      If you want more guidance on teaching reading and writing with a Waldorf approach, I suggest you have a look at Christopherus Homeschool Resources, which offers a true Waldorf approach to homeschooling.

      Oak Meadow has a strong Waldorf “flavor” but is a more mainstream approach, and has not been developed out of the Waldorf philosophy.

      Good luck and enjoy the journey!

  • Reply Amara January 25, 2012 at 6:50 am

    Hi sarah,

    through your article you taught me how to be more focus on my daughter’s education. I was inspired by my young daughter, she is very adaptive to the environment and at her young age she has shown many abilities that you could least expected that at her age she can be able to acquire lots of things, so as her parents we want to give her a good education coming from a good and outstanding school.

  • Reply Kestrel January 26, 2012 at 4:38 pm

    This post is very timely. We started out at school with our eldest who is turning 12 this year but chose to withdraw our children from school when she was entering Grade 4. She had already absorbed the “lessons” you describe in your post. Both her father and I, eager keen early readers ourselves, had to learn to trust the process. It made intuitive sense to me but I still worried. I shouldn’t have. She nows gets through novels in a day. Her brother, two years younger and only just finishing Grade 1 after a hard year was more of a challenge. Our first year home schooling was a struggle. His energy could be quite choleric. In the end I left off and let him be. He’s now entering Gr 4, turned 9 in September and like magic, he’s reading. He reads to himself and he reads aloud to his little sisters. Fluently, clearly and working through words I’d not expect him to pronounce correctly first time, like sidled and sinister… Now my third child is beginning her “academic'”journey, she will turn 7 in July and here in Australia the school year runs from February to December. We are all excited. As you have suggested, and other commenters here have, we haven’t been offering and nor have we been refusing. She’s ready to read and write and enthusiastic about “learning” it all. I hope we get it right for her. It’s like watching a blossom just starting to unfurl.

  • Reply Sarah Baldwin January 27, 2012 at 9:48 pm

    Thanks for sharing your experience, Kestrel! It’s so hard not to worry, but perhaps when others read experiences like ours, they will learn to relax and trust the process.

    By the way, my Waldorf educated younger son just took the PSATs for the first time (US examinations for college entrance) and scored 99th percentile for reading and writing, More evidence that the system works!

    Let children play creatively and imaginatively in early childhood. There will be plenty of time to learn to read later, and by allowing them the freedom to be children longer, they are more likely to grow up to be lovers of books.

  • Reply Christine June 5, 2012 at 9:36 pm

    Hi Sarah,
    I moved to Mexico (from NY) with my daughter last year so she could learn Spanish and attend an affordable Steiner school (well, and many other personal reasons!). Since she didn’t know any Spanish when we arrived, she was placed in Kindergarten where there was a bilingual teacher (she was 6 years and 3 months).
    She is set up to continue at the school, but I have concerns about educating her fully in Spanish. Is it not important to get a base in one’s native language first, or at least concurrently? Do you know current Steiner thinking on this?
    The school had promoted itself as bilingual, but turns out it is not. I have concerns about her learning to read a bit later than her peers in mainstream schools, but your post has been helpful. Now I am just looking at learning it all in a language other than her maternal tongue.
    Any insight?
    Thank you,
    Christine.

  • Reply Discovering Waldorf :: Reading in a Waldorf School | The Magic Onions September 8, 2012 at 12:02 am

    […] Discovering Waldorf :: Reading in a Waldorf School Posted on: January 26, 2012 Please enjoy this great article from Sarah Baldwin of Bella Luna Toys on how reading is taught in Waldorf Schools… Myth Busting: How Reading is Taught in a Waldorf School. […]

  • Reply Christine M. December 6, 2012 at 7:07 pm

    Dear Sarah,I loved your article! I have been a Canadian public school teacher for over 20 years and love many things about it. But at the same time, there were so many things that frustrated me. I have always been interested in alternative forms of education, originally Montessori and recently Waldorf. The more I read about it, the more I feel it aligns with my personal beliefs on educating children in a loving, supportive way. Thanks for providing some of the background information on the why and how of the system.

  • Reply Marie December 7, 2012 at 11:17 am

    It was interesting to read all of these very supportive thoughts about the Waldorf approach to reading. Unfortunately, my family has had the exact opposite experience with expensive and lasting consequences for 2 out of 3 of my children. My daughter seemed to just teach herself to read, devouring books from an early age. My sons, however, never learned to read at the Waldorf school. We finally hired a tutor in 6th grade to teach our eldest son to read which he managed to do when taught by a professional. When our second son faced a similar fate, we decided that we couldn’t afford Waldorf tuition plus the cost of tutoring for him to simply require such a basic skill. After 3 months in public school (free!) he was reading at grade level. He was also thrilled not to have to endure eurythmy, handwork, choir, and the same group of kids that he had been with for 7 years.

    I think Waldorf is very teacher and school dependent. When your child gets stuck with an incompetent teacher, one that is responsible for teaching all academic subjects until middle school, your child will face lasting consequences. A key component to future academic success is having excellent teachers who are specialists in their fields. It is also necessary to have math, science and language arts everyday, not just 3 week blocks randomly dispersed throughout the school year. Every Waldorf kid I know that was tested was seriously deficient in math and science, sometimes years behind grade level. Many of my son’s now college age peers did not get into college (3 didn’t graduate from high school), only 2 scored high enough on their SATs to get into our local public university, many suffer from low self-esteem for being seen as “dumb” by the non-Waldorf community, etc… I am thankful that we did not “drink the kool-aid” and managed to get ourselves out of this “school” in time to save our kids.

    In retrospect, we should have sent our kids to Waldorf kindergarten, maybe through 2nd grade. We stayed because we believed we were a part of a supportive community of friends and parents committed to academic excellence. We quietly chose to leave, under the guise of financial hardship. The “community” gave us a good-bye party, thanking us for all the time and energy we had invested in the school (my husband was a board member, I was a parent rep for 6 years for 3 grades, ran auctions, etc). We have never heard from any of these people again. My children are not invited to the “class” parties and the only contact we get is via the annual appeal letter. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that a Waldorf school is anything more than a cult!

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