In a suite of recent studies, Waldorf 8th-grade graduates meet or exceed their public school peers on test scores measuring science, math and reading abilities.

But when parents see no formal phonics reading instruction in a Waldorf Kindergarten, no worksheets in grade one and two, and no early reader books in classrooms, they still worry. Many parents know that there is an active debate going on in education about how best to teach children to read. Some call it the whole language vs. phonics debate.  Others refer to it as a focus on either decoding or comprehension.

Those supporting phonics and decoding often called “text-based instruction,” have as many studies on their side, as does the whole language camp. The theory for text-based, decoding instruction is that you teach children, as young as possible, to decode symbols, associate the said symbols with sounds, and then build to phonemic understanding — relating and correlating phonics into a comprehensive system. Once this is mastered, through repetition and early reader practice, students will have the confidence and skills needed to become proficient readers and learners.

Those supporting whole language instruction claim that decoding can take a backseat until after children reach Piaget’s concrete operational stage. Early reading instruction is instead focused on the things which underpin and enhance literacy — meaningful context and reader motivation. Instruction towards these goals takes on the following forms:

  • Oral reading, listening, and recitation to build a knowledge of vocabulary, listening comprehension skills and word meaning in narrative contexts.
  • Play based storytelling and imitation to encourage story visualization and relatable symbolic understanding.
  • And finally narrative, copying writing and art (used as manipulatives and motivators) to introduce text-based instruction around age seven.

Who is Right and What’s at Stake?

The supporters of decoding have a comprehensive and influential report on their side.  The 2009 report from the National Early Literacy Panel looked at over 500 scientific studies on reading instruction and found, “early literacy skills correlate with later academic achievement.”

The fact is, children taught to decode letters early, read earlier, and early readers, in many cases, have boosted academic success.  But is it the early readers, taught through decoding, that experience that success? Perhaps not. For although children are reading earlier than they ever did before 1990, PISA test scores remain unimpressive. In the latest PISA tests, our earlier readers fell from 9th to 19th in National rankings on reading tests.

As it turns out, there’s more to reading than meets the eye. More specifically, there is the issue of comprehension. While we’re getting more children reading earlier with decoding instruction, they have dreadful comprehension skills.

“Children must master the language of things before they master the language of words” 
Friedrich Froebel, Pedagogics of the Kindergarten, 1895

According to the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 26% of eighth graders and 26% of twelfth graders… “cannot extract the general meaning or make obvious connections between the text and their own experiences or make simple inferences from the text. In other words, they cannot understand what they have read.”  And those results were published when our nation’s PISA reading ranking was 9th and not 19th.

Lisa Guernsey, the Director of the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation and the editor of EarlyEdWatch.org, shares her insight in her article, A Place for Play, which delves into the nuances of reading literacy studies. She asserts that decoding studies are often what’s highlighted and referenced for policy making, even though they represent only a fraction of literacy studies overall.

The reason? Studies on comprehension and other types of instruction are often not “rigorous enough to assure results are not due to outside variables.”  She goes on to say, “Some literacy researchers [feel these] omissions are a shame. “Code is what has been studied,” wrote Susan Neuman, Education Professor at the University of Michigan, in a review of the 2009 National Early Literacy Panel report, “but what we know is that code alone is not going to solve our educational problems.”

Can we blame poor comprehension on early decoding teaching? One representative study from 2012, published by the Early Childhood Research Quarterly, implies it could be a factor. The study found that children taught decoding and text instruction at age five, versus age seven, had, “initially superior letter naming, non-word, word, and passage reading, but this difference in reading skill disappeared by age 11.”  But perhaps more importantly, those given formal reading instruction starting later, “exhibited similar reading fluency [at age 11], but had generally greater reading comprehension.”

In fact, there are many recent studies showing that whole language instruction in the early years boosts comprehension later. Each one highlights how creative play,  storytelling, oral listening comprehension, child-led conceptual teaching, and using motivating manipulatives like toys and art, give children an edge in literacy’s essential “executive function,” “symbolic understanding” and “semantic processing” skills. The further study of these teaching practices may reveal key pieces missing from effective reading instruction.

How Waldorf Educators Teach Reading

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First and foremost, a parent may notice no early reader books in Early Childhood classrooms. The reason for this is simple. Anyone’s achievement, child or adult, is driven by interest, and early reader books are not interesting.

Teacher Nancy Atwell, in her testimonial Telegraph article, “It’s Time to Take a Hard Look at How we Teach reading,” witnessed her classes’ worst reader transform when given reading material that actually interested him. Scientific study reinforces her anecdotal experience. According to The Commission on Reading of the National Council of Teachers of English, “Beginning readers comprehend stories with familiar language better than stories with unfamiliar languages, such as unfamiliar “book” language or contrived language such as the language in decodable texts.”

This problem then, of the “late” reader, only reinforces itself as motivation nosedives.  An older child who “falls behind” because he or she is not developmentally ready for phonics instruction at age five, will be forced to read Dick and Jane or Clifford well after those stories cease to interest them.  All this teaches the student is how to hate reading.

Perhaps, in this way, early decoding does correlate with academic success, considering that late decoders lose all interest in the written words given to them for decoding. This would, no doubt, affect academics greatly.

To combat this issue, Waldorf students are given the time they need to develop both an interest in reading and the capabilities to comprehend the more difficult texts they eventually decode. How is this done?

As explained by the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America:

“Before being taught phonics, Waldorf students are being given a strong foundation in comprehension, vocabulary and in the sounds and meanings of their native tongue. Only then will students be introduced to writing and spelling the letters and words that are part of their stories. And, as a final step, the students will read from their own texts describing the stories that they have heard. In this way, students have the proper time to develop all of the skills that are part of the complex skill of reading at the time when it is most appropriate for them to do so. When reading is approached in this way, children become voracious readers who love and understand what they choose to read.”

The introduction of writing and spelling is particularly effective, as Waldorf teachers use elaborate stories and art to help seven-year-olds not only understand but relate to and care about, the symbols of language.

Sarah Baldwin, a Waldorf early childhood teacher, and the owner of Bella Luna Toys describes how her children learned to read in Waldorf School.

“Each letter of the alphabet is introduced as a symbol, representing an element in 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.”

This method of instruction takes the memorization and dry mechanical process of learning symbol and sound, out of the realm of dull abstraction and into the world of imagination and comprehension.

As Sebastion Suggate says so eloquently says in his book, Contemporary Debates in Childhood Education and Development, early reading is like “watering a garden before a rainstorm; the earlier watering is rendered undetectable by the rainstorm, the watering wastes precious water, and the watering detracts the gardener from other important preparatory groundwork.”

And so, we in Waldorf Education, always strive to teach the right thing at the right time and not flood the gardens of our student’s minds with the unnecessary. In the case of reading, we do, in fact, begin to teach it in Early Childhood through the play based, imaginative, and story-telling rich world you see in the classroom. But the watering, with rich and multidisciplinary phonics instruction, does not happen until the soil is ready.

We believe children are not ready for formal reading instruction, even a forward-thinking, whole language version, until after age seven.

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To learn more about Waldorf Education and to find a Waldorf school near you, visit The Association of Waldorf Schools of North America or come visit us at The Waldorf School of Philadelphia.