Learning to Read in Waldorf Schools

According to the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 37% of fourth graders and 26% of eighth graders cannot read at the basic level; and on the 2002 NAEP 26% of twelfth graders cannot read at the basic level. That is, when reading grade appropriate text these students 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.”

When learning to read, comprehension is key, not the ability to decode letters and form words. In many U.S. schools, children are taught to first memorize the alphabet, then sounds, and then piece together phonics into words and finally sentences. Vocabulary and spelling lists are then memorized and readers are often timed for speed. Teachers then guide students toward sentence and paragraph comprehension.


Teach Comprehension First 

As outlined at WhyWaldorfWorks.org, Waldorf schools take an opposite approach, believing that for comprehensive reading to occur, a child should first obtain the skill of forming an inner picture of content, inside their mind, as they decode.  So, in consideration of child development, Waldorf educators work to develop these comprehension capabilities at a time when imagination thrives in the child – before age seven, which is also before eye tracking and other developmental milestones for reading are strong.

Fairy tales, songs, poems and rhyming become the basis for the Waldorf language arts curriculum through which a child comes to learn expansive vocabulary and eventually printed word. The idea being that younger children are first given the gift of a strong foundation in comprehension, vocabulary and the sounds and meanings of language. Then, and only then, are students introduced to the external expression of those well-formed concepts and taught to write and spell the letters and words that are part of these richly imagined texts.


Introduce Decoding Through Writing

Wade B. Holland in his book, The Waldorf School: 32 Questions and Answers, talks about those first steps toward reading, which begin in first grade by hearing story and then writing what the teacher prints on the board.

“Reading in a Waldorf school follows acquisition of a firm grounding in writing — just as humankind had to develop systems of notation in order to have something to read. By exploring throughout the first grade year how our alphabet came about, and letting the children discover each letter in the same way that its form evolved to the ancients out of a pictograph, writing comes out of the children’s art, and their capability to read evolves as a natural, and indeed comparatively effortless, stage of their mastery of linguistic communications.”


Does This Approach Work?

Barbara Sokolov, author and Waldorf parent, gives a highly echoed testimonial to the results in her popular article There’s More To Reading than Meets the Eye.

“The first book that my daughter, Anna, read when she was “finally taught to read” was not a dull primer, but beautiful prose by E. B. White,Charlotte’s Web. True, she learned to decode later than many of her public school counterparts, but she learned to read fluently, with understanding and enjoyment, much sooner than most. Take a look at the sophisticated novels and poetry that upper grade Waldorf students are reading. Take in an eighth grade production of Shakespeare, and you will see the wisdom of the Waldorf approach to reading.  Working with a true knowledge of the human being, a true understanding of the stages of child development, the Waldorf teacher is able to educate children in ways that enable them to blossom forth with joy. As Rudolf Steiner says, “It is indeed so that a true knowledge of man loosens and releases the inner life of soul and brings a smile to the face.”

2 thoughts on “Learning to Read in Waldorf Schools

  1. Hi Aniko,

    Thanks for sharing your experience. In our experience, that does seem a bit different than how most Waldorf schools would teach reading. We at Spring Garden are accredited by the AWSNA – The Association of Waldorf Schools of North America. In that way, a parent can rest assured that we adhere to a standard that guides our curriculum.

    In your country, I believe accreditation is given by http://www.steinereducation.edu.au/ I would visit to make sure your school is a Member: http://steinereducation.edu.au/about/member-schools and if it is, write to this organizing body with your concerns to see if the reading curriculum is being approached appropriately.

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. Hello,

    my child goes to a Waldorf school, he has just started class 3 in Australia.

    I would like to share my concern with you regarding how he is taught reading:

    As the children are on different levels, they are put into groups between 1-18 depending the level of their ability to read. The beginners are in level 1 the more advanced are on higher levels. A confident reader would be on level 18.
    They are reading from “readers”, which I find dumb them down and the whole ranking idea is fairly “anti-Steiner”,isn’t it?
    Shouldn’t they be reading soulful texts, poems, songs fairy tales instead?
    I would so love to hear from you!

    Thank you so much,

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