Reading for the Love of Literature vs. Reading to Decode Part II March 28 2016

Reading for the Love of Literature vs. Reading to Decode Part II

When children enter the first grade in a Waldorf school, teachers show them how the symbols of letters come from pictures that arise in stories. Using fairy tales and legends, the pictures in these ancient tales, handed down from memory for generations woven into the fabric of the folk lives of people laden with meaning beyond words give the children a “feeling understanding” of how the letters have meaning beyond their mere representation of a single sound. The power of the pictures comes from stories learned and told by heart from long before written language was developed. When they use the letters, the children remember the pictures they represent and an inner reaction of wonder and imagination that goes beyond recognizing a simple symbol for a sound rises in them. 

The children understand from this approach that their inward imaginative pictures inform the sound and meaning of the letters. They understand that the pictures that arise within them are assistants in comprehension. Their own artistic process is necessary to this activity and reading is an ongoing creative act, ever stimulating.

Teachers continue to call the children to remember songs, verses and poems that have strong rhythms and twinkling rhymes and that call attention to the meaning that arises from sounding. By the end of first grade Waldorf students are likely to have memorized 600 to 800 lines of nursery rhymes, verses, riddles and classical poetry, exclusive of the dozens of songs they sing without effort from memory. Children master language by heart this way and they feel competent in using language before or as they learn to write and read the words.

Writing then actually precedes reading and children make the forms of the letters from the pictures while they try the sounds as they form the letters. When children then see groups of printed letters making words together, they recognize from their own writing of words the groupings. The memory of the beautiful language from poems and the funny rhythms and rhymes from riddles and nursery rhymes, builds a yearning to figure out the pictures the words represent. A longing to read motivates the child.

The feelings the children have during the stories that hold the sounds informs the use of language and, as in the babbling stage, they creatively try things out and invent words. One first grader, after a story with a very poor mother who did not have a farthing to her name, told the teacher that there was not a farthing apple left for him in the bowl of apples. Another little red-headed girl told the teacher, “I don’t think grownups realize how shy-a-fying it is when people keep noticing your red hair.” During play outside a second grader was heard saying, “You be the invisible wizard, and I will be the unvisible one. OK?”

Teachers wait for reading to arise from the child instead of pushing the child to read and to identify letters with sounds in a mechanical way. Children who are pushed often hate reading in a while, as in the fourth grade slump. Performance and insistence drive away mystery and beauty. Exterior expectations take the place of inner freedom and inquisitiveness.

When we are patient with reading, some children read well by age six and some later, but most children can read by the age of eight. Sometimes children do not become proficient readers until age nine or ten. These children are usually busy with vivid imagining and rejoicing in the spoken language they love. Robert Frost did not read until he was a teenager. But the results are staggering in how avid the reading is, and how deep the comprehension of the reading is once it arrives un-pushed. In Waldorf schools, often students perform a Shakespearean play in grade eight and they comprehend what they are acting out. Some seventh grades have done plays as demanding as The Miracle Worker by William Gibson and they comprehend what they are doing in the play and the emotional depth of the language in it.

By the time the child achieves proficient reading in a Waldorf school, comprehension is frequently deep. Enjoyment is paramount. No stories have been “dumbed down” to enforce vocabulary words, nor literature that has been distorted to demonstrate different spelling words for the child. The whole world of beautiful literature has been offered to the child so that the child can find the way to comprehension whole and with endless meanings and imaginations possible every time reading is the activity.

Enemies of good and joyful reading are fear and pressure, two almost consistently present elements in our approach to mainstream schooling these days. It takes great courage as a parent and a teacher to protect the child’s right to develop his or her reading skills at a pace suitable to that child, to let the reading arise on its own as we teach the stories and soundings that call them to it. Panic about reading makes Waldorf teaching “neglectful” and “irresponsible.” However, to push a child past the limits of graceful development and through this to deprive the child of the joy of reading in exchange for performance and “symbol decoding” instead of comprehensive and deep reading capacity could be called more irresponsible in the end. To push a child to identify, for example, 36 listed words that begin with “B” on a page and then mark the ones that the child gets wrong outside of the context of pictorial text (Betty Botter bought some butter. “But,” she said, “This butter’s bitter. If I put it in my batter it will make my batter bitter….” Is much richer with meaning, for example) is just plain old sad.

The bridge from babbling to Betty Botter to “Cinderella” to Farmer Boy to Redwall adventures, to Harry Potter, to The Lord of the Rings to Shakespeare (just examples here!) is a more graceful bridge and develops stronger capacities of comprehension and depth than rushing and pushing to recognize isolated symbols. Literacy then becomes a true artistic capacity for comprehension and expression.