How Do Children Learn to Write and to Read? October 13 2017
Literacy has been made an urgent issue in the last decade. As parents and teachers, we worry, often deeply. Back in the 1900s, we didn’t worry so desperately. Dr. Seuss’s Cat in the Hat, and T.V.’s “Sesame Street” were ever present to reassure us that ways were there for children to learn to read. Maybe these extrinsic tools for children to learn to read and copy writing laid the foundations for the worry — if these tools did not do the trick, perhaps there was something wrong with the child.
Children are, by their natures, literate in many ways from birth. Babies and young children imitate in a remarkable way never to be repeated in the remainder of their lives. There are signals of life that they can read with a perceptivity that can take our breaths away with their quickness and accuracy. Sometimes this can prompt annoyance in us as parents. “How could my child know I was angry with her father before I even knew I was angry myself?” “How did the child know the family dog was out of water in his bowl without looking?” “How did our child know to place bird seed near the end of the driveway when we never saw the gathering of birds there ourselves?” “How could a six-year-old wait, still and silent, for a full twenty minutes with an outstretched hand full of thistle seeds for a chickadee to approach and eat from her hand?”
Children have an innate literacy about the “book of life” — what we will call it here. This sensitivity and perception fades as children grow. We can wonder: does the teaching of reading and writing literacy at younger and younger ages in our culture crowd out the existing literacy innate in a child’s perception of our world and the people in it? Long ago with a different consciousness in play, children were educated in this very capacity for reading the signals of nature, the prediction of the weather, the needs of the soil, the anticipation of visitors coming, or the presence of something magical in the environment. Our expectations of our children have changed and the demands to write with letters and read words on a printed page have increased at earlier and earlier ages in this current century.
The trade-off of wonder for competence in reading and writing was noted by Rudolf Steiner back during the First World War. A workman asked Steiner why there were not more initiates in the world. Steiner answered the man by saying, there are many more initiates born but because we teach children to read before they are twelve. Their superior capacities, it would seem, cannot bear fruit as the need to read crowds out the capacities practiced by the very young.
Dr. Steiner did not intend to be critical, or for us all to stop teaching children to read. He, instead, offered through the Waldorf curriculum, a way to teach reading and writing literacy that would leave a child free to develop both capacities to meet this modern age of ours. Since the current tendency is to teach reading (he settled on age 7 in keeping with contemporary practice) he instructed how it could be done.
The answer lives in pictures. Rudolf Steiner explained that reading is not an analytical skill it is a skill of synthesis. He offered the idea that children should hear beautiful language with clear pictures so that the rhythms of poetry and the beautiful sounds of a native tongue could pour over the child and call out a deep love of the language of birth. The child can then make pictures inwardly to go with the beautiful sounds learned with the reciting of nursery rhymes and poems, stories and legends.
In a different context, Dr. Steiner explained that stories filled with pictures of archetypes like those we find in fairy tales, and in legends of heroes, help a child to weave into life, pictures gathered. The letters of the alphabet then can represent these pictures. A child can see, for instance, in a drawing of two mountains the letter M, or in the valley between the two mountains the letter V. This helps a child to comprehend that the abstract forms we have developed as symbols for sounds, have a meaning in the pictures they represent.
Consider instead the drawing of the mountain mentioned before. A child can remember the story of The Crystal Sphere, and look to the mountains to see the hero of the story who had to rescue a princess. He might wonder at the shape of the mountain. The sound of M might ring in his memory as he draws. He might trace the shape of the M with his finger before drawing it with a crayon or a pencil. Then, when he draws the actual letter by itself — M — it is full of sound, filled with a story, filled with a feeling of wonder at the marvels of nature that hold all these sounds. The child then can rejoice in writing the letter again and again to practice, picturing the story, the sound and the beauty of the letter as it pours these imaginations through the child.
A boy named Matthew, after learning how to write the letter M, watched his mother reading the newspaper and pointed to the letters he saw that were M. He stood up and put his arms out at an angle on both sides of his body and said, “See those letters? They are the letter M. They are like me. See? I am like the letter M! MMMatthew!”
Once a child of six or seven has had the chance to write all the letters of the alphabet, connecting them to pictures, to stories, to sounds, putting them together becomes more like a playful puzzle. The child can gather the sounds together to make meanings from whole words. The child can write some of the poems or rhymes she has learned and see that the sounds of the words match the pictures in the poems and she can then remember the words to read them again and again.
This more magical, story-like way to learn reading avoids the painstaking practice of simply having to memorize a sound and link it to other sounds to try to figure out what a word might be. “BBB—eye---KKKK, bike.” This painful process is more like analysis: taking individual sounds away from a word, isolating each sound, and putting the sounds back together again to formulate a whole word. Artistic work is of synthesis, the gathering up of similar things to make a wholeness; not pulling individual pieces from the whole to decipher its sense. Our culture’s love of analysis may be turning artistic, fluid, language arts into an analytical skill and depriving children of the joy of artistic synthesis.
In Waldorf schools we leave children free in reading the book of the living world until the child’s second teeth push the baby teeth out, until their arm can reach over the top of their heads to touch the ear on the opposite side, until skipping, jumping, running, clapping, singing, and speaking are mastered. The rewards of this approach of teaching from pictures and beautiful sounds is rewarding. There is a depth of comprehension, a satisfaction with books, a joy in the effort of writing that cannot compare to more standard contemporary approaches. The goals are different in each approach. One is literacy pure and simple: “Read! Write!” are directives in the standard approach. In the Waldorf approach, the directives might be instead, “Listen! Imagine! Picture! Draw! See the signs in nature! Hear the sounds of the wind and of the word! What do you think the birds are singing to you?”
The resources that teachers in Waldorf schools use for teaching writing and reading include classics like Dorothy Harrer’s An English Manual for Elementary Years, or her Verses and Poems and Stories to Tell. Teachers of older students in the middle grades and right into middle and high school might use Anne Greer’s The Power of Grammar or Rudolf Schmidt’s An English Grammar, the Language before Babel, to develop and inward imaginative connection to language to stimulate imaginative pictures, and intuitive comprehension in a child learning to advance in language arts. Parents look for stories to tell or to read out loud with their children (Rudolf Copple’s To Grow and Become, or Jakob Streit’s What Animals Say to Each Other, Little Bee Sunbeam, or read aloud books like the Dragon Boy series by Donald Samson or The Invisible Boat by Eric Müller) to stimulate the love of reading, writing, of books, and of well-told takes.
Reading from books is a marvelous thing, and writing books more marvelous still. Most marvelous of all is the ability to read beyond mere sounding of letters, mere simplicity of meaning into the deeper meaning of a poem or a tale — the ability to read nature along with books to enhance both with life and meaning. There’s a literacy that will lead into the future and fill a soul with satisfaction!