Many countries including Canada and the US put an overly high priority on teaching kids to read by age 6 or even earlier. However, in many European countries including Scandanavia, kids are not rushed into ready until 8 or even 9 years old. US programs such as “No Child Left Behind” force-feeds young children books and then tests them on their abilities, both of which can have very negative affects. Children who are told to read more books, and recall them in detail are less likely to develop a passion for reading, and enjoy reading as an activity later in life. Some young readers will even quickly see themselves as bad at reading when they fail to measure up during testing. Brain research clearly shows that the brain of a 5 or 6 year old simply is not yet wired for recognizing letters and comprehending the association of many words in phrases or sentences. Children who appear to be reading are often simply regurgitating sounds that they were taught to recognize.
The trend to teach reading in kindergarten is an unreasonable expectation for five year olds because they do not have the maturity of brain function needed for reading. Certain, specific visual-processing learning problems arise, as well as problems in attention and motivation. What happens when children are taught to read before all the neurological pathways for the tasks are adequately developed? The U.S. educational system has now been given a mandate of teaching reading in kindergarten. This is despite the fact that five year olds do not yet have the benefit of the left brain’s reading center crucial to the task. Left and right sides of the brain aren’t typically fully connected until as late as 9 years old. They simply don’t have the capacity for fully rational thought, or reading comprehension.
Teachers are noticing difficulties in learning, behavior and socialization relating to reading. As kindergarten has taken on the task of reading, more kids are found who need to repeat kindergarten or a “transitional” first grade classroom. As kids progress through grade school, learning disabilities increase, particularly visual-processing types. The language center in the left hemisphere of the brain won’t form for most kids until they are between seven and nine, and later for boys than girls. When kids are taught to read before this, certain problems arise, particularly in spelling and reading comprehension.
Because the right brain’s language center encounters printed words in terms of the composite image the letters form on the page, a child with this understanding does not see the middle letters very distinctly. A great deal of importance cannot be placed on deciphering letters that occur in the middle of words that begin and end the same. Because much of what we would consider a five year old’s act of reading is really a lot of guessing the middle anyway, “mean” and “moan” do not, to them, carry enough distinct difference that they can perceive. They share the same silhouette. To most five year olds, it’d be like seeing a drawing of a girl in a dress, and it makes no difference in the meaning of that picture if the girl’s dress is striped or plaid—she’s still a girl in a dress. When children are expected to spell correctly with the use of only the right side of the brain’s language center, they will experience great frustration, not understanding why anyone would care about something that, to their cognitive ability, is hardly discernable.
The Waldorf Approach: The Writing Way To Reading
Alternative Schools such as Waldorf approach reading so that learning synchronizes with child development. Waldorf teachers actually focus on “slowing the children down”. Letters and writing starts in “Class One” where they have already been accessed developmentally to be ready for this more “directed” learning approach (vs Kindergarten which is more “imitative”). Rudolf Steiner (founder of Waldorf Education) professed that “imagination is the key quality, and pictorial imagery is a vital factor in making learning a personal inner experience. Art and music play an important role in engaging the child’s feelings.”
Many people (familiar with mainstream/public school approaches) are horrified that children do not begin to read until they are seven. However, the pre-literacy skills which are so necessary to provide a grounding for the process of reading have begun very early on in the Steiner Waldorf Kindergarten. In Kindergarten, the foundations of reading have already been laid in complex fairy tale story telling, imaginative play where they have time and space to play and develop visual thinking naturally. Rudolf Steiner tells us that our writing form (the individual letters that make up words) is just a cultural convention and “the human being as such has no inner relationship whatever to the letters of modern script. Today there is a “crisis in a lack of comprehension” where young children are expected to start decode meaningless letters and symbol that have no inner or imaginative connection to them.
An alphabet by definition consists of fewer than thirty meaningless symbols that do not represent the images of anything in particular; a feature that makes them abstract. Although some groupings of words can be grasped in an all-at-once manner, in the main, the comprehension of written words emerges in a one-at-a-time fashion. It is because of the very abstract nature of reading and writing that Steiner advocates teaching these skills in a particular way. At Waldorf, writing is always taught before reading. This is following civilization’s development of writing and reading. It is only logical to realize that pictorial symbols would have been created before reading was able to occur. In Class One, letters of the alphabet are introduced to the children as pictorial forms. In this way the whole of the child’s artistic, imaginative, pictorial and feeling senses are invoked. However, writing does not begin as soon as the children come into Class One. The physical skill of writing is prepared for by introducing the children to form drawing.
The letters of the alphabet are introduced to the children as capitals and in a visual way. In this way the imaginative form becomes the symbol for the letter. Steiner tells us that in writing, the forces of the whole being are involved in writing, versus in reading it is only the head and intellect. Steiner explains how to make a pictorial symbol represent the abstract letter by alerting the child to the initial sound of a letter and relating it in an artistic way to a word beginning with that letter. The examples that Steiner gives in A Modern Art of Education are the letters of “M” linked to the word “mouth” with the shape of the lips replicating the “M”; “W” linked to the word “water” (shape of a wave); and, “F” for the “f-f-f” sound and linked to an image of a fish. In this way we can proceed to the abstract nature of writing from the entirely concrete elements of painting-drawing, drawing-painting. We then succeed in making the child start from feeling called up by a picture; he then becomes able to relate to the actual letters the quality of soul contained in the feeling.
It is important to understand that not all the alphabet is introduced to the children in this way. It would take a considerable amount of time to introduce each letter with an appropriate imaginative story and pictorial element. Once the children have experienced the symbolic, pictorial form of some of the letters then they can begin to assimilate the other letters more easily. The teacher writes verses on the board – specifically simple consonant verses to illustrate the sound and shape of the letters they are learning, verses such as “wild waves swept the windswept walks” or “sliding slowly the slimy snake slipped down the sandy dunes”. The children are then encouraged to point out the letters that they know and speculate on the ones that they have yet to learn. Once the children have been introduced to all the letters the teacher will write short phrases (linked to the stories that the teacher is telling the children in the main lesson) on the board and the children copy these into their workbooks and draw appropriate pictures to accompany them. In this way the children begin to make their own written “readers“. Reading slowly begins as the children start to listen to the teacher read the writing on the board and then begin to read their own writing. This can be described as “the writing way to reading”. The children are not introduced to printed books at this stage in the writing and reading learning process. Often the teacher will make a book (with his/her own hand writing) for the children to read.
Unlike the US approach of memorizing the alphabet (letters and sounds) in a series of drills, Waldorf spends much more time on each letter’s form and appearance. Children will spend a full day on a single letter, and read stories about it, draw or paint it’s form as it integrates into a scene (M is part of a mountain scape) and even walk it’s path on the floor. They develop a clear image and importance of the letters before they even try to pronounce them. Children are presented vowels separately from consanants in stories (5 angels who single each vowel). There is deep understand of the letters and their visual and imaginative form before full words or even sentences are introduced in the following years. I don’t know about you, but I sure wish I learned this way.
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