Tag: Kids

Education System Pushes Kids to Read Too Early

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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Waldorf’s Brilliant Approach To Teaching Math

Waldorf Education does not teach math in isolation of other subjects.  It is part of a holistic learning approach, which connects the child’s inner self (that Waldorf’s founder Rudolph Steiner refers to as “will”) and body through muscle-memory exercises.  Waldorf Math is really a kinesthetic or whole body learning experience for the Class 1 child. Math is also closely related and taught with music, furthering the important connecting between a child’s body, and their understanding of numbers. As an adult I know that the most lasting memories for me are always those with more than one sense being used. I still remember vividly walking by a jam factory near my house when I was a child on the way to school, and counting the metal fence rungs while breathing in the aromas.

By moving to math in the early grades, even before reading and writing, the child develops a proficiency much like a musician memorizing their scales. It is a slow and unhurried approach that does not push the child to count or read too early, which has been found to taint a child’s passion to learn.  Once a child is moving to math, he or she may begin to use beans or glass beads to better understand the relationships that additions and subtractions make with the whole. Imaginative math fairy tales are told, where the children get to participate by solving the same word problems the main characters do. This allows for a real “living” math to develop within the children.  When children begin writing, they begin with roman numerals and integrate this lesson within their form drawing block. Roman numerals have much easier forms and more straight lines than our common curvy numerals.

Waldorf starts off the introduction to math by asking a seemingly simple question, “What is the largest number in the universe?”.  My son (aged 5) came home from school and asked me the same question.  I answered “Well, erhmmm, it’s infinity.”.  He said “No, one is the biggest because I am one.”.  Other responses discussed in class are “One is the biggest because without it there isn’t any 2, or 3, or even a million.” “One is the biggest because everything there is is in one Universe.” “One is the biggest because it can be any number it wants.” All sorts of philosophical and mathematical truths become evident through just this “one” discussion. This gets them thinking in a whole new way about numbers, and how they relate to us and the world. Eventually the children arrive at “I am one!”, they see how their bodies are shaped like the number one, they relate themselves to the vastness of the Universe, and realize at that point that they are co-creators.

Each number, 1-12, is a discussion involved in this deep intensity of imagination. Waldorf begins with Roman numerals and incorporate geometry into the discussion of each number, scribing freehand the relative polygons and stars. The children work to master each of the stars, crossing the vertical midline over and over again as they practice on large sheets of paper. Eventually, a particular star will stand out as the class favorite which tells the Class Teacher an immeasurable amount about the class itself. All of this happens in 1st grade.

So from the start, children are aware of the significance of numbers and enter very deeply into them. When they have the imaginations of the numbers, they use their will to execute stars and polygons.  They  move their bodies through the math facts of all four processes (+ – / x) each day, and create personalities for each math function.  There is Tessa Times, Mickey Minus, Penelope Plus and David Divide.  Each character is known by how they appear and act, for example, David Divide has a sword and always chops things up, sometimes in half or more. Children take part in music classes involving flute, voice, and lyre to illustrate the beauty of the voice of numbers. They use manipulatives (e.g. bean bags, chesnuts) to work through exciting math tales and classroom conundrums.

This multi-faceted learning approach continues into Class 2.  Here is a Class 2 report summary of a math block lesson:

Column algorithms vertical addition 1, 10,100. By using the image of the chipmunks and their holes, rooms and chambers to store and count the nuts, the children understood well by the end of this block.  We practised many sums and wrote some in our books. We worked the times tables in many different ways, always with rhythm:  sticks, walking clapping bean bag throwing etc.  We reviewed the 2 and learnt the 4, 8, and 11 times table.  In circle we are doing lots of mid line work, expansion contraction, throwing and catching, and recently juggling! We have been walking squares, stars, and some eurythmy.

A genuine love of math can only be enhanced by a practical approach in the mid to later grades In the third grade curriculum, fractions are learned through cooking and building.  At this stage, there is the introduction of the orchestral stringed instruments at that same time, which also leverages many math basics. Math is the key to participating in the music lessons. Math is everywhere. The sixth grader gets to experience this by working with the Fibonacci sequence and Euclidean to Platonic geometries. Waldorf Education seeks to help students develop and integrate math, music, building, movement, storytelling, and more all at once.

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