9. When the Waldorf Approach to Reading is Not Working

Background Information: I want to share a bit of our experience to provide some context.

My kids are 9, 5 and 2. I have used Lavender's Blue Homeschool curriculum exclusively with my oldest. I myself did not learn to read fluently until about age 9/10 and this was a huge source of stress and shame for me in public school and within my family. I wanted to do things differently with my own child, so I fully embraced the Waldorf idea that children learn to read later and that it will click when the child is developmentally ready. BUT it just doesn't seem to be clicking with my nine-year-old. I first became concerned last spring, when at the end of second grade we pulled out her main lesson books and she was unable to read them. She could read some words but was completely flummoxed by others. So the ‘learn to read by writing' approach just didn't seem to work for her.

At the beginning of third grade (this past fall) I decided to stop waiting for it to click and bought All About Reading. It has helped a lot. She is reading some independently now and reads to her younger siblings. She is pretty reluctant to read to me and I think she senses my stress. She does read the All About Reading books to me and she finds it very helpful that there are practice phrases / words to read before reading the actual story so she goes into it more confidently. But she still makes a lot of mistakes and I think the key is that she is GUESSING and not SOUNDING OUT and I can't figure out how to help her break that habit. She will see a word and make a guess based on the first letter in the word and the context. She will put sounds into a word that aren't there. Like she can see the word “bake” and guess “brake” I'm struggling to think of other actual examples because it's almost midnight. 🙂 But there's a lot of swapping in letters that aren't there and leaving out letters that are there. I try to explain that she can sound out the letters but it just wasn't how she was initially taught and now I feel like I'm having to undo what I did with our Waldorf approach. I think I could be much more relaxed if I just understood what was going on in her brain when she swapped those sounds out / made those guesses.

I am now teaching my five-year-old the alphabet and the sounds they make because I'm concerned that the later, Waldorf approach was not the right path and I don't want to repeat that mistake. (We are using The Good and the Beautiful's Pre-K guide.) It's been very gentle and my five-year-old has responded well to it. I'm not sure how I feel about doing a total 180 with my second child …

Questions …

3A. How can you identify when your child needs more reading support and what that support needs to be? And how can you tell when you should just keep practicing and be patient?

3B. How can a non-reading expert suss out what's behind something like this swapping in and out of sounds?

3C. For those 20-30% of kids who need more thorough reading instruction, is there a Waldorf approach to this or is something like All About Reading a suitable strategy?

3D. Is starting earlier going to cause problems (thinking about my five-year-old now), or is it good preventative medicine when there may be a family history of reading not coming super easily?

3E. How can we support or rekindle a love of reading when reading is not coming easily or has been a source of stress?

3F. How can we support a child in trying books that stretch their capacities (i.e. when a kid is sticking to the super shallow end of early readers when more challenging books would be so much more engaging from a story perspective)?

3G. Is there a Waldorf methodology that uses phonics that I am not aware of? Or does it matter if reading instruction is ‘Waldorf' when extra help is needed?

I am grateful for all the information given in this question because this story will be useful for other homeschool parents, and the response will apply to many families. Thank you for the chance to address these questions. They are important. First, though, it is necessary to provide some background information and to counter some common misperceptions about Waldorf education. Then, I will address each question.

There are two large misperceptions contained in the background information, and it would help many homeschool parents if they were corrected:

  1. Misperception One: There is a Waldorf idea that children learn to read later, and it will click when the child is developmentally ready.

There are so many issues with this statement:

  • First, the Waldorf idea is not that children learn to read later but that they are taught to read later. There is a world of difference between those two ideas. Children can be taught to read at age 5 or 6. The Waldorf idea is to wait to teach reading until children are around age 7 so that they can finish key aspects of their physical development before asking them to focus on academic work. The goal of waiting is to promote healthy physical development throughout life.
  • Second, reading does not just click when the child is developmentally ready. Children learn to read when they are taught to read. Reading is not a natural part of child development—like learning to walk or talk. Reading requires education, and that instruction in reading skills literally changes the brain, enabling the student to read.
  • Third, by age seven, the child should be developmentally ready to be taught to read, meaning the child has completed key aspects of physical growth and now has forces freed to work on intellectual pursuits such as reading and math. If the student is not developmentally ready at age seven, it means something is off.

All of this is to say that it is a myth to expect reading to click when the child is developmentally ready.

That said, it can happen that a child has an impediment that stops him/her from being able to read once s/he has been taught basic reading skills. (To give just one example, the student’s eye tracking may be weak, making it hard for him/her to move from one letter, word, or line to the next.) Once that impediment is removed, it is not uncommon for students to make huge leaps in their reading ability because they can now apply the skills they have learned. It is also not uncommon for students to need to be retaught reading skills because the impediment prevented them from learning reading skills in the first place. What is uncommon is for a student to be a late bloomer—someone who reads later but who has learned all the skills and has no impediments.  When a student is having difficulty learning to read, it is more likely that there is a weakness in reading skills, a learning difficulty, or an impediment that is stopping the student from using what s/he has learned. You should always rule out all three before assuming a student is a late bloomer and needs more time.

  1. Misperception Two: The “learn to read by writing approach” can mean two different things. First, it can mean “learn to read by copying;” second, it can mean “learn to read by Kid Writing.” What is the difference?

Learning to read by copying means the student copies someone else’s sentences and then reads his/her own handwritten copy of those sentences. Learning to read by Kid Writing means the student composes his/her own sentences, uses whatever s/he knows about letters and sounds to invent spellings for the words, has an adult correct his/her misspellings, and then practices reading the corrected text (in either the adult’s handwriting or his/her own, if s/he recopies it).

Now that the terms are clear, which one is the Waldorf approach?

The correct answer is both. Steiner advocated students copying the sentences they were to read and reading their own handwritten copy, but a closer reading of Steiner’s indications also shows that he wanted students to write short little pieces on their own after they learned the alphabet. In other words, he was advocating Kid Writing.

This stands to reason: Just having students copy sentences and then practice reading them is not enough for many students to learn to read.  The full “learn to read by writing approach” requires a lot more effort on the students’ part than mere copying. When students Kid Write, they must remember everything they were taught about letters, sight words, phonics rules, etc. Their brains get a much more strenuous workout than when they copy. They literally forge the connections between the regions of their brain that make reading possible when they engage in Kid Writing. (See The Roadmap to Literacy chapter 3.13 Kid Writing for more information.)  It is possible to copy words with minimal engagement of the parts of the brain responsible for reading. While the students’ spelling looks much better when they copy than when they Kid Write, they are not learning as much.  They frequently cannot read back what they copied, especially after some time has passed.

Now that those misperceptions are addressed, let’s take a look at the questions:

3A. How can you identify when your child needs more reading support and what that support needs to be? And how can you tell when you should just keep practicing and be patient?

This is an easy question to answer but a harder question to do: assess.

A key part of teaching is assessment. Reading skills include many things, including: alphabet knowledge, sight words, decoding (sounding out words), phonemic awareness, etc. When you are teaching reading skills, you should assess in all areas to see which skills your student has mastered, which areas s/he is still working on, and which areas s/he needs more instruction in. The results of the assessment can be broken down into three categories:

  • Independent (or Benchmark): The student demonstrates mastery of the skill. Don’t teach or practice this skill any more. Move on to the next skill. S/he can do this on his/her own.
  • Instructional (or Strategic): The student has the idea but needs more practice to master the skill. Give him/her more practice and then reassess. S/he is in the process of learning, but s/he cannot do this completely on his/her own yet.
  • Frustration (or Intensive): The student does not have the idea. S/he needs intensive instruction to get the idea and then lots of follow-up practice. S/he cannot do this on his/her own.

You compare the results of the assessment against charts that show how much students are expected to learn to determine what you should do next. You can literally see which areas the student is weak in (the instructional and frustration areas), and you use this information to tailor your lessons to these weak areas. If the student shows minimum progress upon follow-up assessment despite all the extra practice you are doing, then you need to get support.

Assessment

One way to assess is to use the advice in The Roadmap to Literacy Section Six: Assessment and Remediation. Read chapter 6.1 Introduction to Assessment. It will teach you an overview of assessments so you can decide what you need to do to assess your student. You can then jump into assessments. Chapter 6.2 will teach you how to assess your student’s phase. Chapters 6.3–6.5 will offer advice on different assessment tools you can purchase to do the assessing yourself and how to interpret them. (Note: All the assessments recommended can be done without a formal background in reading instruction and assessment.)

Another way is to hire a reading expert to do the assessing for you and to offer advice. This is highly recommended if you feel overwhelmed or stressed.

Remediation

One way to determine how to seek remediation is to use The Roadmap to Literacy chapter 6.6 Working with Remedial Issues. It talks you through the process of getting extra help. It offers steps you should follow, in order, to determine how to get help if your student is struggling.

It is highly recommended that you read this chapter and start working with the advice contained in it if your student is age 9 or older and is struggling. It is not necessary to read the entire book to start working with the advice in chapter 6.6 Working with Remedial Issues. It would, however, help!

3B. How can a non-reading expert suss out what's behind something like this swapping in and out of sounds?

You will need to assess.

The most likely culprit is a weakness in phonemic awareness. Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear sounds in words and manipulate them. It includes many different subskills, including the ability to blend separate sounds into a word, which is a key skill for sounding out words.

Education is required for phonemic awareness to develop fully. Non-dyslexic children start to develop phonemic awareness in preschool, when they learn to rhyme; however, all students need practice in phonemic awareness skills so they can learn to read and spell.  There is a whole chapter on phonemic awareness and how to teach it in The Roadmap to Literacy. It’s chapter 3.3: Phonological and Phonemic Awareness. Because a weakness in phonemic awareness is also key to dyslexia, read the subsection “What about Dyslexia?” in chapter 6.6 #9.

In order to confirm a weakness in phonemic awareness and to figure out which areas are weak, it is necessary to assess. There are easy ways for you to assess phonemic awareness, and they are covered in The Roadmap to Literacy. However, it is unusual for phonemic awareness to be the only weak reading skill. If phonemic awareness is weak, usually other reading skills are weak too because phonemic awareness is so foundational to reading and spelling.

Read chapter 6.1 Introduction to Assessment. Then consult chapters 6.3–6.5 to get information on different assessments you should do in grades 1–3. When assessing a reading problem, it is necessary to look at all reading skills, not just phonemic awareness. For the student described above, I would recommend starting with the table 6.3.3: Recommended Schedule for Assessments Created by Educational Testing Groups in 1st Grade: CORE Reading Assessments and Words Their Way. Use the column for spring to get a basic snapshot of beginning reading skills. The table is found on page 513.

However, assessing reading skills may not be enough. Do not discount vision issues (e.g., the need for glasses, vision therapy, or the presence of Irlen Syndrome). For many students, vision issues and weaknesses in phonemic awareness co-exist. In dyslexic students, the odds are almost 50-50 that there will be a vision issue on top of the phonemic awareness problem. Both would need to be addressed.  See pages 540–541 for information on basic vision problems and how to screen your student for them.

All these assessments can be done by homeschool parents. Doing the initial assessments yourself will help you figure out which things you can handle at home and which things require outside support.  However, if you feel overwhelmed, consult an expert to do the assessing for you.

3C. For those 20-30% of kids who need more thorough reading instruction, is there a Waldorf approach to this or is something like All About Reading a suitable strategy?

Funny you should ask—The Roadmap to Literacy is a Waldorf approach that provides thorough reading instruction! It does require you to understand the concepts and make your own curriculum because that is an essential component of Waldorf education.

I think what you are asking is for a scripted approach, such as All About Reading. That I cannot answer because I haven’t looked at the curricula available. I can say this: Waldorf was created by a German speaker for German-speaking students. Therefore, Steiner’s indications are not adequate for teaching English because English is a different language (see Section One in The Roadmap to Literacy). It is OK to choose a curriculum that is “not Waldorf” to teach your child to read because, to my knowledge, Roadmap is the first reading curriculum that is both Waldorf and that is geared towards the English language (rather than based exclusively on Steiner’s indications, which are for German).

Roadmap asks a lot of its readers—it asks them to be Waldorf teachers. It asks them to make their own curriculum based on best practices for reading instruction in English and based on Steiner’s indications. All Waldorf teachers need to do that. Homeschool parents can do that too—but they can also choose to follow a scripted curriculum, which is less demanding. However, making your own curriculum is particularly suited for homeschool parents because it allows them to customize the curriculum for their student.

If you do use a scripted curriculum, I highly recommend that you read passages in The Roadmap to Literacy to understand what you are doing and why. Teaching is a profession. Homeschoolers who engage in it should have a certain level of knowledge about what they are doing and why.

I will talk to my co-author, Janet Langley, to see about doing a podcast or an article to give more advice to homeschool parents and Waldorf teachers. We have planned to do a podcast on how to use the book The Roadmap to Literacy. It might make sense to do a separate podcase (or follow-up article) on how to use the book to supplement a scripted curriculum. TBD.

3D. Is starting earlier going to cause problems (thinking about my five-year-old now), or is it good preventative medicine when there may be a family history of reading not coming super easily?

This is an important question. The answer is—it depends.

Since there is a family history of reading difficulties, I would consult a specialist and get your son tested for dyslexia. If he has dyslexia, starting early is the best thing you could do. The brain is more plastic at a young age (Read chapter 1.2 Cracking the Code: Reading and the Brain in The Roadmap to Literacy. Then read about dyslexia on pages 553–556.) Also, if a child struggles with rhyming at age 5 or 6, get the child tested for dyslexia. Difficulty rhyming is a red flag.

However, starting academics early is contraindicated in Waldorf education. The idea is to give students time to complete key aspects of physical development before starting academic work. It is also true that it is easier for (non-dyslexic) students to learn to read at age 7 than at age 5.

For dyslexics, an earlier start is appropriate—but it should be the right start. Dyslexics need specific types of training to address their weakness in phonemic awareness. Appropriate instruction includes Orton Gillingham approaches or Lindamood Bell (LiPS—Lindamood Phoneme Sequencing).

3E. How can we support or rekindle a love of reading when reading is not coming easily or has been a source of stress?

Figure out what is making learning to read so stressful. Fix the underlying problem(s). Then reteach reading skills. Have your student practice. Once the child can read, reading can then become a joy.

In the meantime, support a love of reading by doing the following: Read to your child every day from age-appropriate books such as Charlotte’s Web, not beginning readers with limited vocabulary and easy words. Talk about the books you read to your child. Discuss the stories and what the two of you think will happen next. Keep the joy alive while you figure out what is making learning to read so stressful. Also, let your child see you reading and enjoying books.

3F. How can we support a child in trying books that stretch their capacities (i.e. when a kid is sticking to the super shallow end of early readers when more challenging books would be so much more engaging from a story perspective)?

First, make sure you know what your child’s capacities are. Then, help your child read books that are in the zone of proximal development. These are books that stretch his/her capacities just enough. S/he can almost read them by herself, but s/he needs a little help. Let him/her read easier books when s/he reads by herself. These are books that s/he can read independently, that require no help from you. Be sure you avoid the frustration books—these are books that are just too hard, even with your help. Read these books to your child, but do not expect him/her to read them—yet.

When you are teaching your child, you choose the books your child will read with you. You can thus make sure you are stretching his/her capacities by always helping him/her read books that are in the zone of proximal development. When s/he reads to herself for fun, s/he should choose easier books that s/he can read by herself.  As his/her capacities grow and s/he gains confidence, s/he will start to branch out into harder books.

3G. Is there a Waldorf methodology that uses phonics that I am not aware of? Or does it matter if reading instruction is ‘Waldorf' when extra help is needed?

The Roadmap to Literacy is a Waldorf methodology that uses phonics. It is completely in alignment with Steiner’s indications and with the requirements of the English language. To my knowledge, it is the only Waldorf reading methodology to do so. However, if extra help is needed because the student is dyslexic, all students should use an approach geared towards dyslexic students such as Lindamood Bell’s LiPS or an Orton Gillingham approach.

All Waldorf students who speak English should learn phonics, not just those who need extra help. The approach Steiner articulated for Waldorf education is for the German language, a language that is much more phonetically regular than English. Phonics rules are how we English-speakers teach our students to handle the irregularities in the language. See chapter 1.3 Why is English So Complicated in The Roadmap to Literacy.

About the Author Jennifer Militzer-Kopperl