August 15

Question A: Hierarchy of Phonological Development

Through this course, I’ve come across lots of research around the science of reading including research that describes a phonological sensitivity hierarchy/continuum. This continuum proposes that phonological skills develop in a predictable progression possibly aligning with brain development. Moats/Coleman have a couple of nice summary tables on the Reading Rockets website

So I was wondering whether your understanding of literacy learning approaches in Steiner Education might fit with this developmental progression…?

There is no right answer to the wrong question. This question contains many challenges. Let me explain so that I can give you a more useful answer.

Steiner education per se has no conception of phonological sensitivity, but individual Waldorf teachers might, depending on their background and training. The Roadmap to Literacy goes beyond Steiner education to bring all Waldorf teachers up to speed on teaching literacy. Roadmap does recognize a predicatable progression that aligns only partly with brain development. The rest aligns with formal academic education.

Steiner education is based on a developmental progression, but it is not the progression you outline here. In fact, it is much broader and bigger. It is based on Steiner's view of child development. I take up this topic in exhaustive detail in my new book, Continuing the Journey to Literacy. To give you a brief overview, there are periods of child development that span roughly seven years. Formal education grades 1-8 is in the second seven-year stage. This stage can be further subdivided into three periods. How teachers educate is based on an understanding of child development during those three periods. However, Steiner gives almost no indications on the nitty-gritty of literacy skills and child development, like the progression of phonological skills. That's where Roadmap comes in.

Roadmap builds on the idea of educating based on child development. It uses a model described in Words Their Way by Bear et for explaining five phases of literacy. (The research of Bear et al is based on numerous researchers.) The second phase in Roadmap is phonemic awareness phase, which is where your question about phonological skills belongs.

Yes, Roadmap recognizes a hierarchical development of phonological skills. However, the brain development part is odd. Research suggests that the brain only develops phonological sensitivity to a certain level on its own–then it depends on formal education (see Roadmap pp 123-125). However, this point is lost because children are exposed to this formal education almost everywhere in our society–from Sesame Street and “C is for Cookie” to workbooks.and alphabet coloring books, etc.

Now, the complication with the tables in the Reading Rockets website is that they are not based on brain development per se, but mostly on formal academic education. There is a big difference. Note the title of Table 2: Age at which 80-90 percent of typical students have achieved a phonological skill. (Emphasis mine.) The children studied have gone through regular education, not Waldorf education. Therefore, the ages in the two groups of students do not align. Public school students are studying letters and their sounds in Kindergarten when they are 5 going on 6. Waldorf Kindergarten students are not. They start when they are 6 going on 7 in first grade because Steiner said to wait until the change of teeth (which happens starting at age 6) to bring formal academic learning. See how things get complicated? This developmental progression is showing the fruits of formal academic education and how it affects concomitant brain development. Students who start formal academic education later (e.g., Waldorf students) may appear to be behind–but they are not! They merely have not received the necessary formal education to manifest this brain development.

If you compare what I wrote in Roadmap page 123, you will note that the research shows that normal brain development around phonological/phonemic awareness stops with the recognition of rhyme. Higher levels such as recognizing individual phonemes are based on education. Past a certain point, phonological development is not a normal part of normal human development but a product of education.

Why do I split hairs? Because if Waldorf teachers do not wake up to the fact that reading does not happen naturally, they will not teach phonological and phonemic awareness skills in grades 1-2 (one to two years after the students get this instruction in public schools), and as a result, more Waldorf students will have reading and spelling challenges than their public school peers because they get stuck in the second phase of literacy: Phonemic Awareness Phase. That's why I co-wrote Roadmap: to show Waldorf teachers how to bring literacy skills in alignment with child development because Steiner did not do it. Roadmap and its sequel (Continuing the Journey to Literacy–which should be published this spring) show how to teach students so that they get the education necessary to move through all the phases of literacy and not get stuck in the second phase (or any phase for that matter).


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