Preview the Roadmap to Literacy

1.1 WHY IS TEACHING READING SUCH A STRUGGLE?

When mentoring 1st and 2nd Grade Waldorf teachers, I hear them ask the same question that I did when I first began teaching: “Now that I’ve taught the alphabet, what do I do?”

Janet Langley shares:

As a new 1st Grade teacher, I jumped into my first language arts block with gusto. The story “Snow White and Rose Red” helped me introduce the letter B and the students had lots of fun combing the room for all of the items they could find that began with the sound /b/. My students continued this foray into the world of B by drawing the letter B in sand, on the sidewalk, in the air, etc. For several days the classroom was immersed in this wonderful letter and sound. I spent most of the year teaching each of the letters of the alphabet in this way. In the spring, the class was able to decode (sound out) CVC words (Consonant-Vowel-Consonant words, like hut) and they learned about the Wizard E who could magically change a can into a cane and a dam into a dame. I counted the year a success.

In 2nd Grade, the situation changed. I did not know what to teach next and consulting books by Rudolf Steiner, the creator of Waldorf education, was no help at all because he offered no pertinent directions. I was lost. “What should I do now?” and “What concepts should I be teaching and when should I teach them?” were the questions I constantly lived with. For most of 2nd and 3rd Grade, I did what many dedicated, English-speaking Waldorf teachers do: I spent hours furtively pouring over English skills resources that I found in mainstream teacher supply stores. From these books, I slowly cobbled together a Waldorf language arts curriculum.

First, I taught myself the fundamentals of teaching children how to read in English. Then I chose the concepts I wanted to teach. Finally, I figured out how to bring these concepts in a Waldorf way. This approach was often exhausting, and I was never confident that what I was doing was covering all of the bases. When I spoke with my peers at various Waldorf conferences, I discovered that I was not alone: They, too, were trying their best to create an effective teaching plan using the same seat-of-your-pants approach I was following. My colleagues and I were all exhausted and agreed that we could use more guidance. Our students became literate, but at what a cost to us!

As a mentor, I routinely see teachers running into the same frustrations I had. Many teachers are desperately trying to piece together an effective language arts curriculum for English. It seems that everyone is trying to reinvent the wheel, with varying degrees of success. Many schools lose enrollment because parents do not feel that their children are getting an adequate language arts education. Furthermore, in some schools I find that 30–50% of the students are being recommended for (or are currently receiving) remedial support in reading, spelling, and writing.

I began to ask myself this question: What could explain the high number of students requiring tutoring when so many come from well-educated families that put a high value on education? Something was clearly not working, but what?

English is Not German

In the fall of 2012, I was mentoring teachers at a local Waldorf school. This position brought me in contact with Jennifer Militzer-Kopperl, a Waldorf-trained, Lindamood-Bell tutor who worked with some of the students at the school. I decided to ask her if she had any thoughts about why so many Waldorf students needed tutoring in reading and writing.

She looked me in the eye, smiled, and said, “Janet, I have been waiting for years for someone to ask that question. The answer is really simple. English is not German.”

Jennifer went on to explain that if English-speaking teachers limit themselves to Steiner’s indications for literacy, they will inevitably find themselves going straight into the wilderness without a roadmap She explained that in phonetic German, it is a straight shot from learning the alphabet to learning to read and write, but that in partially-phonetic English, learning the alphabet is only the first leg of the journey. Steiner’s indications for literacy are brilliant for German, but they are just the beginning for English. Waldorf teachers need to know what to do after that first stage.

As fate would have it, Christof Wiechert, Head of the Pedagogical Section of the Anthroposophical Society (2001–2010), the organization that guides and supports Waldorf schools around the world, was visiting the school where Jennifer and I were working. When I shared Jennifer’s comment with Christof, he insisted on meeting to discuss the topic further. In our meeting, I first described what many Waldorf teachers were going through in order to create an English literacy program. Then Jennifer shared her insights about the difference between what is needed to teach English and what is needed to teach German. Upon hearing this, Christof enthusiastically charged us to do further research and get this information out to other English-speaking Waldorf teachers. And so we have.

Jennifer and I began this book as a means to address the missing stages of English literacy instruction. However, we soon found two additional roadblocks that made teaching literacy in Waldorf classrooms even more difficult. The first one centers on the confusion over the type of instruction that is needed to teach a fundamental skill vs. that necessary to teach a subject. This realization also encompassed an exploration into the role of practice in relationship to learning foundational skills. The third roadblock had to do with what Christof refers to as Sacred Nothings or Waldorf Myths that have come into vogue over time and are of questionable value. We realized that we were going to have to address all three roadblocks if we wished to provide English-speaking Waldorf teachers a clear roadmap to teaching literacy.

Subject vs. Skill: The Importance of Practice

Most non-Waldorf schools in Grades 1–3 have ongoing classes in reading, writing, and spelling instruction. These classes usually meet daily throughout the school year. However, Waldorf schools use a different schedule: blocks of study. While blocks work well for subjects, they are much less effective for developing skills.

The block system is scheduled as follows: For three or four weeks, students focus on one subject for two hours a day. Waldorf teachers bring poems, music, artistic activities, stories, and assignments related to the subject of study. At the end of the block, the subject matter changes. The block system allows the teacher and students to delve deeply into a subject and then set it aside (or ‘put it to sleep’) for at least a month before taking it up in a new way.

Block study is an effective approach to teaching subjects such as history, science, geography, etc. In the 5th Grade, teaching a block on ancient India at the beginning of the year, ancient Egypt in January, and ancient Greece at the end of the year works very well. Students do not need to practice subjects like history to study them successfully. However, blocks do not work well when it comes to learning foundational skills such as reading or math. Learning a skill requires a different approach.

There are two important points to keep in mind. First, students must practice skills until they become abilities. This concept is covered in chapter 1.2. Second, skills are not static but keep progressing over the years. For example, once students learn to read, they have to build their fluency with higher and higher levels of text in each passing grade. Students need ongoing practice to meet these fluency goals. For example, starting in 3rd Grade on, they should read at least a total of 30 minutes a day from books/texts at an appropriate level. Daily practice is the key to developing reading fluency skills, just as it is the key for developing all skills. Ongoing practice is as critical as the initial introduction.

More and more Waldorf schools are turning to practice classes as the solution to the limitations found in a main lesson block-based schedule. These language skills practice classes occur during the off block (i.e., when math is the focus of the current main lesson block) and afford additional time for mastering the skills introduced the previous month. However, as they are currently used, many of these practice classes have three problems: 1) They only meet two or three times a week, which is an inadequate amount of time; 2) They are often used for activities other than language arts practice (e.g., nature walks, making birthday cards, etc.) and; 3) They are only used to review skills taught in the past block, not teach new ones.

Teaching language arts for only half the year (i.e., every other block) in Grades 1–3 does not provide enough continuity to cover an adequate language arts curriculum for English. A different schedule is needed.

The germ of this idea is already present among some Waldorf educators. The authors of The Educational Tasks and Content of the Steiner Waldorf Curriculum state:

Steiner Waldorf [School] differentiates between skills needing regular practice (foreign languages, music, math, spelling, etc.) and the introduction of new content. New experiences of teaching content are often best introduced after a period during which the assimilation of previously taught material can occur. Acquiring new skills and practicing them until they become ability are two different processes requiring different rhythms. (Avison 2014, 31)

We concur that there needs to be a different rhythm for skills. Furthermore, we add reading and writing to the top of Avison’s list of skills that require regular practice.

Here is the guiding principle: Academic subjects (history, science, geography, etc.) benefit from being ‘put to sleep’ at the end of a block to be reawakened at a later time. Academic skills (readin’, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic) require daily instruction and/or practice. They should never be ‘put to sleep.’

Sacred Nothings

There is one final area that makes teaching an effective Waldorf literacy program a challenge. This roadblock centers on a number of Waldorf educational practices that have sprung up over the years that are of questionable value. These practices have been called Waldorf Myths or Sacred Nothings by Christof Wiechert. As we began to articulate a language arts curriculum, we kept running into these Sacred Nothings. One example is having students use art supplies for writing (e.g., crayons or colored pencils) rather than graphite pencils with an eraser. Sacred Nothings are covered in more depth in chapter 2.2 and are addressed as they come up in the language skills involved in The Roadmap to Literacy’s curriculum.

In summary, there are three reasons why teaching literacy is such a struggle for Waldorf teachers: 1) English literacy requires additional instruction which is not always part of Waldorf teacher trainings because these trainings tend to focus on Steiner’s indications, which are for teaching the German language; 2) Reading, writing, and spelling are skills, not subjects, and require daily practice. These skills should never be ‘put to sleep’; 3) Some Waldorf practices which have sprung up over the years undermine the delivery of an effective literacy curriculum (i.e., Sacred Nothings).

The Solution: The Roadmap to Literacy

In this book, Jennifer Militzer-Kopperl and I have developed an approach to teaching English language arts that we refer to as The Roadmap to Literacy. This approach is based upon three things: brain development, the recapitulation of the history of English, and the recapitulation of the development of written language. As the reader will see in the upcoming chapters, combining brain development with the history of both English and written language results in five phases of reading and spelling development. These five phases are the basis for what to teach and how to assess.

This book is laid out as follows:

  • Section 1: Essential Background Information
  • Section 2: Waldorf Methodologies
  • Section 3: The 15 Aspects of Language Arts
  • Section 4: Phonics Rules
  • Section 5: Curriculum and Lesson Planning
  • Section 6: Assessment and Remediation

Our goal is for all Waldorf students to graduate from the 3rd Grade with the language arts skills necessary to do well in any 4th Grade curriculum, a goal shared by Rudolf Steiner. He writes, “In my letter to the authorities, I stated that, on completion of the third school year, our students would have reached the same standards of basic education as those achieved in other schools and thus would be able to change schools without difficulty” (Steiner 2003, 126).

By the end of 3rd Grade, Waldorf students should no longer need to learn to read but should be ready to read to learn. This ability will allow them to transition successfully into 4th Grade. Regardless of the school they attend, they will begin to read about the subjects they will be studying. The Roadmap to Literacy will help teachers and students meet this goal.

Teachers who worked with this book prior to its publication all recommend that it be read through in its entirety before it is used as a resource book. Once you have done so, you will know how best to utilize the book to plan and teach your curriculum, and you will be able to speak knowledgably to current and prospective parents about your language arts curriculum across these three grades.

Following the approach outlined in this book will save you hours of pouring over teaching materials because it answers that ubiquitous question: “What do I teach now that I have taught the alphabet?”