Living Language: Literacy Development in Waldorf early Childhood Education

“We are not made of atoms, we are made of stories.” – Dr. Linda Williams, From Orality to Literacy Conference, Rudolf Steiner Centre Toronto, November 2011

In his book, A is for Ox: the Collapse of Literacy and the Rise of Violence in an Electronic Age, Dr. Barry Sanders contends that in order to attain proficiency in literacy, one must first have a solid foundation of oral language. In other words, children must hear language in order to learn language; orality is the precursor to literacy. In Waldorf early childhood programs, the foundation of literacy development begins with the spoken word and on the oral traditions of storytelling, singing, reciting rhymes and verses.  Rather than over-simplifying language or analyzing it, the emphasis is on keeping the language experience whole and living.  This paper will explore the ways in which Waldorf early childhood programs, through the oral traditions and the understanding of the developmental stages of children, lay the foundation for literacy and language development.

What is Literacy?
The most basic definition of literacy is the ability to express oneself through language as well as the ability to understand the thoughts of others through words and speech.  Being literate also involves the ability to speak articulately, to organize one’s thoughts so that others can understand them, and to build up a rich vocabulary and to integrate the nuances of language.  On a deeper level, however, literacy is also the ability to relate to one self, others, and the world.  It is the ability to create community and to connect to the human story, past, present and future.  Dr Linda Williams, at the keynote of the “Orality to Literacy Conference,” hosted by the Rudolf Steiner Centre in Toronto in November 2011, said that “Literacy is what it is to be a human being.”  We need to be in the presence of the other, the human being who sees us in the physical presence as well as through language.

Rudolf Steiner’s Indications on Child Development
Rudolf Steiner, philosopher and educator who founded the first Waldorf School in Germany, designed Waldorf education to meet each stage of human development from kindergarten to high school.  Steiner viewed the first 21 years of life in three stages, each building on the next.  The first stage, from birth to seven years, is a time of willing when children’s physical bodies are being developed as are the capacities of walking, speaking, and thinking.  Steiner indicated that the young child is a sense organ, that they experience the world wholly through their physical being, and that their physical body is still developing. During these early years, children learn through play and imitation.  Rudolf Steiner believed that young children in the first stage of development should not be taught cognitive work until the change of teeth.  Steiner emphasized the importance of play, imagination, imitation, movement games, rhymes, stories and artistic activities for young children.  Education of young children should not be through their intellect, but through life experiences and imitation, and allowing the young child to unfold naturally. Steiner suggested that teaching children before they are ready forces them to use the energy that they need to develop their bodies. In other words, children’s physical development may be compromised if they are using these forces to learn academic work.

Neurological Development
Neurological research over the last twenty years shows that the brain is not fully developed at birth.  The brain has three parts: the animal or sensing brain is the only one active at birth, the limbic or feeling brain begins to develop at approximately 3 to 4 months of age and the neocortex or thinking brain develops between 6 to 9 months.  The sensing brain helps us to experience sensations, arousal, stress, and the fight or flight response.  The limbic brain helps us to experience feeling, emotions, and memory. The thinking brain allows us to develop verbal skills and logic including reason, ration, as well as the ability to plan ahead, to organize, to mediate impulse control, and to understand choices and consequences.  It is interesting to note that the neocortex is not fully developed until we are in our mid-twenties. Knowing this about brain development we must then consider if teaching reading, writing, and other academic learning is appropriate for young children.   The healthy development of the neocortex brain depends upon the healthy development of the limbic which is dependent on the healthy development of the sensing brain: “The brain operates optimally when all its parts are equally developed, valued, and engaged…what Waldorf educators do successfully is involve and nourish the sensing, feeling parts of the brain, those easily accessed by young children, so that essential foundational neural connections needed for later academic learning are solidly laid.” In her article, “Teaching our Children to Write, Read, and Spell — A Developmental Approach,” Dr. Susan Johnson makes a strong argument that children cannot be expected to learn to write, read, and spell until their neurological pathways for these skills are fully formed.  Children’s reading centres in the left brain do not develop until they are between the ages of seven to nine years of age; for some girls, the development may be earlier, and for some boys, these pathways may not develop until they are ten to eleven years of age.

There are studies which suggest that there is no evidence that children benefit from early cognitive learning.  In fact teaching children abstract concepts before the age of six could result in damage on formal learning later on as suggested in Christopher Clouder’s paper, “The Push for Early Childhood Literacy: A View from Europe.”  Clouder looked at Britain’s House of Commons Education Select Committee’s report which concluded that children under five years of age should learn mainly through creative play. The report found evidence to suggest that formal learning and abstract concepts of literacy and numeracy could result in children developing a sense of failure, long-term underachievement, disaffection, depression, and truancy.  The studies reviewed by Clouder recommend that children do not begin formal school until the ages of six or seven, following preschool education which focuses on social and physical development.  Children under six should receive a form of “education” that is appropriate to their stage of development. The curriculum needs to be holistic; a learning experience that is whole, not just about learning to read.

Waldorf Early Childhood Curriculum
Waldorf early childhood curriculum is developed with the understanding of children’s physical and cognitive development. By paying close attention to the developmental needs of the children teachers provide a play environment which allows the children to develop important gross motor, fine motor, social and language skills. Waldorf early childhood programs lay the foundation for language development and literacy through the rich curriculum of oral language and movement.

Oral Language – Dr. Sanders writes that “A rich experience of orality is an indispensable prelude to literacy.” This oral language experience has to be spoken by a live human; a mechanized voice is not full of life-giving forces.  Sanders concludes his book with a compelling plea for teachers and parents to return to the oral traditions when teaching children: The teaching of literacy has to be founded on a curriculum of song, dance, play, and joking, coupled with improvisation and recitation.  Students need to hear stories, either made up by the teacher or read out loud.  They need to make them up themselves or try to retell them in their own words.  Teachers need to provide continual instruction in the oral arts from primary school through the upper grades, and into college.  Past generations were more literate because they learned to speak well, and acquired an increased vocabulary through rhetorical practice.  Good readers grow out of good reciters and good speakers.

The oral tradition of storytelling, reciting verses and rhymes, and singing songs is integral to a Waldorf parent and child/nursery/kindergarten program.  Every day the children gather around the teacher for an oral story.  Stories are told over a period of time; most often over two weeks and can be longer for nursery age children.  The teacher learns the story so that she can tell it in the same way every day.  The story is learned by heart, not by memorizing it in a mechanical manner.   In this way, the images and characters can live in the teacher, allowing for a human connection to language and story that are shared with the children.  The images and language in the story come alive through the teacher/storyteller and thus, the important connection between storyteller and listener.  The children are then experiencing the story through a human being.  It is also important for children to hear the rhyme, cadence, tone, and musicality of language from a live human voice, not a recorded mechanized one.  Martyn Rawson and Michael Rose explain: “…the child needs to make many complex observations about vocal language production, let alone structure…no forms of recorded speech can transmit the full range of tones, frequencies, breathing patterns, facial movements, and vitality of live human speech or real interchange — someone who will respond.” Language also has to have context, meaning, and relevance to a child’s life otherwise it is just plain noise.

Through the oral telling of a story the children are free to create inner pictures of the contents of the story.  Creating mental pictures is a precursor to not only reading, but also to abstract and symbolic thinking.  Oral stories help to develop speech and vocabulary in children as they are introduced to words and phrases that may not hear in everyday language.  Story time also assist in developing memory, sense of fantasy, imagination, and in lengthening children’s attention span.  If the story is interesting and appropriate to a child’s age, he will want to hear it again and again.  Children will develop the ability to sit quietly and stay focused on listening.  The ability to sit for an extended time and focus is another important skill for later academic learning.

Movement – The body of a young child is designed to move and to create.  Every purposeful, creative movement aids in wiring up a child’s nervous system.  Movement also helps to strengthen the proprioceptive system which is crucial in literacy development.  Dr. Susan Johnson explains: When children do these types of activities (physical movements) they stimulate pressure receptors within their muscles, tendons, and joints, thereby allowing their minds to make a map of the location of these various pressure receptors within the body.  A connection is made between the mind of children and the various parts of their physical body.  In this way children develop a sense of where their body is in space (proprioception), and even if their eyes are closed, the children will be able to feel or sense the location of muscles, joints and tendons within their trunk, arms, legs, fingers and toes…Now , when these children look at the shapes of letters and numbers, their eyes will follow and track the lines and curves.  The memory of these movements will then imprint upon their mind.  They will the capacity to make mental pictures or images of these numbers and letters.

The Waldorf early childhood curriculum provides many opportunities for movement both fine and gross motor abilities as well as balance.  Children experience fine motor movement through daily activities such as drawing, painting, baking, doing household chores, beeswax modelling, and making seasonal crafts.  The fine motor activities help develop children’s coordination, concentration skills, and dexterity.  Gross motor development occurs during both indoor and outdoor play: children build houses and boats, climb, run, jump, roll, and hop.  Teachers will set up obstacle courses both inside and outside to help develop the children’s core strength, coordination, proprioception, and balance.  Many Waldorf schools offer eurythmy classes for children in kindergarten and older.  Eurythmy is a specialized form of movement that is done to music or verses.  Eurythmy helps to develop coordination as well as provide children with a sense of their body in space.   Circle time is another part of a Waldorf early childhood program that aids in language development.  Again, it is the human voice, not a mechanical one that is used and it is another example of living language: the songs and movement come from the teacher.   Movements, big and small, gestures, and fine movements accompany the songs and verses in a typical circle time which help to support neuro-motor development.

There is a widely held misperception that teaching children to read is postponed in Waldorf kindergartens.  It is the direct approach that is postponed.  Formal teaching of reading, writing, and spelling begins in grade one.  Waldorf early childhood programs lay the foundations for literacy development.  If we understand that orality is the precursor to literacy then we can safely conclude that literacy development begins very early in Waldorf school right from birth with parent and infant programs through the oral traditions of storytelling, singing, and recitation of rhymes and verses.   Just as it is developmentally important for children to crawl before they walk, it is crucial that young children are not forced to read and write before they are physically and cognitively ready to learn. Teachers in Waldorf early childhood programs understand that by providing young children with a loving and warm environment where children can experience rich oral language, where their senses are protected and nourished, where they can play imaginatively and move freely, the children will develop the love of language and the capacity to learn to read, write, and spell.

Holly Nguyen, Rudolf Steiner Centre Toronto, January 2012

Clouder, Christopher.  The Push for Early Childhood Literacy: A View from Europe.
Johnson, Susan R. Healing our Children with Attentional, Emotional and Learning Challenges.
Johnson, Susan R. Teaching our Children to Write, Read, and Spell — a Developmental Approach.
Melrose, Regalena. Why Waldorf Works: From a Neuroscientific Perspective.
Rawson, Martyn and Michael Rose.  Ready to Learn: From Birth to School Readiness.UK: Hawthorn Press, 2006.
Rose, Michael. Living Literacy: the Human Foundations of Speaking, Writing, and Reading.UK: Hawthorn Press, 2007.
Sanders, Barry.  A is for Ox: the Collapse of Literacy and the Rise of Violence in an Electronic Age.New York: Vintage Books, 1995.
Steiner, Rudolf.  The Education of the Child in Light of Anthroposophy.London: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1965.
Steiner, Rudolf. Understanding Young Children: Excerpts from Lectures by Rudolf Steiner.Stuttgart: International Association of Waldorf Kindergartens, 1975.