The Waldorf road to reading Philosophy: The North Baltimore private school believes a child should possess a readiness to read before the teaching begins.


FIRST, LET'S PUT the myth to rest.

The Waldorf School does not delay the teaching of reading until the second or third grade.

What the North Baltimore private school does do is pay close attention to the physical and intellectual development of children. If some pupils are not quite ready to read by the first grade, that's a fact of life that doesn't give the Waldorf people panic attacks.

Reading readiness, eighth-grade teacher Carol Steil told me, coincides with a child's first loss of baby teeth, and that often occurs long after kindergarten. At this most unusual school, there are no rigid, numerical goals for reading, or any other subject, because children have different rates of maturation and different abilities.

There's no MSPAP to worry about. Indeed, the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program is a mass exercise that makes little sense in the Waldorf philosophy. What a preposterous idea that you could learn anything useful by testing thousands of kids with the same test on the same week of the year! How stupid to get so many people so worried over so little!

At Waldorf, students don't see a lot of print until late in the first grade, Steil said, but by then they're steeped in fairy tales, a universal form of literature that taps the imagination. They come to reading through storytelling and writing, in part because writing "is so very active."

The "text" in early-age classrooms includes drawing, singing, dancing, playing the recorder -- activities that many public schools have given up as money-wasting "frills."

I've never seen teachers work harder. During an hour's "mainlesson" -- no space between in Waldorf parlance -- they might be dancing, tossing a ball, singing up a storm, playing the recorder or the tambourine, telling a story with gestures and intonation.

All the while, they're keeping a close eye on the development of each child. When a teacher tells a story (she doesn't read it), the children lean forward, eyes locked on the teacher's. They'll be with the same homeroom teacher through eighth-grade graduation.

I sat in on Barbara Eriksson's second-grade class twice last week. When I arrived, 22 children, whom Eriksson taught last year as first-graders, stood in a circle around the teacher. She bounced a basketball to the students, and as they returned the tosses, they sounded out the 26 letters of the alphabet, from A to Z and back again. (Try saying "w" without an added vowel. It's an art Eriksson's kids have mastered, but their favorite is the sound of "z.")

They don't say the letters, only the sounds they make. Learning the "ABCs" is not nearly as meaningful as learning the sounds the letters represent, Eriksson said. "Numbers and letters are a part of children's lives all day long," she said. "Reciting the ABCs is a rote exercise for students. The sounds of the letters really come from within."

By now, Eriksson said, most of her students are reading. On my visits, the students did standard phonics exercises on individual chalkboards. As she touched the big chalkboard with her "magic wand," they printed the words on their miniblackboards.

In what Eriksson said was an "exercise in magic," they changed "tak a hik" to "take a hike" by adding the silent "e" (and changing the sound of the vowel from "curved hat" to "straight hat" -- from short to long). More magic in reverse: "pine" turned to "pin" by removing the "e."

What she was doing last week, Eriksson said, was strengthening phonics skills, particularly the consonant-vowel blends, and preparing her students for creative writing.

Phonics is a staple of the Waldorf approach to reading. "I don't see how you can avoid it," said Steil. But at a place where students are saying and hearing songs, poems and stories, illustrating them and writing about them, the meaning of a word is as important as knowing how to break it down phonetically.

"You have to take a story away with you," Steil said. "It's not just decoding."

She said Waldorf once experimented with textbooks from Open Court Publishing Co., the series chosen recently by Baltimore City for kindergarten, first and second grade. "We found that the children felt dropped by some of the stories," she said. "It made them feel a little bit empty."

It's easier to stuff knowledge into kids' heads than to draw it out. The latter is what the Waldorf Schools have been trying to do since Rudolf Steiner launched the first one in a German cigarette factory 79 years ago. Today, there are 650 Waldorf Schools worldwide. The one in Baltimore charges about $8,500 per student.

The insistence that educating children means tapping what's inside them -- that goodness, beauty and truth travel in the same wagon as the intellect -- sets Waldorf apart.

It's the only place in my Reading by 9 travels that reading has been mentioned in the same breath as the soul. What a pleasant change!

Pub Date: 5/24/98

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