Friday, September 4, 2009

Area of Play 4 – Stories and Literacy


I’ve always been a total book worm – and I know in blogland that puts me in good company. Knowing the immense pleasure that reading gives me, a love of books is right at the top of my list of things to ‘pass on to my kids’. Actually, I think every parent wants their child to develop a love of reading - but it isn’t always easy.

Developing literacy skills is pretty controversial … the spectrum ranges from the ‘teach your 3 month old to read’ to the unschooling approach where children simply learn to read in their own good time … and there is everything in the middle.

So, I’ve been puzzling over how best to tackle such a huge subject. There is so much I want to write about here. There are huge differences in approach here between Playcentre, Waldorf and Montessori to children’s literacy – in fact I would go as far as to say that this is THE area where the differences are really obvious. It is also an area where I personally disagree with the Waldorf approach, but more about that another day!

I think now is a good time to remind you all that this is a blog – not a textbook – so please see all these thoughts as just my interpretation, and feel free to debate with me in the comments!

The book corner of my dreams
Rainbow Mama

The Waldorf/Steiner approach

One of the most controversial aspects of the Waldorf/Steiner approach is not teaching children to read until they are 7, or the change of teeth. This is because, in the Steiner philosophy, children under the age of seven are still developing their physical bodies, and should not have their intellectual capacities called upon. Its not that they can’t learn to read, but Steiner considered that it was actually damaging to teach this to young children.

"It is quite possible to teach young children reading and writing by rote .. but it is also possible to deaden something in them by doing this, and anything killed during childhood remains dead for the rest of one's life" Rudolf Steiner, Waldorf education and Anthroposophy

"People will object that the children then learn to read and write too late. This is said only because it is not known today how harmful it is when children learn to read and write too soon. It is a very bad thing to be able to write early ... A child who cannot write properly at thirteen or fourteen ... is not so hindered for later spiritual development as one who early, at seven or eight years, can already read and write perfectly" Rudolf Steiner, Kingdom of Childhood

So in a Waldorf/Steiner kindergarten you won’t see many, if any, children’s books. You won’t see charts on the wall with the alphabet and numbers on them. You won’t see children’s names on cards for them to find and put on the attendance board. While mainstream ECE strives to be ‘print rich’, a Waldorf kindergarten is deliberately ‘print poor’.

However, Waldorf kindergartens are very rich in language and story telling. Steiner teachers are trained in therapeutic speech techniques, so you should hear teachers speaking slowly, calmly, with a particular emphasis on the vowels. They will ‘paint pictures’ with their words rather than give directions, so a jacket might be ‘crying on the floor’ rather than ordering a child to ‘pick it up’.

A daily story, which will be acted out with handmade puppets, is a key part of the kindergarten curriculum. Usually, the children will be told simple fairy tales – Steiner himself had a real thing for ‘Grimms’ – so for the kindergarten years (4-6 year olds) tales like ‘sweet porridge’ ‘the star child’ and ‘the gingerbread boy’ are common fare. Stories are repeated every day, often for weeks at a time, so that the children can really absorb the story.

Picture books are still certainly part of a Waldorf child’s life … I was told by a Steiner Association supervisor that we should ‘surround our children with books’ and that we should read to our children all the time, even when they are teenagers if they will still let us! There are many wonderful children’s books that you will see commonly recommended by Waldorf teachers and parents … I will put up a list in a future post!


Playcentre, being more aligned with modern ECE approaches rather than a particular pedagogy, values and encourages the development of literay skills, but does so from a basis of free play. One of the ‘areas of play’ is the story corner, and literacy as a curriculum area is woven across the entire centre.

Playcentre mama Mary explained the Playcentre approach to me like this

“Numeracy and literacy are dealt with holistically in each area of play. We might roll playdough snakes together and count them - 1, 2, 3, 4!. We might fly to the moon on the swings - countdown with me! 10!, 9!, 8! etc. We might ask a child if we can write their name on the top of their painting, saying the letters as we write them. The child might like to write their own name on instead. We might set up the home corner as a print-rich environment - telephone books, shopping list books with sharp, ready-to-use pencils, posters on the wall with labels at child height, drawers labeled. The carpentry area has the tools labeled, has builders' pencils and metal tape for measuring. We might make stop/go signs for the diggers in the sandpit, and build walls with blocks. If the children show an interest in extensions along these lines, the adults can go with the flow. So, you might see all sorts of stuff going on at Playcentre that comes into the numeracy and literacy areas. Is letter and number recognition seen as a good thing? Sure, but so is a child immersed in concentration at the fingerpaint table, or a child who has shown empathy to another. Children showing an interest in learning is a positive thing - and if that so happens to be an excited 2 year old recognising the letter his name starts with, then that's good.”

During our (rather brief) time at Playcentre, I saw the ‘gingerbread’ boy being read from a book, to a bunch of children all huddled in the outdoor boat. After reading it the children went to the ‘kai’ (food) table and decorated gingerbread boys of their own to eat … which I think is a very classic Playcentre story extension.


When many people think of Montessori they think of the sandpaper letters and the moveable alphabet … which are very tactile materials that children can use to learn letters. As with all Montessori activities the children are not in any way pressured to use these materials – rather the materials are there whenever the child chooses to discover them.

Tim Seldin describes the Montessori approach as the ‘writing road to reading’. Children learn to write, firstly using the sandpaper letters to experience the ‘feel’ of each letter, and later a moveable alphabet to construct words .. a little bit like magnetic letters on the fridge. Rather than being taught the names of the letters, children are taught the sound of the letters … which given our crazy alphabet is probably incredibly sensible. (As an interesting aside in Montessori children are taught only lower case letters in the beginning - in Waldorf they are first taught upper case letters!)

It was very hard for me to learn how to read. It did not seem logical for the letter "m" to be called "em," and yet with some vowel following it you did not say "ema" but "ma." It was impossible for me to read that way. At last, when I went to the Montessori school, the teacher did not teach me the names of the consonants but their sounds. In this way I could read the first book I found in a dusty chest in thestoreroom of the house. It was tattered and incomplete, but it involved me in so intense a way that Sara's fiancé had a terrifying premonition as he walked by: "Damn! This kid's going to be a writer."
— Gabriel Gárcia Márquez Nobel Prize recipient for literature

Books certainly have a place in a Montessori classroom, and in the daily group time the teacher will read from a book. Books for under 7s are chosen based on their ability to represent ‘reality’ rather than fantasy, so fairy tales are saved until children are older and have a firm understanding of what is real and what is not. Extension activities are set up so the child can do them independently, as with all Montessori activities. Here is a beautiful example of a Montessori extension activity – where toddlers can match the animal figures to the pages of the book as they look at it.

So, three very different approaches to the literacy question for young children, and not a flashcard amongst them. What all these approaches have in common is that there is no pressure for the young child to learn to read and write before he is ready.


nova_j said...

yeah i think we have zilch chance of lexi not reading & writing until she is 7 or 8!! we're certainly not pushing it, but she's picking it up all by herself!

i really do snicker to myself about waldorf having supposedly delayed literacy, because if you have a read of the NZ state school curriculum, and all of the texts that literacy teaching is currently based on, steiner kindies are actually meeting around 65-80% of the expectations/requirements for kids aged 4-6! heh heh heh heh not so extreme now are we?!

(and oo oo oo did you see the vintage book barn place that gardenmama just blogged about?! bliss!)

sarah haliwell said...

This is a really good overview, thank you for sharing it. All methods seem good in their own way. My only problem with the Waldorf practice has always been that they want to stop a self-educated young reader from reading. That's too much one-size-fits-all for me - although so much else about Waldorf I love!

The three approaches are very different from what you find in the official NZ kindergarten curriculum, which is very academically slanted.

Mary said...

Sarah - I agree about the self-taught reader thing, it's an interesting situation!

I'm interested in your comment about NZ kindies - they will be following the same curriculum as other publicly-funded providers - Te Whariki. Individual public kindies seem to vary on to what extent they "teach" formal literacy, but some at least focus on free play with very little early academics. So your experience has been different?

sarah haliwell said...

Hi Mary :-) My dd never went to kindergarten, because she was homeschooled from the start. However, she did attend day care one day a week because she's an only child and I was worried about socialisation. In those day cares they followed Te Whariki and after a morning playtime the older children had to sit down on a mat and do lessons in the early afternoon. This involved writing, maths, etc, supposedly presented in a fun way.

My cousin sent her son to kindergarten and the academics he was involved with there were quite rigorous, and he even had homework - as in worksheets!

Nova, if I may say - don't go so much by "requirements met." They are probably meeting those requirements through free play and are simply couching them in teacher-speak, or "eduese" as some unschoolers I know call it. It just goes to show how successful a play programme can be in meeting educational requirements - or how stupid the education dept is that they believe what people write about their programme!

Montessori Beginnings said...

I find your comparisons of the different educational approaches fascinating. Especially on this topic which is near and dear to my heart.
I am the first to admit that I know very little of Waldorf but I just don't really understand the concept of not developing the child's intellectual capacities? My little one is 22 months and she is crying out to be intellectually stimulated. I would have thought that the early years (while they are learning language)would be the best time to teach children to read because they are so absorbent. L just picks up different phonics sounds like she was learning a new word.
Once again very interesting. Thanks for taking the time to post about about the different methods. :)

Angela Mobley said...

I'm a Waldorf parent and handwork teacher, so I have never taught my children to read in a classroom setting, but i know enough to be dangerous :). It is worth exploring definitions of words like literacy and decoding. I think a lot of what goes on in most schools is teaching decoding, not necessarily literacy. Waldorf education, in the long run seeks to remove obstacles to learning and to build capacities for learning. For instance, a child might be able to decode the words, but to form the rich mental picture required to put the sentence together takes another capacity a young child might not have developed. My very own 5-year-old notices letters and knows and writes most of them, even in her "intellectual-image"-poor Waldorf school environment. She sees me read and write and imitates what she sees. I am not being defensive here, I just find it interesting. As a parent, I would not seek to hinder her learning in any way...children are individuals.

ally pye said...

Very interesting post! Great blog! Looking forward to reading more!

Gypsy said...

Thanks for your interesting comments ... I think the range of everyones opinions shows how tricky this subject is. Even the idea of following the child can be complex, as our world values reading so so highly that children quickly pick up that its a 'clever' thing to do! I have so much more to say on it!

PlanningQueen said...

Gypsy this is a great post and has inspired considered comments.

I have had one child attend Montessori preschool for two years and 2 children attend a play based kinder for 2 years. At the end of the time, the child in Montessori was reading and writing at a more advanced level that the other children, but I think that was more due to natural ability and the fact that he was and still is a complete book worm!

SquiggleMum said...

Thank you for this interesting and informative comparison. As a mainstream early childhood teacher I am often asked about other approaches so appreciated reading your post :)

Fire said...

Thanks for this interesting post. I wanted to add a comment about unschooling. It isn't really the antithesis to early reading that might be inferred by your comment. I know unschooling families with very early readers. Unschooling is probably most similar to playcentre in that learning to read is child-led. That means there is not one single approach that is considered "the right way". Nor is there a "right age" to learn to read. Unschoolers are not tied to a particular authority figure (although of course there are respected leaders in the movement), so they can find an approach that works for the child and the family. I like a lot about Steiner, but when a friend described to me how her child took 26 weeks to learn the letters of the alphabet, aged 6, I couldn't help but think that my son, who read a novel a week at 5, would have been terribly understimulated.