Christine Good faces the children, prompting them to retell a story she told them yesterday about a boy and some curved lines. It leads to a hunt for all the curved lines they can find in the room: of their ears, of rose petals, and of chalkboard erasers. Then Good distributes a sheet of paper to each. They unroll fabric pouches that hold a pocket for each crayon, and draw curved lines free-form, and then again in a traditional C-shape across the bottom margin from left to right. "The essence of it is that from the picture, a letter emerges," Good explains.
It's an early literacy lesson that's quite different from what we might be used to. In recalling the story, the children are learning sequencing and how to build pictures in their minds (the basics of reading comprehension). In form drawing, students work with the shape of letters in a tactile way (the precursor to writing). All without an alphabet poster anywhere in the room. It brings images from the oral story onto the page through a holistic learning experience that builds over time, until students realize the connection between letter symbols and their sounds and shapes. "It's the most exciting moment in first grade," says Good. "You don't even have to teach it; they come to it."
This is reading readiness at Primrose Hill School in Rhinebeck, where first graders are often not yet reading. Inspired by the Waldorf philosophy, preliteracy at Primrose Hill is developed by saturating children in language over the course of several grades through free play, puppet shows, storytelling, song, and learned verses. To introduce letters, Waldorf-trained teachers tell a story for each, incorporating eurythmy, a movement style that associates a gesture with the letter's sound. Jordan Walker, enrollment coordinator at Primrose Hill explains, "Guided by the observation that young children naturally imitate the world around them, the teachers carefully prepare the educational environment—that's the way the teaching happens."
Reading and math are two of the first forms of abstract thinking that kids are asked to master, and a cultural anxiety around that has influenced how they're taught. Benchmarks and timelines for learning these skills are expressed in Common Core standards, with an emphasis on decoding and computation emerging in kindergarten curricula. It's causing critics to call kindergarten the new first grade.
But some educators feel that, just like learning to walk or talk, learning to read, write, and problem solve are activities that kids are naturally compelled to do. So certain educational strategies embrace each child's pace, and approach the three Rs through individualized scaffolding of a child's natural curiosity.
According to a report out of Sarah Lawrence College, "Reading Instruction in Kindergarten: Little to Gain and Much to Lose," which draws upon a number of long-term studies, "Young children take years to build the foundation they need to be able to make sense of print. An important aspect of this process is being able to understand these abstract symbols. Children learn that real things can be represented by symbols when they play and use hands-on materials."
"I know there's a fear around this because there is this societal pressure that earlier is better," says Good. "But often the children, from my experience, who are not pushed to read too soon are better readers, and they often love it." At the heart of the Waldorf strategy is a trust that, given time and rich, meaningful experiences in learning, children will unfold. "We're not focusing on early intellectualization," says Wendy Weinrich, a Waldorf-certified teacher for the past 20 years, whose early childhood school, Mountaintop, now in Saugerties, is just beginning its 10th school year. "When a child is ready, the concepts are easier to grasp."
When students hear the same story each day, they're forming reading comprehension through building imagination. Teachers will notice them acting out the story's themes in their play later, internalizing the lesson. "We take the children exactly where they are on their developmental journey and guide them," says Christianna Riley, Primrose Hill's kindergarten teacher. At its core, the Waldorf preliteracy approach holds space for children to develop curiosity around reading through experiential learning. At Primrose Hill, kids are not being taught to read; they're being taught to discover reading.
"We don't take babies and make them learn verb conjugation charts, but they learn to speak. Yet we take eight-year-olds and make them memorize multiplication tables," muses Holly Graff, a contributor to Playing with Math: Stories from Math Circles, Homeschoolers, and Passionate Teachers. She's a certified teacher who tutors homeschoolers along with her own two children in Montclair, New Jersey. For Graff, math is a language, and math lessons are about fluency. She feels that a focus on calculation, arithmetic, and operations done with worksheets decontextualizes math from its purpose: to describe the natural world. Graff encourages a visual and physical exploration of mathematics through hands-on activities and games because her students discover the math concepts that way.