reading and writing in waldorf

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 the children learn to read and write too soon. It is a very bad thing to be able to write early. Reading and writing as we have them today are really not suited to the human being till a later age—the eleventh or twelfth year—and the more a child is blessed with not being able to read and write well before this age, the better it is for the later years of life. A child who cannot write properly at thirteen or fourteen (I can speak out of my own experience because I could not do it at that age) is not so hindered for later spiritual development as one who early, at seven or eight years, can already read and write perfectly. These are things that the teacher must notice. — Steiner, The Kingdom of Childhood, pp 26-27. (Available for free online via Steinerbooks.)

There’s a discussion on the critics list. If you only read one post on this topic, let it be this one, by Diana in reply to Frank; I quote a couple of passages (but you should really read the entire post!):

No. I am not “confusing” early Waldorf with later Waldorf. I assert that the anti-literacy bias, which children first encounter in the kindergartens and early grades, continues throughout a Waldorf education, though most of the damage is done in the very early years. Of course children do read in the later grades and upper school in Waldorf; a Waldorf high school may or may not be much different from any high school in this regard. The striking difference is in the early years education.

What parents need to know is that when Waldorf says they don’t believe in “early” reading, they are defining “early” differently from the mainstream. Many people will agree that pushing children to read “too early” can be damaging. But by “early,” they tend to mean 3, 4, 5 years old. They don’t want their children doing worksheets in preschool.

However, when a Waldorf teacher tells you they don’t push children to read “too early,” they mean 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 years of age. Steiner said that ideally adolescence was better spiritually for reading and writing. Waldorf schools know they can’t delay it THAT long, but they get as late a start as possible, and keep tamping the brakes for a long, long time. And they know they can’t explain this pedagogy in so many words to parents, since very, very few parents who are concerned about education are in favor of their child’s literacy being permanently hampered.

But to approach this from the beginning, Frank said it’s bullshit (and nonsense) that waldorf schools want to prevent children from reading and writing and from learning to read and write early, giving lots of more or less irrelevant arguments, among them how bad it is to pressure children. That may be. But what Diana had written was not bullshit. I wrote:

In my own experience, and in the experience of lots of other people I’ve heard the same thing from, it’s certainly not bullshit. A child who knows to read and write before 1st grade begins — like I did — will definitely be discouraged from pursuing these interests in many waldorf schools.

Diana replied to this, and also replied to Roger’s comment. The picture they paint is very familiar. The picture Frank tries to paint is strangely unfamiliar, which leads me to think that either his waldorf school(s) is (are) unique, or he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, or he’s making shit up. Lots of irrelevant arguments from Frank, since they don’t really address the fact that waldorf teachers actively discourage or prevent children from reading, and why they do this, to which I replied:

No, Frank, I wasn’t talking about kindergarten (or early grades, which I take it refers to education for 7-year olds and younger children), even though I learnt to read while I was still in kindergarten. I’m talking about first grade. In Sweden, first grade starts the year the child is seven. This is later than in most other countries. I was 6 1/2 because my birthday is in december. I already knew how to read and write. I was EXPLICITLY told I should not write words even if I knew how to. I was clearly mature enough to read and write, because I knew it without anybody teaching me. I wasn’t pressured. I WANTED to read and write. Yet I was told not to do it. What do you think the message is? That it’s bad. Shut up and play the flute. There was a very popular tv show for children, it aired when I was in 1st grade — it taught reading, writing and simple maths. Talking about this tv show in school — or bringing to school the booklets that were published and were supposed to accompany the programs — was prohibited. Why on earth? Every other educational institution would have been thrilled to see children enthusiastic about such a tv series. Not waldorf.


… lots and lots of children learn to read and write despite waldorf education. I know this. Some of the children who weren’t allowed to read and write at home were very eager to learn anyway … These kids were striving to learn — despite the fact that the school tried to delay it. I’m sure they learnt — because they hungered for it. School is by no means necessary for driven children to learn these things. They do it anyway. I think this is one reason waldorfs schools don’t manage to fuck up children’s lives to a greater extent than they do.

Judith chipped in. She also raised another issue, namely that of waldorf parents usually being educated themselves — these children don’t grow up in homes without books. And many parents provide their children with reading material — despite the school’s policy and wishes. They’re even helping the children learn, so as to make sure they don’t fall behind. Diana asks for the statistics we really need in order to know it the approach to delay and/or prevent reading writing is successful. Walden points to hypocrisy. Frank suggested that if the waldorf schools Diana, Roger and I experienced were like this, we must have lived in a parallel universe. We didn’t, of course. Well, waldorf itself is a parallel universe, but it’s surprisingly uniform from country to country, continent to continent. To which I replied:

This self-delusion is what prohibits waldorf staff from honestly saying to parents: ‘Your child has needs we can’t meet, needs we aren’t prepared to meet, because they aren’t part of our educational philosophy. Your child wants and needs intellectual stimulation, and there are other schools which are prepared to offer this. We are not.’

Waldorf schools would prevent a lot of anger and disappointment if they actually had insights into and were honest about what it is they’re offering and how it differs from mainstream education. And if they had the insights into children’s individual needs — insights which they claim to possess but don’t.

When waldorf proponents argue for late reading, like Frank did in one post, they like to mask their arguments, as Diana pointed out in the post I quoted initially. They ‘make statements about child development that use mainstream terminology and hence aim to deceive by coming across as actual educators, when they’re nothing of the sort, and the spiritual mission is masked’, she writes. This we need to be wary of.

Not all waldorf teachers will be equally fanatical about reading and writing; I suspect my teacher was not very fanatical, she wasn’t judgmental about it, she followed the school’s rules on what kids could bring to school, and when it came to writing, what mattered was, I think, the concern that other children, who didn’t yet know how to write, would be prematurely exposed to writing if another child wrote entire words. And this some convinced anthroposophists — among parents and teachers — would be opposed to. (Some waldorf schools I’ve read about even have policies on clothes with print on — no text! I’m not sure such a policy was in place in the waldorf school I attended, and at least it wasn’t strictly adhered to.) Not all anthroposophists are fanatical about this either; some probably allow for the child’s own interests and desires to guide the learning; some probably aren’t anti-books at all — thinking that the child’s reading will happen when it happens — and don’t fuss too much, or at all, about ‘premature’, albeit voluntary, reading. But that there is a negative and discouraging attitude towards early reading — even woth regard children who have taught themselves to read — is certainly not bullshit, as Frank claimed. He should know better, much better.

30 thoughts on “reading and writing in waldorf

  1. I think it would be interesting to hear about experiences of people who are not active on the list. If I’ve been in a parallel world, as Frank suggests, I’d be very surprised to hear that also in the UK, for example, waldorf schools are postponing reading and writing — even stopping children from reading and writing! (Of course, I won’t be surprised. I’m aware this is a pattern in many waldorf schools, not just in my ‘parallel world’ ;-))

  2. I haven’t had the chance to read through the Yahoo thread, but I’m happy to share some observations on the Steiner parent/child group I attended with little M. for about 6 months last year vs. the mainstream kindergarten he now goes to. By the way, we’re in the UK and M. is now two and a half years old.

    Our first contact with the Steiner school was at one of their open days. The kindergarten room (also used for the parent/child groups) seemed nice enough with its nature table and pastel coloured walls, but to my mind there was one thing missing: books. I asked where they were and was told that the library is at the end of the corridor… We weren’t shown the library. There was a small number of dated-looking children’s encyclopaedia books in the older classrooms, but no other textbooks or fiction that I could see.

    At the parent/child group, little M managed to find a book in one of the cupboards which I was quite happy to let him sit and look at. He has lots of books at home. I thought perhaps I had imagined a disapproving look from the group leader at the time, but now understand why the book was hurriedly put away once M. had finished with it. Nothing was said.

    Now M. is at a mainstream kindergarten where there is a ‘reading corner’ with stacks of books. The carers read to the children individually and in small groups. The walls are covered in alphabet charts and pictures drawn by the children which are labelled ‘Mummy’, ‘Daddy’, ‘cat’, ‘dog’ etc. They are encouraged to recognize their own name on the coat hooks and on sticky name tags which they put on a wall chart to ‘check in’ on arrival and ‘check out’ when they leave. None of this strikes me as pushy or inappropriate. By the way, there is also a nature table and the chance to take part in gardening activities…

    I do tend to agree with the view that learning to read will happen when it happens. No point pushing it or holding a child back. The ‘thirst for knowledge’ that M. already has at two and a half is exciting and a joy to participate in for a new parent. He shows a healthy interest in numbers and his favourite toy at the moment is the magnetic alphabet on the fridge. He’s just starting to pick out the letters of his name and putting them together. I couldn’t bear the thought of sending him to the Steiner school and risk having this squashed out of him.

  3. Coat hooks!! Now you reminded me of something! In waldorf kindergarten, there were no names on the hooks — instead there were pictures. You could be a snail one year and a ladybird another year.

    There were no books in kindergarten, nor were there any in school. The school library was located in the main building, and grades 1-6 were in smaller buildings. We weren’t allowed to be in the main building, unless we had lessons there, there were performances at the state, or when going to the canteen. Around fifth grade we were introduced to the library. Too late. Library for kindergarten kids would have been out of the question. I don’t think we were supposed to know that books exist at all. But of course most kids have books at home, at least some books.

    Thanks very much for the input, Mark!!

  4. You’re welcome, Alicia.

    In short, there was a stark contrast between the Steiner school and the mainstream kindergarten with regard to their encouragement of literacy.

    Incidentally, the book wasn’t in the cupboard the next time little M. went looking for it!

  5. My almost younger brother went to a mainstream public nursery for his first years — the waldorf kindergarten didn’t start before the year of the child’s 4th birthday. (I had been cared for by my maternal grandparents, but, my brother being almost 8 years younger, this was no longer possible.) This nursery was a neighbour of the waldorf school, but the difference was striking. The staff were totally different.

    The kids there were 1-2-3-year olds. Perhaps older, but I guess the older ones may have been in another group. Anyway, they (the small children) had books they could look in anytime they wanted to. Unthinkable in waldorf…

  6. Wow, Mark, thanks for confirming that this is still the way it is … and that this is the way it is EVERYWHERE in Waldorf. Critics aren’t making it up.

    This statement:

    “The kindergarten room (also used for the parent/child groups) seemed nice enough with its nature table and pastel coloured walls, but to my mind there was one thing missing: books. I asked where they were and was told that the library is at the end of the corridor… We weren’t shown the library”

    … sums it up.

    No, you weren’t imaging the disapproving look, and it wasn’t a coincidence the book later disappeared. It had probably been left there by mistake. Since you were at an open house, they wouldn’t see fit to actually take it away from your son with you present and watching, but if that happened in the classroom, they’d have taken it away from him with some kind of comment like “We don’t do that here.” They understand full well that most parents, observing such a scene, would be very concerned and not want their child in this environment. They aim to deceive the parents on this point.

  7. The pictures instead of names on the cubbies I believe are also worldwide in Waldorf. The aim is very very clear: to PREVENT the children learning to read their own names as long as possible. They fully understand that at home, most of the parents will be trying to at least teach their children to spell their own name. There is no other school system, I don’t believe, where it is a goal of kindergarten to prevent children learning to read and write their own names, but rather to associate themselves with a picture of a snail or butterfly. What is this, ancient Mesoptamaia? They are literally trying to prepare children to live in a preliterate society. It is astounding.

  8. Incidentally, Alicia, there’s an incorrect link in your original post. The posts on critics where I talk about the research and statistics that would be needed to properly assess the outcomes of a pure Waldorf pedagogy in terms of children’s later academic success are here:

    and here (in reply to Walden’s comments about all the difficult confounding factors in such research):

  9. Thanks Diana — I’ve corrected it.

    ‘The pictures instead of names on the cubbies I believe are also worldwide in Waldorf. The aim is very very clear: to PREVENT the children learning to read their own names as long as possible.’

    Yes — I’ve never thought of it this way, until I read what Mark wrote; I thought it was so that they didn’t have to change these signs every year. But I guess it’s convenient for other reasons as well…

    My kindergarten drawings all have names on them, I’ve written my name on them myself — so they can’t have prohibited it completely. They complained about the quality of the drawings, according to my mother, but I don’t remember being told I couldn’t write my name. It was the only thing I liked doing; when the drawing was finished (I didn’t like drawing), I could write my name on the backside, and I liked writing letters. Any letters, any words, anything. I mean, it was dull, but better than nothing. Better than just drawing.

  10. Incidentally, I happened to talk with my mum last week about this. I thought I’d learnt to read and write the year before 1st grade, but she says it was way earlier, years earlier.

    And you know what (I guess I’ve told this story before, possibly on critics, it wasn’t something we touched upon, my mum and I, last week): the waldorf people didn’t think I was mature enough to start 1st grade, they wanted me to stay back in kindergarten one more year. So, ok, I was born late in the year, and maybe I hadn’t lost enough baby teeth yet, BUT I was one of few (maybe the only one, I don’t know) who could already read. I sucked at drawing, painting, eurythmy, handicrafts though.

  11. “My kindergarten drawings all have names on them, I’ve written my name on them myself — so they can’t have prohibited it completely”

    Our school had 3 kindergartens while I worked there. (It required 3 to feed into just one first grade; so many people withdrew their kids after kindergarten). The three kindy teachers varied considerably in their anthroposophical purity. I worked in all these classrooms at different times so I observed a range of behavior on this. One of the teachers freely allowed children to write their names on their work. (She was anthroposophical, but also believed in picking her battles; children WANT to write their names and preventing it can be a struggle.)

    Another teacher cleverly prevented it by grabbing the kids’ papers as fast she could HERSELF in order to write the name FOR them (and she required me to do this as well, though I eventually began to resist). This was clever because she was accommodating the fact that the children and the parents both expected to see names on schoolwork, naturally. So the names did get there, but she figured it was better if she do it herself than let the child do it. Also, she could write the names in a very small, not prominent place on the back, whereas many children will naturally write their names very large, and if it is on the front, they may point to it and say, “Look I can write my name” and that sort of thing – all very damaging, and a bad example for the other children. At that point, even children who aren’t interested or able to write their names yet, might get interested, and we can’t have that.

  12. “the waldorf people didn’t think I was mature enough to start 1st grade, they wanted me to stay back in kindergarten one more year”

    What they meant was, they wanted to try to get you to regress a bit.

  13. Well, yes. This makes them a parallel world though, a backwards world.

    The two kindergarten teachers were very anthro-pure, but I guess they may have chosen their battles. To some degree. One was the lady who was hired to force me to school in 1st grade. The other one lived in our neighbourhood; she tried to get my mother to at least have me read the right books, not any books I desired (my mum never got the hint), and she had ideas about the clothes my mum bought for me. Stopped saying hi when it was decided we’d leave waldorf. After nine years, she couldn’t even say hi. So maybe she was a kind of unimportant person anyway, insignificant and insecure. Within anthroposophy and outside of it.

  14. “Stopped saying hi when it was decided we’d leave waldorf. After nine years, she couldn’t even say hi.”

    Well, that tells you a lot about the Waldorf world right there – especially to those who insist this isn’t a cult. What a way to behave, especially to a child! But it isn’t inexplicable behavior, it’s cult behavior. It was no longer necessary to even speak to you because it had come out, after all that time, that you didn’t have karma with Waldorf anyway. Maybe in some other life time. But in this one, you ceased being a real person to them. You weren’t ready etc., so they had no more business with you.

    Until – fast forward many years – you started writing a blog

  15. No, it was my mum who met her, I didn’t. I mean, I guess I may have, but I probably didn’t care and don’t remember it. It was more of a problem to my mother and perhaps to my brother because he was still in kindergarten and this woman was his kindergarten teachers as she’d been mine. But I was 12,5 then, so old kindergarten teachers weren’t something I worried about. There were others who acted that way too, who didn’t say hi when meeting my mum on the subway train, for example (we/my parents continued to live not far from the school and on that subway line until fairly recently).

    On the other hand, there were committed anthros who did not act like that. Decent people. My class teacher didn’t either, I think I saw her once or something at a fair my mum forced me to visit with her.

  16. Of course, the fact that some act like that is quite enough to prove there’s a certain cultish strand in waldorf. One they should do whatever they can to combat. Not that they understand the need.

  17. I’m sure she believed she was in some sort of spiritual battle to save you, and when that mission had clearly failed beyond hope, there simply was no further point in contact with your family. If she’s alive now, she probably believes you’re some sort of demon.

  18. Well, at first — though at this point people were just rude and hadn’t stopped greeting — there sure was some potential mission left: my parents hadn’t planned to remove my brother from the waldorf kindergarten. It happened more or less as a panic decision, when mum realized, after it had become known I was leaving, that staying was not an option. But he was going to continue kindergarten there and possibly even school; he had at least one more year in kindergarten. On the other hand, he may have been seen as a lost cause anyway — my mum taught him to read when he was three, and he read chapter books already in kindergarten ;-) (She took a different approach to his reading than mine, and actively taught him.)

    She is alive, but she’s quite old, and retired since long (as Sune would say).

  19. I think that sometimes when there are multiple siblings, a reassessment is done when something goes badly wrong with one child. They consider it possible the real karma was with the other child, so it may be necessary to try to somehow put up with – not torment too badly, but stop trying to help – the other (bad seed) sibling in order to continue the true mission with the child they have real karma with. I have seen Waldorf teachers “give up” on a child they considered damaged for some reason, while continuing to lavish anthroposophical attention on another sibling. I guess it takes awhile sometimes to identify which children they “really” have karma with and which ones are just nuisances who happened to be born into the same family, but are (in this lifetime) spiritually unpromising.

  20. I think they quickly decided we were both nuisances, although my brother never spelled trouble like I did. (But his drawings were more even more horrible, from the anthroposophical viewpoint, and most other viewpoints as well…) Somehow my mum must have still believed in waldorf, though, because when he was four and they enrolled him in waldorf kindergarten, I must have been entering 6th grade, and by then it had already been decided that I was going to leave. We kept it secret for a long time though — only my class teacher knew. One day she’d — somewhat carelessly — answered a question by the other children on whether there were people leaving at the end of 6th grade. Since the reply was yes, they started asking around, and I had to say yes, even though I’d promised my parents to keep my mouth shut. After this, the truth was out, as it were. Which was probably just as well. In retrospect, I’ve realized that it was much better to be someone who’s going to leave — it gives you breathing space you wouldn’t have otherwise.

  21. I think you said your brother drew violent things. Kind of reminds me of my son, who like many guys always loves a good discussion of guns or tanks or weapons, yet is a gentle, mellow person.

  22. Seems a bit like my brother. He was always very easy to deal with. He was actually harmonious, despite these drawings and his interests in war and guns and battlefields and swords of various kinds (it wasn’t insignificant which kinds, it’s just that I would never be able to tell the difference…). I, on the other hand, didn’t draw anything violent, but was… well, far from harmonious and quite difficult to deal with (for my parents at least).

  23. From Awsna’s FB:

    ‘~ borrowed from the Prairie Moon Waldorf School
    “Education’s purpose is to replace an empty mind with an open mind” – Malcolm Forbes, publisher of Forbes magazine’

    Empty mind. Empty vessels to fill.

    It’s just that children’s minds are far from empty. It would be a lot easier for waldorf educators if children’s minds were empty.

  24. Yeah, I can see why that quote appeals to Waldorf educators, but it’s outdated and a bit disturbing. This notion, like Steiner’s notion that small children are like “sacks of flour,” retaining any shape or impression you impose on them, is long since debunked, and progressive education today proceeds on a very different set of assumptions, namely, that children’s minds are very active from birth, probably more active and capable than at any time throughout life.

  25. Even before birth. I mean, the brain is influenced already before birth by hormones, et c.

    It’s a bit odd as they, the anthroposophists, think the child has a reincarnating spirit, which brings ‘stuff’ with it to the present incarnation. That’s not really being ’empty’ either. Not that they need to see the mind as active because of this. Not that it’s exactly about the mind. But anyway.

  26. This blog post claims to be myth busting. In fact, it tells us that waldorf teaches reading/writing in the mindnumbingly boring way I’m criticizing. Of course children who already know how to read are bored half to death by this. Of course they hate not being allowed to read books or use worksheets. It says clearly that learning to read only starts in 2nd grade and continues into 3d grade — WHAT ABOUT those children who already knew how to read in kindergarten? What a waste of their time. They’re wasting years on this shit. So much for ‘myth’.

Comments are closed.