Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Learning Letters the Waldorf Way

Yesterday evening we had the first parents’ evening of the year at my children’s school. I sat in my six year old daughter’s classroom, looking through her books and paintings, at her finger knitting and the drawings on the wall. Leon, who works on our farm, was there too, looking at his son’s books attentively. I take Ryan to school every day with my children and he pays the minimum fee, which is still more than a state school. He is ambitious for his youngest son and wants him to learn good English and get a good job, so he makes the big effort to pay the fees and attend parents’ evenings. I could see a little furrow of incomprehension on his brow though. Our school is a Waldorf school and the Waldorf approach to learning letters is completely different to anything the government schools advocate. I could see him wondering - why are they still on drawing pictures and just a few letters?.

This morning he was busy cutting out capital letters from a magazine, to show his son the whole alphabet and the names of all the letters. I leaped in to reassure him and try to explain a bit how the Waldorf system works and found I needed to talk it through in my head first to make it comprehensible in a few clear words.

In Class 1, which is age 6/7, the children are introduced to one letter at a time through a story. Then they draw a picture, from the story, which has the shape of the letter in it. M for example is Mighty Mountain and the picture is of two adjoining mountains making an M-shape. At the same time they learn a rhyme: ‘Mighty, Mighty, Mountain Majestic and Massive, aMazing and Magic, Mighty, Mighty, Mountain’ and practise the sound it makes. They also make the shape by modelling beeswax and walk out the shape of the letter on the floor. This is a gradual process over a few days and then another letter is added. It takes the first two terms to make it through the alphabet this way.

But they are not just learning to recognise the letter in isolation and memorising its name. They are learning its sounds, how it fits into several words, they are expanding their vocabulary with longer words and learning their meanings, and above all they are getting a feel for each letter, with all their senses. Thus the letter isn’t just a linear symbol, it already tells a story – it has a use that is clear from the start and is permanently associated with its rhyme, which gives all the permutations of its sounds.

G this year is ‘Don’t Grab the Golden Goose or you’ll Get Glued!’ and goes with the folk tale of the woodcutter’s son with the golden goose that everyone gets stuck to, who ends up making the king’s daughter laugh with such a ridiculous spectacle and so wins her hand in marriage.

Sure it takes longer this way than learning the alphabet by rote, but by the end of the first year, when they start putting the letters together into words and writing sentences, they are already old friends. Bright children can then race ahead to reading fluently early in the second year, while others will take longer, but in the end they all learn to read and write with the solid foundation of familiarity. Children who might otherwise be classed as dyslexic stand a better chance of making sense of the letters this way too.

In the end I decided to show Leon my son’s school books from Class 1 and Class 2 and his progression to writing and its increasing neatness and fluency through the second year. I explained a bit of what I’ve written above and suggested that he gets Ryan to tell him the letters that he knows with their rhymes. I think he understood a bit more by the end, now he just has to convey it all to his wife, so she doesn’t fret that those letters will never come.

The children all chant the rhymes as we come home in the car from school, so I’m getting quite familiar with them too! I like

‘Don’t Despair, Dirty Door will appear’! and

‘Tall, Tall Tree Tower To The Top, Trusty Trunk, Tall,Tall Tree’.

Photos: Some of my son's work from Class 1 and the beginning of Class 2.

Towards the end of Class 2 his writing is already getting smaller and more regular, with just the occasional typo!


  1. I think my second daughter could really benefit from this form of learning.

  2. Ditto what Meredith said. (Although my son is only two...) I will keep this in mind when it comes time to teach him to read and write in English.

    I love your son's work. Those are beautiful drawings and stories. They are so unusual to someone who learned the old-fashioned way to read.


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