Monday, October 14, 2019

How Waldorf Teaches Capital Letters

Turning now to what we've been doing in our October main lesson block, the Lower Elementary group is doing their first main lesson book! They are doing the classic, and very lovely, Waldorf Capital Letters block.

All of the students I have are familiar with the Capital Letters already, but they are enjoying going through them again in this arts-rich way. It also makes the first main lesson book less stressful; when the content is familiar, the task of the actual bookmaking is the only new skill.

In brief, the concept behind the Capital Letters block is that you choose a picture for each letter (similar to how the English alphabet actually evolved in Ancient Phoenicia, Greece & Rome). The image is carefully chosen to be the shape of the letter and share a sound with the letter (such as M for Mountain). Two mountains side by side actually look like the letter M.

Ox, House, Stick: The History of Our Alphabet

by Don Robb

For more (you can always go deeper when it comes to Waldorf), the best resource is Roberto Trostli's Teaching Language Arts in the Waldorf School, compiling Steiner's quotes regarding each facet of language arts instruction. These are taken from the Essentials of Waldorf Education series of 25 books.

Trostli's book is still in print but it also available online completely free as a downloadable PDF, courtesy of the Online Waldorf Library.

Having done this main lesson topic before, I have a way that I really like of presenting the letters, which is to do them in pairs. If you're curious about all of the pairs, you can check out the Capital Letters page on my website.

I find a story which unifies two pictures/letters and we read the story, do our art, and add the pictures/letters to the MLB. This allows me to do the whole thing in one block, while still giving a picture for each of the 26 letters. Other Waldorf teachers with whom I've spoken find the time consideration difficult and will either do it in one block without doing pictures for all letters, or divide it into more than one block. However, I think that seeing all the letters right away is important for future writing.

After all, in Waldorf they learn to read by writing!

Writing, historically, had to pre-date reading. You can't read unless something has first been written down. Here, the children are both the writer (first) and the reader (second). They are walking in the footsteps of history.

How do they write without being able to read yet?

After we do each story we explore the pictures/letters further through art activities. The next day we recall the story and add our art to the MLB. Then it is time to add the words which accompany the artwork. I meet with each child one-on-one and give them an opportunity to dictate a sentence to me and I write that down; the children then copy their sentences into their book. The sentence is a summary of the story; the artwork is the illustration.

By following this rhythm each day, the students end up creating a book each month about whatever they are learning about. This technique works for first grade through high school, and students have a wonderful portfolio of handmade books by the end of the school year. The idea in Waldorf is that you learn to read in first or second grade by discovering that you can read the books you're making while you're making them! You look down and realize that you can read it! To do this, of course, you need familiarity with the letters and some idea of their sounds. What could be more compelling than reading a book you wrote... instead of the adventures of Dick and Jane.

The problem with introducing the letters through these pictures comes when you learn more about the English orthography system (and, in particular, SWI) and you know that later on the kids will enounter it as well. In our language, letters do not have a simple 1:1 sound:symbol correspondence.

That's okay, and we can deal with it through SWI, but what you do not want is to set students up for future frustration by giving them inaccurate information when they are beginning readers. Fluent readers don't actually begin at the start of a word, sound it out letter by letter, and know what the word is by the end of it. Research (and cameras which follow the rapidest of eye movements) have shown that readers check the first letter, skip to the end and check the last letter, make a prediction based on context clues of what the word is, and then skip to a few letters in the middle to confirm their prediction. If all checks out, they move on.

That's why you can read things like this with no problem:

    I cnduo't bvleiee taht I culod aulaclty uesdtannrd waht I was rdnaieg. Unisg the icndeblire pweor of the hmuan mnid, aocdcrnig to rseecrah at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno't mttaer in waht oderr the lterets in a wrod are, the olny irpoamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rhgit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it whoutit a pboerlm. Tihs is bucseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey ltteer by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

It's a quick process and it's far from "just sound it out." The number one thing you can do to increase your children's reading level is to read to them. That's because the bigger their vocabulary is, the more likely they'll be to recognize a word when they see it.

So, if first graders are still learning to read and you have to give them some phonological awareness so that they have a good foundation, but you don't want to over-simplify the system so that they are locked into distortions like "b says buh" (the word "doubt"?) or "t says tuh" (the word "action"?) or "a silent e makes the vowel say its name" (the word "come"?) or "when two vowels go walking the first one does the talking" (the word "shield"?), etc. what do you do????

Waldorf makes the introduction to the Capital Letters hands-on and artistic and soul-beautiful (each day, making the MLB is the favorite thing of my younger students, as evidenced by their gratitude journals) but in having those pictures of items introducing the letters (Mountain for M, Net for N, House for H, Tower for T, etc.) am I not still creating the false idea that one symbol goes with one sound?

The way we are doing this in my classroom is that we are doing the classic Waldorf block with two changes. One, I'm doing a pairing of Cinnamon for C and Ginger for G in addition to Cave for C and Goose for G, just to plant those seeds. And, two, I'm allowing the younger students to sit in on the weekly SWI lessons of the older students. Again, just to plant those seeds.

Would love to hear the thoughts of anyone interested in combining Waldorf with SWI! How are you handling this in your classroom?

Here are my notes from the first two weeks of this main lesson block:

Tuesday, October 1 (L - Ledge, D - Dragon)

Thursday, October 3 (R - River, N - Net)

  • review L - Ledge and D - Dragon
  • finish city illustration, add to MLB, write summary sentence
  • read Where the River Begins by Thomas Locker
  • look at illustrations of R - River and N - Net in L M N O P

Friday, October 4

  • review R - River and N - Net
  • begin MLB artwork for Net: Aluminum Foil Fish using aluminum foil, sharpies, and onion/potato mesh bags for texture of scales

Monday, October 7 (V - Valley, C - Cave)

Tuesday, October 8

  • look at illustrations of V - Valley and C - Cave in L M N O P
  • do dyeing project inspired by the story, dyeing pure wool felt with tea leaves and freshly ground coffee to create speckled brown designs

Thursday, October 10 (M - Mountain, E - Elephant)

  • use tracing paper, finger puppet pattern in Suzanne Down's Around the World with Finger Puppet Animals, and dyed felt to create speckled brown & white bunny finger puppets inspired by Chia
  • review V - Valley and C - Cave
  • create MLB artwork: colored pencil Valley and Cave drawings
  • read "The Magic Elephant" from Buddha Stories by Demi

Friday, October 11 (W - Worm, U - Underground)

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