First Grade Language Arts

Last week I wrote about math in the Waldorf-inspired first grade and this week I’d like to look at language arts. First grade language arts studies are very gentle and slow compared to typical programs, especially when compared with the modern emphasis on teaching preschoolers to read. Teaching language arts the Waldorf way is also holistic, of course. It’s slow and gentle for a reason: The children are learning so much more than just the mechanical skills of reading and writing. The goal for first grade is a solid and broad foundation in auditory processing, high-level vocabulary, speech, rhythms of language and poetry, music, movement, memory work (poetry recitation and story recall), and fine motor skills (careful progression of form drawing and handwriting).

Waldorf first grade emphasizes high quality literature through storytelling, reading aloud, and learning poetry. The beauty of language is paramount. And just like in math, language is taught from the whole to the parts. Note: this is not the same as the mainstream-popular reading method called whole words or whole language where children are taught sight words and to read from context/guessing. Rather, it’s an approach in which we start with the whole (language as used in speech and stories) and from there move to the parts (translating sounds to written symbols).

Art is really the primary vehicle for teaching in the early grades (see this article here on the seven lively arts). This is holistic learning - head, heart, and hands. All lessons in all of the main subjects have academic, artistic, and active parts. For example, we capture the imagination with a story, we engage with the story the next day through recalling it, drawing it, and perhaps modeling with clay from it, and after that we write a summary. That same story can be worked with through painting, speech, and drama. It’s a lively, active, and deep way to learn.

The sequence of learning to read in a Waldorf school is speaking - writing - reading. It’s interesting to me that when I taught in a free school (with a philosophy very similar to unschooling) the children naturally followed this same progression in teaching themselves to read. I don’t recall any of my preschoolers asking to learn to read - they wanted to write. To do. So they asked how to write and spell things and wrote their own stories and notes and letters and at some point later decided it was time to learn to read.

One thing that’s especially unique to Waldorf is that the alphabet is taught slowly starting in first grade and in a way that recapitulates how the alphabet (and writing/reading) evolved in human history. A lesson in a fairy tales and letters main lesson block might progress like this:

Day 1 - Tell a fairy tale - a whole story with beautiful language, rich vocabulary, and evocative imagery. Let’s say this week we’re working with Snow White and Rose Red from Grimm’s. We might also practice an alliterative verse that comes from the story such as, “Black bear, black bear, be you really a bear?” This might also be a form drawing or painting day.

Day 2 - Recall the story together and draw a picture from the story. Captured in the drawing is a pictorial representation of a letter. This week it might be a Bear in the shape of a B. It’s not a silly cartoonish picture meant to entertain but rather an expression of how a picture/image can come to represent a word or sound on paper.

Day 3 - Find the letter hiding in the picture, then learn the sound and practice writing it as a pure symbol. We would do lots of movement (practicing the B with the full body and then writing) and speech exercises (maybe finding objects with an initial “buh” sound and learning a tongue twister).

Later in the year, after the child is comfortable with the sounds and letters, it’s time to start writing whole sentences to summarize fairy tales or writing down poems that have been memorized. The main lesson books with this writing (along with drawings and form drawings) become the child’s first readers. The child practices writing and reading back what he wrote. Some teachers and homeschool parents embark on learning word families and phonetic reading skills in first grade and others wait until second grade.

Reading in the Waldorf-inspired homeschool progresses at the child’s pace. Many children are not neurologically ready to learn to read by age 6/7 and in Waldorf education that isn’t a problem and reading is not rushed. This blends really well with the unschooling and interest-led philosophies and it leads to very strong readers over time who find joy in reading. It’s a low-pressure, low-stress approach to reading that leaves the child’s confidence and enthusiasm intact. It works well for early readers also. Children who are already reading chapter books by first grade are still thrilled to experience the alphabet through pictures and they benefit so much from all the hands-on and artistic work. For me, one of the most exciting reasons to homeschool is that I can fit the program to my child, and not the other way around!

Now I’d love to hear from you….

Have you taught first grade at home before and did you use Waldorf methods? What was the most fun for you, and what did your child enjoy the most? What was your biggest challenge?

And if you’re planning for first grade in the future, what do you think about the holistic approach? What’s your biggest question and what are you most excited about?

Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts in the comments below!