Waldorf schools and T.P.R.S.

Rudolf Steiner, the great German philosopher and teacher, developed the Waldorf School system.  Waldorf schools emphasise imagination, creative play, moral agency and a whole lot of other ideas we don’t see much of (especially in the test-driven U.S.).  Interesting here are the connections between Waldorf schools and TPRS– fascinating– lessons for us here from the 1920s (side note: Steiner’s experimental art was called “eurythmy” hmm now who borrowed that?).

In this article from the Moon Child blog, a Waldorf teacher explains some of the steps used in early literacy.

First, children are exposed to an enormous variety of oral language.  The kids hear folktales, nursery rhymes, stories, poems, and even simple news articles.  Original– not “dumbed down” or simplified–language is used.  The emphasis here is on getting loads of language–and its zillions of attendant ideas, grammar structures, patterns, sounds etc– into kids’ heads in a fun, meaningful and interesting way.  The teacher goes S-L-O-W-L-Y and clearly.

This oral language is taught in “circles” where there are lots of opportunities to discuss whatever is being read.  The texts are read aloud, sung, etc, several time.  Memorisation is ESSENTIAL: the kids will know dozens of songs, poems, stories etc by heart by the middle of first grade.  Steiner was very set on memorisation being important: repetition “reinforces” neural connections, and having a “data set” to play with– mental “objects,” so to speak– is an important element in developing any kind of thinking,

Letters come next– kids learn mnemomics where for example “M” stands for “mountain” and the kids draw anm-shaped mountain (or whatever).  This personalises their relationship with the lettters.

Writing begins not with copying letters and worksheets, but with the teacher reading a poem the kids know aloud, then writing it onto the board or overhead, and the kids then copy it down.  Because they “know” the poem– often by heart– there is little or no effort involved in writing and decoding.  The kids simply “get” that writing b-e-a-r is how you write down the main character in the fairytale they know. The word comes in the writing sequence in the same “place” it comes in the speaking, so it all fits.

Reading starts in the second grade…and involves only literature.  There are no “read and answer multiple-guess” questions activities, no worksheets, and no “book reports.”  Most of all, there are no “See Spot run!” kid books– Waldorf kids jump right into interesting, kid-complex texts.

It looks like Steiner did in the 1920s what it took Blaine Ray, Susan Gross and others from 1980-1990 to re-tool for the second language classroom.  In TPRS, we

(a) emphasise masses of oral language– comprehensible oral language– long before we start writing and speaking.

(b) emphasise repetition:  we want our limited (but interesting, because in story form) vocab “hardwired” into our kids’ heads

(c) begin writing with “copying” stories from what was spoken..and we later branch out into personalising that writing.

(d) read “real” literature– novels– (albeit language-level-appropriate ones) which use real situations and people.  We don’t use isolated bits of writing, or exclusively informational texts, etc.

(e) we personalise what we read– discussion, extension, etc.  If a character likes eating fish then we talk– who likes eating fish?  why?  why not?  (we can also talk about more complex ideas– if a character in a novel feels lonely even among his or her friends, we can ask who feels lonely? when?  why do we feel lonely with friends?  are we always lonely when we are alone?)

The main difference with TPRS and Waldorf language instruction appears to be that in TPRS we have to majorly simplify input, and we have to restrict input’s variety (because our kids recognise a ton less than native-speaker Waldorf kids do).  Interesting how Baline and Susan– fifty years after Steiner– basically “rediscovered” his method.


    1. There are several Waldorf teachers in Europe who use TPRS and other CI friendly strategies. Martin Anders has been coming to the Agen Workshop for over 5 years and I presented at his school near Hamburg last year.

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