Monday, June 17, 2013

Waldorf Schools are an interesting natural experiment showing that explicit reading instruction in the very early grades may be unnecessary

We have some family friends whose kids used to go to a (private) Waldorf school nearby.  The kids were wonderful, but I didn't know much about the school or its methods.  A few days ago, when I was saying something about whether children needed to read "informational text" in the very early grades, my wife said, "That's silly. Waldorf schools don't teach ANY reading until second grade, and those kids end up just fine."

I looked this up, and, as usual, my wife was right: Waldorf schools generally don't teach reading until second grade, use a whole language approach and avoid much explicit strategy instruction when they do teach it, and their students apparently end up reading just fine.  This is an important result, because it would seem to show that explicit reading instruction in Kindergarten and first grade may not be necessary, and that students certainly don't need to read much informational text to themselves in kindergarten and first grade in order to learn to read well later on.

Recent Studies
Until recently, most Waldorf schools were private, so skeptics could argue that if Waldorf students ended up being good readers, the students and families at those schools were distinctly different from the norm, so no comparison was possible.  Over the past couple of decades, however, a number of public Waldorf schools have opened, most of them in California, and two recent studies in the U.S.(Oberman 2007(pdf); Larrison et al. 2012) compare the results at these schools with those at traditional schools with comparable student demographics. The two studies find the same result: when it comes to reading on their own, students in the early grades in Waldorf schools are dramatically worse than their peers in regular schools, but by the later grades, the Waldorf students have caught up or surpassed the regular-school students.

The graphic below shows some of the results obtained in the 2012 study. The scores of the Waldorf students start well below average, then catch up by fourth grade, then seem to pull ahead.

These results are striking. When the same researchers looked only at the California Waldorf schools, so as to avoid issues with cross-state comparisons, the same pattern was seen, though with less dramatic divergence in the upper grades. When Oberman did a similar comparison on a more limited scale and with data from two years earlier, she found a somewhat similar pattern--Waldorf students starting out behind and catching up, if not pulling ahead.  A New Zealand study comes to the same conclusion: Waldorf students do badly on reading tests when they are 6 and 7, but by the time they are entering adolescence, they have caught up or even pulled ahead.

Conclusions
Now, of course the students and families at these schools are self-selecting, and of course there may be other ways to explain away these results, and of course this is not a very large body of scholarly literature.  Nevertheless, I can't find any studies that contradict these three, and these results are consistent with thinking that what is important is not explicit instruction in discrete reading skills, and not reading a minimum proportion of informational text--but, instead, developing students minds by engaging their imaginations, creating a culture of engaged intellectual inquiry, doing lots of reading stories aloud and having them sing songs and repeat poems.

So these studies aren't definitive, but they are enough to call into further doubt the blithe assurances of people like Tim Shanahan and David Coleman that their preferred approach is consistent with the available empirical evidence.

9 comments:

  1. I love all of the research you bring to this blog. Not common in educational writing :)

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  2. What I think is important is to compare the socio-ecenomic backgrounds of the families at the Waldorf and non-waldof schools......

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    1. They tried to control for that, as I noted:

      "Over the past couple of decades, however, a number of public Waldorf schools have opened, most of them in California, and two recent studies in the U.S.(Oberman 2007(pdf); Larrison et al. 2012) compare the results at these schools with those at traditional schools with comparable student demographics."

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  3. I must correct the author about the start of reading instruction in Waldorf schools. Reading instruction begins in first grade, and many foundational language experiences are provided in the Kindergarten such as oral tradition fairly tales and cultural tales.

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    1. Okay, I'm not an expert, but from what I've read and from my friends' experience, usually first grade is about learning the alphabet in a very artsy way that doesn't much resemble most of what traditional schools would consider "reading instruction", and then second grade is when reading itself begins to be taught. Obviously foundational language experiences are important, and ANY school that didn't have lots of reading aloud and storytelling and talking would be terrible. My point is that most of what passes for reading instruction in conventional schools in Kindergarten and first grade is basically pointless. The storytelling and fairytales and art and so on that Waldorf schools do are way more important than pushing reading instruction in those early years.

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    2. I have been trained in Waldorf education. Instruction in discrete reading skills do not begin until second grade. There is no concept of "learning to read" yet... so as not to create stress and to let the child come to love language and stories. The alphabet letters are connected to shapes that come out of the stories they are being told. So they do see the letters and even color and draw them, but they are not put in reading groups and there is no "phonics" teaching. It is a very natural, gradual process that honors the child instead of putting them in an adult-mind set too early.

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  4. I think the piece that is missing from this article is that young children at Waldorf schools are allowed to be children and learn from "doing" and from play - both inside and outside - rather than being forced to sit at a desk at an inappropriate age. My two high school aged teens (both former Waldorf students through grade 8) both state that they miss Waldorf and think traditional public high school is boring, a complaint they never uttered in their years at Waldorf. Neither read until age 7, and both are at or near the top of their classes in high school.

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  5. Here's what the data doesn't account for....something I witnessed first hand. At some Waldorf schools the classes start out large (k-4) then shrink significantly (5-8). The children who are not being well served by the Waldorf approach leave the school and by the time you reach middle school you have a collection of kids who likely would have been academically successful in many settings. This skews the results of testing done in the middle school grades.

    There is much to love about the Waldorf approach but it is not fail safe and some sort of regular oversight and ongoing assessment needs to be an integral part of the program. My wish is that those involved in the Waldorf approach to education become more open minded about the programs weaknesses and be willing to incorporate strategies that work regardless of their source.

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