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.

3 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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    Replies
    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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