How My Daughter Learned to Read

My daughter is 10 this year and in grade 5. I can hardly believe how time has flown by and how far we have come. From very early on she was identified as needing “extra support” in the reading department. Our school had excellent resources and a wonderful reading program where she was given all of the tools, support and resources she needed to build those skills she was lacking. But guess what? None of them worked.

Nothing the school did to support her helped her catch up. She was pulled out of her class twice a week for three years and still just barely kept up to “approach expectations” as prescribed by the Ministry of Educations definition of a normal elementary school child. She struggled, she stressed and she learned that she couldn’t read as well as her peers and thus labelled herself “dumb” and “stupid”.

Image from courant.com
Image from courant.com

Fast forward two years to today my daughter has read 3 novels at her reading level in the past week alone. Last summer she tackled The Hobbit and while it took her two months to get through it she finished and related the story with enough detail that I am certain she comprehended it. So what happened? How did we get from there to here?

Nothing.

Last year my daughter went to a Waldorf school where because of circumstance she was placed a grade behind where she probably should have been. They read books that were no where near her grade level. Their writing assignments were laughable by Ministry standards. In short all of the pressure to succeed and to learn to read and write was removed. Completely.

Instead of being assigned books by her teacher that were deemed appropriate she was allowed to just grab whatever she wanted to read. No more remedial classes with a learning assistant. No more drills, no more assessments or grades. She was simply allowed to be herself and trust that the skills she needed in life would come when she needed them.

Guess what? They did.

By the end of the year her creative writing flowed out of her. She used to struggle to form a sentence to describe her thoughts and be tormented with anxiety and a feeling of being wrong. Now she was stapling paper together and writing books on her own, illustrating them and building the stories from her head with excitement and the playfulness we all love so much about childhood.

She picked up a book that was ABOVE her reading level and struggled through it ON HER OWN. No prodding, no pressure, no praise required. Her own will was the only thing she needed to keep her going. Did I ask her throughout the next few months how far she was in The Hobbit? Yes, you bet I did but merely out of curiosity. I skimmed and refreshed myself on the story and asked her leading questions like… “Are they out of the mountain yet?” “Have they met the elves?” “Did anyone die?”. Her answers were full of passion and excitement as she related the story back to me.

My daughter is back in public school this year having technically “skipped” grade 4 all together. I can tell you that not once has her teacher identified a concern. This week is the final week of the reading challenge in her school and she has been voraciously tearing through novels to try and get through them all. At the beginning of the year she was regularly choosing books that were far below her reading level and in the past few months she has naturally, without extra support, begun to choose books at her level.

Now you might say she must have had terrible grade 1-3 teachers or that her Waldorf teacher was somehow special but actually the opposite is probably true. Her Grade 2 teacher was wonderful, amazing really and her Grade 3 teacher loved her so much she was given extra attention and support. Her Waldorf teacher in comparison was brand new and inexperienced, having taught mostly preschoolers before being given this class.

Want to know what I think made the difference?

Trust.

It is a core Waldorf philosophy that if children were never “taught” to read but simply read to and asked to copy from the board word for word that they naturally would learn to read of their own capacity somewhere between Grades 2 and 5. This is a HUGE variation that is difficult to work with in the classroom using today’s curriculum models and likely a core reason why we see so much struggle in our system around literacy.

Rudolph Steiner believed that we only need to trust our children to learn perfectly exactly how they were intended to and our role as teachers was to provide an environment in which they can do that.

Now I admit that I know very little about teaching either conventionally or based on Waldorf methods all I can speak to is my experience. My son’s journey was completely different which I believe speaks to how this current system is failing our kids. We are placing so much expectation on them and on our teachers when the truth is we don’t need to. We can simply let go and trust that everything will work out just fine.

That isn’t to say that we should just be letting our kids do whatever they want or failing to assess their needs. Quite the opposite we need to be providing the container which supports and encourages their development I’m just not sure it looks like the  model that exists. It didn’t serve my daughter and I know that she is  not alone….