Original: Feb. 28, 1994. This version: Sept. 9, 2022

Valdemar W. Setzer
Institute of Mathematics and Statistics
University of São Paulo, Brazil
Sonia A.L. Setzer, M.D.
Secretary General,
Anthroposophic Society in Brazil
Former President, Brazilian Association
for Anthroposophical Medicine 

This is a difficult theme. Our approach is based on Rudolf Steiner's Waldorf Education, and many of his writings and lectures about education. Since 1919, Waldorf Education is being practised in thousands of schools around the world. In Waldorf Schools, teaching how to read begins in 1st grade, being a slow process which is completed only in 3rd grade. Children below 6 are not accepted for first grade; 6½ to 7 is the ideal age to begin formal schooling.

The theme is difficult because to really understand the problem one would have to go deep into Steiner's so-called "Knowledge of the human being" (Menschenkunde, in German), involving his soul and spiritual model of each human being. We are going to focus only those aspects which do not require such model. Unfortunately, many assertions will be left unjustified, because they would require going into that model. That is, we are going to appeal only to the reader's unprejudiced common sense and observations.

During approximately his/her first 7 years, the child develops mainly the physical base, and will. For instance, the central nervous system completes its formation when the child is about 7-years old. The will manifests itself mainly through limb movements, which are constantly being exercised by healthy small children. One may notice that the child has very little conscious control of his/her will. Initially, movements are completely random, and through exercising them the child develops and individualizes his/her will control. The small child is extremely open to his/her environment, and has an astonishing unconscious imitation capacity. This imitation is the source of learning how to walk and to speak, as well as all the abilities the child acquires. One may force learning through other means, like conscious memorizing (one should not mix it with unconscious memorizing through rithm and constant repetition, like songs and poems, without the child's intellectual effort), but this is not adequate to the child's nature. In fact, at that age consciousness and memory are more conected to perceptions than to autonomous thinking. Learning should be done through playing and fantasy, as well as unconscious imitation. For instance, the best way to show a small child how to handle forks and spoons is not telling him/her how to do it, or forcing the proper finger position around them, but just leave the small child sitting in a high chair while older children and adults use them properly.

If a child asks some question, one should not answer it through abstract, intellectual concepts, but through mental images and observation of real facts. For instance, if a small child asks how are the waves formed in the sea, the worst educational attitude would be to go into an explanation of the earth's rotation, the sun and moon positions, the water's gravitational atraction by them, and so on (notice that gravitation is a process not yet understood by Physics, and tides are due to very complex resonance processes). One good "explanation" could be to fill up the kitchen basin with water and showing that by blowing small waves are formed. It is not necessary to say anything, and the result has a 100% analogy to the small waves one sees at deep sea (when there are no winds, the only waves are very wide ones, due to the tides). Certainly, a child will be much more satisfied with this sort of "concrete" – and true – explanation than the abstract ones.

One has to be careful with "concrete" explanations, though. They have to suit the child's maturity and interest. One nice real example occurred with a 4-year old little girl. Her mother thought that at that age, the child should know everything about the "birds and the bees". She explained the child the sexual act with lots of detail, the pregnancy, and so on. Next day, the little girl comes back from kindergarden and tells the moter: "My friend Jane told me how the babies are born!" The mother gets a schock, and asks what did the other girl say. "Well, she told me that babies are born in cabbages; her story is much more beautiful than yours!" In this case, the cabbage is a very nice image to the fact that the baby has to be "brought" to earth protected in a close environment. The old image of a stork carrying the baby is also proper to small children. When they get mature enough they will naturally want to have "scientific" explanations and will never accuse their parents of having cheated before, when they received what was proper to their age. Incidentaly, this timing is highly individual; some children have absolutely no interest in these problems up to puberty – so sexual education should be strictly individual, and not done in classrooms. In this example, an image is much more important than concrete facts, because the child should normally live in an inner fantasy world.

Now let's face the problem of reading. Humanity took thousands of years to develop our occidental writing. It passed through pictorial images representing objects, to symbols representing whole words (as hieroglyphs and the eastern ideograms), syllables, and finally just phonemes. This development corresponded to increasing abstraction capacities. Even old letters had deep meanings, as for instance the print Aleph letter of the Hebrew alphabet (ℵ), which recalls the figure of a man, the original Adam. The letter "I" reminds one of the erect figure of an human being, which can only stay in that position if his "I", his higher Ego, is conscious and active. Nowadays our letters are dead formal symbols. Learning them involves a certain degree of formal abstraction.

Children repeat humanity's development, and should be mature enough to face such abstraction efforts. For instance, only after having developed a good spacial orientation, which occurs around age 7, when brain hemispheric dominance has been established, is the child able to distinguish between symetric forms, as p and q, b and d. Some children may learn to distinguish these letters much earlier, but it is quite normal that children mix these letters until about age 8. In a similar way that one may train a horse to dance – which is not proper to its nature –, one can train a small child how to read. In this case, one would be forcing a capacity which is not proper to the child's development. The problem is that, as the child is in the beginning of this process, improper actions disrespecting a "normal" development may disturb the whole future life. In fact, forcing its formal abstraction abilities one would be robbing the child some inner "forces" which should be devoted to his/her physical (that is, of the organs) and psychological develpment. Only at school age are these "forces" available to such abstract learning as how to read and do arithmetic. One of many physical indications that the child is mature for that process is the change of teeth.

The abstraction process should not be developed too fast and through formal abstractions. In fact, the human being takes a long time to really assimilate new capacities. Not using abstractions in teaching how to read, means that one should do it through images and concrete means. For instance, one may tell a fairy tale (the basis of Waldorf School teaching in 1st grade) involving the sea waves and the wind, as in Grimm's story about the fisherman and his wife. Insisting upon the sounds of waves and winds (if children are eventually not used to see them, one may show small waves in a bowl), one may introduce the letter w, drawing it at the blackboard with live colored chalk as a wave or some wave-form picture evocating the wind. This way one associates fantasy and real phenomena familiar to the child to the abstract symbols. In reality, this was what ancient people did when they started to write.

The slow learning timing used in Waldorf Schools, as indicated by Steiner, is the following: in 1st grade, just print capital letters, each one introduced through images and stories; in 2nd grade small print letters; in 3rd grade cursive letters (handwriting).

We have said that a small child loses a lot if s/he is trained to read too early. One may ask the question: what is gained through that learning? In our opinion, nothing is gained in terms of inner positive development, on the contrary, the child has made a negative development, that is, of something that should had remained strange to him/her. One of the negative developments is precisely the early development of intellectual abilities. This is what attracts some parents to early reading. For us, this is a tragedy. One is not letting the child be as childish as s/he should. This is done through the sacrifice of the forces we referred to above. We conjecture that, as a consequence, one triggers cristalization processes, leading to eventual precocious sclerosis processes later on in life.

How many more books were read by an early-reading child in relation to the ones that learn it later? Certainly not significantly more, but, if s/he has read a lot, then s/he has been subjected to a strong intellectual development. In other words, the child is behaving like a small adult, and has lost part of his/her childhood. In the same way as a child soon gets bored with a new toy which does not appeal to his/her fantasy, many children may lose their interest in reading. At early ages the "normal" activity should be of hearing someone telling a story (preferably not being read at that moment), submerging into fantasy, which is partially impaired through the effort of reading. This is a thinking effort; perceptions and fantasy are obstructed by such type of thinking. Small children have those capacities in an astonishing degree. If they are impaired at early ages through intellectual activities like reading, one may get an adult with less creativity, with rigidity in thinking, and with difficulties in improvising in poorly defined (that is, non-intellectual) situations. When an adult looks for a job, the employer is not going to ask if s/he has learned how to read at age 5, 7 or 9, but will give importance to the capacity of solving new problems in a creative way, and to social abilities.

These are just a few arguments. We hope they make people start challenging the modern concepts about education, which in general do not correspond to the child's inner characteristics, and force his/her early intellectualization. A tragic example of this trend was Modern Math; it took many years of real damage to students, until people realized that Modern Math was forcing a kind of abstract, logical thinking which was not proper for the ages where it was applied (see Morris Kline, Why Johnny Can't Add: the Failure of New Math). Neil Postman has written an article and a book with the title The disapperance of childhood. He was refering mainly to mass media communication influences (TV at that time), and has made the terrible forecast that by the turn of the 20th century children would not be childish anymore.

We have called here the attention to some problems caused by early reading. We feel that the origin of these problems lay in the present lack of an adequate vision of what the human being is and how should s/he develop until reaching a mature age (around 21). In former times, people still had an intuitive knowledge of these facts – that was the reason why reading was only taught at elementary school, after ages 6-7. Unconscious intuitions do not satisfy anymore; people are looking for conceptual explanations which may be understood and verified by observation. That was precisely what Rudolf Steiner did at the beginning of the 20th century, with his "view of the world" (Weltanschauung), which he called Anthroposophy, encompassing the whole of the human being, that is, not just his physical body but also his soul and spirit. In particular, one of its applications, Waldorf Education, has been successfully applied in schools all over the world. For those that want to objectively examine the source of our arguments, and go deeper into them, we advise reading some of Steiner's dozens of books and thousands of lectures, as well as those published by his followers. For an on-hand experience with Waldorf Education and mainly its way of teaching how to read, we strongly recommend visiting a Waldorf School (also called Rudolf Steiner School; sometimes the name is preceded by the word "Free").