In a sunny classroom, first graders at the Chicago Waldorf School are not picking up books. Instead, in every student’s hands are two wooden knitting needles.
Seven-year-old Henry Gordon is carefully wrapping the yarn around one needle, then pulling his stitch through with the other hand.
“It’s really hard when you start your hat—it’s like, complicated,” says Henry. “And then, pretty soon we all got better at knitting and we started finishing our hats and going on to our scarves and then doing our sleeping bag.”
Teachers say knitting teaches skills children need to be good readers. The process of knitting is like threading a story. Kids are learning focus and concentration. They’re gaining fine-motor skills, needed for writing. They’re seeing patterns. They’re moving from left to right, the same way you read. They’re gaining confidence.
“I think I’m really good at it,” says 7-year-old Julia Scott. “I can go really fast. And I can do it without looking.” As she knits, she tells herself a little story to narrate the complicated movements of her fingers, the yarn, and the needles: “In the front door, around the back, peek out the window—out jumps Jack!”
Teacher Claude Driscoll says the goal of the little rhyme is to create a picture in kids’ minds of what is happening as they form each stitch. And, she says, creating a mental picture is a skill used all the time in reading.
To help kids create “inner pictures,” Waldorf takes a radical approach: there are no books in the first grade. There are not even picture books, because teachers want students to come up with their own ideas of what things look like.
“We’re reading ‘cat’ and ‘bat’ and ‘sat’—all those three-lettered words,” says Julia.
Maybe kids read books on their own?
“No. We don’t,” Julia says. “We’re not professional yet—we’re just learning,” she explains.
But while there are no books in the first grade, there are lots and lots of stories.
One recent day, Waldorf first graders helped their teacher re-tell a story. There were no props, no illustrations. Students took turns telling the story, about an old lady and some bothersome goblins. Afterward, students drew a picture of the story. In clumsy capital letters, they copied a sentence about the story their teacher had written on the chalkboard.
Waldorf also puts a big emphasis on movement and song. With their desks pushed to the sides of the room, the first graders dance and sing every morning. They recite poetry—including Tennyson the day I visit. It’s poetry they’ve only heard, never read.
Waldorf teachers say all this helps develop vocabulary and a sense of rhythm in language.
Waldorf teachers say when students finally do sit down to learn the mechanics of reading in second grade, most will pick it up at lightning speed.
Early childhood education expert Barbara Bowman says there are whole countries that share Waldorf’s philosophy of teaching students to read late. In Sweden and Japan, kids learn to read when they’re 7 or 8.
“There’s no question that if you start a little later you get fewer developmental problems. All the children are pretty much at the same developmental stage by the time you get to 7 or 8, so you don’t have to worry about any immaturities as a major problem,” Bowman says. “But it doesn’t seem to make a huge amount of difference at what age you start. They all pretty much reach the level of ‘reading for information’ at about 9.”
Even though Waldorf parents know their kids won’t be picking up books right away, it can be nerve-wracking for some. Brian Chambers has three kids at Waldorf, and his wife teaches in the preschool. Even with that, he did worry at one point.
"Around eight and a half years old I started getting nervous and anxious,” he said. “Like ‘What is this? How could it be that she’s not reading at grade level?’ Over the next six months after that it just took off.”
Chambers says at age 11, his daughter now reads constantly. But he does see issues. His second child has dyslexia. That went undiagnosed about two years longer than it might have in a school that starts kids reading earlier.
Seventh graders at Waldorf are putting on Dante’s Inferno this month. Their teacher, Carol Triggiano, says no one would know these kids were not reading until age 8 or 9.
“I think the fact that these children have not been pressured at a young age to learn how to read has allowed it to unfold in a very natural way,” Triggiano said. “As a result they’ve become kids that really love books.”
Triggiano says all the things her students learned by knitting and singing and hearing stories are still with them, helping them read.