The Patience of Hope: Reading and other Epiphanies

In the last 36 hours or so, my son Peter has gone from being vaguely aware of the way letters sound to being a reader. We’ve plowed through all the Little Bear books, a couple of Seuss things, and we’re on to Amelia Bedelia. Heady stuff!

All parents are, I assume, delighted when their children enter the literate world, but for me, this is also an enormous relief, and the end of at least a couple of years of nagging fear that my son would never figure it out. Peter’s not 5, he’s 8. He’s not, as far as I know, learning disabled, but he goes to a school where the philosophy about reading is "better late than early," and there’s a laissez-faire approach to the subject that I’m sure would curl many American educators’ hair. The idea is that 5- and 6-year-olds need to spend their time doing 5- and 6-year-old things–mostly playing, but also being introduced to other languages, learning to knit and play the recorder and sing, cooking, building, working in the garden–instead of doing phonics drills. In principle, there are many things I like about this approach, but in practice, it has been excruciatingly difficult for me to stand back and not get out the flashcards. The last couple of days have, in many ways, demonstrated all of the things I’d wanted to believe about the theory: Peter reads pretty fluently already, changes his inflection to reflect punctuation and tone, seems to be understanding what he’s reading, and quickly assembling words and sentences in his head, rather than just decoding sounds. We’ve skipped the "Beginning Reader" stage almost entirely, and I strongly suspect that by next week or so, his prowess will be indistinguishable from that of his more conventionally taught second grade peers.

One is tempted, of course, to craft a thousand hokey analogies–I’ll try to limit myself to just one. It seems to me that we often think we’re doing and learning something other than what God knows we’re doing. We set goals, we come up short, things go horribly awry, and then we turn around one day to discover that we’re more patient and charitable than ever before, or that the particular way we failed at one goal has perfectly prepared us for what now appears to be something far more important. God lets us poke along at learning to knit, or singing cute rhyming songs in German, without letting us in on the fact that we’re picking up the crucial left-to-right eye motion and skill at picking out final consonants that prepares us for fluent reading.

Although it sometimes drives me crazy, I love the task-orientedness of Mormons–I love knowing that tomorrow’s meetings will have lessons on the mechanics of goal-setting, that somebody will inevitably hold up his Franklin planner to show what a wonderful tool it is, that there will be admonitions to be strong and determined and reminders that it takes 21 days to establish a habit. I trust that God can work with our often-misapplied zeal, and that he is as delighted as we are when we finally realize what all our scurrying is *really* about. I take great comfort in my sense that our Parents are pleased, as well as amused, by our efforts.

"His adorable will let us gladly fulfill,
And our talents improve,
By the patience of hope, and the labor of love." (Charles Wesley, Hymns, 216)


  1. Tom Manney says:

    Congratulations to you and Peter. I have two — no, three — reactions.

    1. Where can I learn more about this approach to teaching reading? I have young children and am intrigued. (And a sidebar question on this subject: Was there a specific reason why you put Peter into this program?)

    2. I learn by analogies, and I find no analogy more instructive in building my relationship with God than that of myself as an earthly child to my earthly parents and as an earthly parent to my earthly children. Sometimes it has helped me see what a baby I am being. Sometimes it helps me appreciate how truly loved I am. Sometimes it has left me without excuses — if I wouldn’t let my children get away with saying that to me, then there’s no way Heavenly Father is buying it when I say it to Him.

    3. I wish I loved reading now as much as I did when I was young (5-9 years). For that matter, I wish I loved reading the scriptures now as much as I did when I was 18 years old. Alas.

  2. Julie in Austin says:

    I was going to bite my tongue because I realized that Kristine’s post was not ultimately about teaching reading, but if Tom is going to ask, I need to say: the approach that has worked with Peter will work, according to the stats, well with about half of kids. The other half will not be able to read beyond a fourth grade level until they get a solid grounding in phonics. Schools that take the above approach are taking a terrible risk. Even if it ultimately clicks, as it did for Peter, I wonder if the good acocmplished by time spent knitting outweighs the three years of reading lost. Not only has the skill not had those three years of development, but a certain window of innocence for the young reader has probably been lost. Will an eight-year-old snuggle under the covers with a flashlight and devour _Charlie and the Chocolate Factory_ or _Charlotte’s Web_, or he is already too jaded to delight in these books?

    Kristine, you know this is in no way an indictment of your parenting choices or meant to wet the blanket of your epiphany. Waldorf does much good.

    (More for those interested: ‘phonics’ became a dirty word when the American educational establishments made it a synonym for ‘worksheets.’ It need not be so. I used a phonics-intensive approach with my then 4yo. We did not do a single worksheet, or, in fact, any written work at all. Before he was five, he could read on a 4th to 5th grade level. More importantly, now 6yo, he loves to read.)

  3. Julie, I was thinking of how crazy this would make you when I wrote it :). I think you’re largely right, and that’s part of why it was hard and scary for me to wait. In fact, Peter’s teacher has done some phonics with the class this year (2nd grade), and I think most Waldorf teachers are starting to recognize the benefits of a combined whole language/phonics approach. What remains different is the timing, and there I think there’s pretty good evidence to suggest that it really does go faster when you teach older kids–and in much of the world (Germany and Sweden, to name a couple of highly developed examples) 7 is regarded as a perfectly fine age to start teaching reading. Americans seem in a huge hurry to me, with some unfortunate results mixed in with the good ones. I learned to read fairly early, and I think I lost a lot–it would have been good for me to be forced to play outside, to work on my limping social skills, to have gotten good at throwing a ball and climbing trees. And “jaded” is less of a problem with kids who have been not watching TV or playing video games and have spent lots of first grade listening to fairy tales. Peter’s the “youngest” almost-8-year-old I know in lots of ways, and I am totally confident that he is not spoiled for Charlie & the Chocolate Factory yet.

    If I’d had a different child, I might very well have done things much the way you’re doing, Julie–in fact, I think the curriculum you use is *exactly* what I would have chosen if I’d homeschooled as I had always intended. But if I’d tried a phonics-intensive approach (or really *any* approach designed to explicitly teach him *anything*) with Peter, I’d have had open rebellion and hatred of reading on my hands. Part of what is so interesting about the process to me is how unusual it is for me to be not pushing, not trying to control, not as worried a

  4. I *swear* I’m only hitting “post” once!!

  5. Julie in Austin says:


    Amen to that. To be fair, I suppose that I *did* combine phonics and whole language, to the extent that every phonics lesson was followed by Simon reading a ‘real’ book from the library to me.

    The timing issue is interesting. I think that in a school setting, the ‘better late than early’ mantra is probably the best route to take in order not to harm kids on the left side of the bell curve. Of course, homeschooling, the issues are different.

    The ‘hurry’ issue is terrible. (If I see one more electronic toy designed to teach one year olds the letters of the alphabet, I’ll scream.)

    You wrote, “I learned to read fairly early, and I think I lost a lot–it would have been good for me to be forced to play outside, to work on my limping social skills, to have gotten good at throwing a ball and climbing trees.” These need not be mutually exclusive. Everything in moderation.

    Someone needs to post about ‘jading.’ Case: I am teaching a coop class of six year old homeschooled Mormon kids (can you think of a more sheltered group?). As an introductory activity, I ask them their names and to tell what their favorite toy is. Every boy (except mine) says Nintendo or Gamecube or Gameboy. sigh

  6. “I learned to read fairly early, and I think I lost a lot–it would have been good for me to be forced to play outside, to work on my limping social skills, to have gotten good at throwing a ball and climbing trees.”

    Hopefully it’s not an either/or situation. I managed to read and play outside, for instance.

  7. Of course it’s not either/or, and it wasn’t as though my parents or teachers made me stay inside to practice reading. It was just that I’m temperamentally inclined to live in my head, not in my body, and reading early made my head that much more interesting and my body that much less.

  8. This is so interesting. And you all know so much about this stuff. I have no idea what a whaldof is, except maybe a hotel somewhere?

    I didn’t learn to read until much later. I struggled with reading and was always in the dumb groups at school. It was a rural school and I haven’t the faintest idea what type of system they used. Then I showed up to fourth grade (what is that 9? 10?) and out of the blue I could read . . . and write. I remember it vividly. It felt like a flash from outerspace.

    And now I have a four year old who is teaching herself to read and write and I haven’t done a thing to encourage or discourage it. She informed me a few days ago that she wanted to practice writing her letters, (which she had known for years already). So I printed out some practice sheets from someplace on the web and now she can write everyone in the family’s name. And I don’t help her or teach her at all. In fact she get angry with me (to quote her: “Mom you’re making me angry. I’ll do it myself.”)if I make any suggestions as to pencil holding technique or letter formation or whatever you call it. So I leave her alone.

    And I’m thinking I don’t know what to do with this child, I couldn’t read until I was more than twice her age.

  9. I might disagree with your description of Waldorf Education’s approach to reading as “laissez faire” meaning an abstention from interference. I find it difficult to explain this approach to teaching reading and it often ends up being described as more “laid back”. Instead I have found reading in a Waldorf school to be more gentle and careful in laying the foundation for reading than most “techniques”. I think the acknowledgement of cultivating the inner activity of true reading and “living into the story” vs. decoding words and developing comprehension skills is a better approach for many children, especially boys. When the time came, both of my children’s teachers used a mix of phonics and whole language with good results. Similarly, while knitting is a wonderful artistic activity it also helps to develop mobility and dexterity of fine motor muscles which are now being linked to brain development which strengthens the physical foundation for thinking that you have alluded to.

    That being said, I think that we need to be careful about not placing all “Waldorf” kids into the same round peg hole and be watchful to support early readers as well as kids who may be encountering serious reading difficulties. I found “waiting” for my first son to read to be be a “white knuckle” experience because I love reading so much and wanted to get right in there and teach him how to “be like me”. It was interesting to watch him become his own reader — and I was delighted as he moved quickly into reading the Little House series. He is now almost 11 and is currently reading “James and the Giant Peach” by the light of his closet and he was right in the thick of things last night as I was reading “The Adventures of Reddy Fox” to some of his younger siblings. I am of the persuasion that you will find more “jadedness” in the 6 year old who has watched the Harry Potter or Spiderman movies or in the 7 year old who is proficient at reading the Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen series of books.

    Anyways, this is long enough … thanks for blogging on this topic. Although there are limited opportunities for it, I enjoy the discussion that rises from the intersection of Waldorf Education and Mormonism :)

  10. “Although there are limited opportunities for it, I enjoy the discussion that rises from the intersection of Waldorf Education and Mormonism”

    Yes, the occasions are limited, since as far as I know the universe of Mormon-Waldorf moms consists entirely of people named Kristine with a K :)

  11. Nate Oman says:

    I have nothing lyrical to say (no surprises there), and I have no insight into the Waldorf phonics debate. I do have a data point:

    I did not learn to read until I was about 11 years old. Most of the time I was in a highly unstructured experimental school called “The Open Classroom.” The rest of the time I was in the special education room. I ultimately learned to read through the brute memorization of the 300 to 400 most common words in the English Language (I believe that they are called the Fry words), which I learned almost as pictographs.

    I still read extremely slowly, which has been a mixed curse and a blessing. The blessing comes from the fact that I think I tend to retain more of what I read than many simply because I read so slowly. The curse comes from the fact that I read very, very slowly. It made law school, which places a premium on reading huge amounts of material in a compressed time, a bit of a bear. Also, as you all know, I still cannot spell.

    I suspect that there is no more generalized truth about reading, education, or the nature of God and the universe in my experience. There is, however, something to be said on occasion for plodding, brute memorization.

  12. “I suspect that there is no more generalized truth about reading, education, or the nature of God and the universe in my experience.”

    Sure there is, Nate–your experience proves that God is just. If you were a fast reader, the rest of us would not even have a fighting chance at keeping up with you. (Some of us still don’t, but we’re not bitter about it. Much.)

  13. Talking of reading, did anyone take the class at BYU by Grant Von Harrison on teaching children to read? (Yes, the same Von Harrison of Drawing on the Powers of Heaven fame. (Or infamy depending upon how you thought it helped or hindered missionary work)

    I took the class at BYU and really enjoyed it. (Although not the overly restrictive grading which required full attendance sickness or no sickness)

  14. Congratulations to Peter!

    Kristine, your post made me think of:

    wax on, wax off

    paint the fence

  15. closed Clark’s tag.

  16. Dang. Trying again . There.

    Someone delete this mess please.

  17. one more try ok

  18. The real trick, both in reading and in the gospel and in everything else, is to avoid the temptation of looking around you at seeing what the other kids are doing and comparing your own progress to them. As long as someone has a plan for you and said person knows what he or she is doing, just sit tight and don’t worry about the others.

    It always amused/amazed me at how competitive elders in my mission could be about who got what authority when. Likewise when other parents brag on how smart their kids are.

    Of course, my kids are brilliant, so I can smile knowingly and say, “Yeah, I remember when Jaymie/Julia/Stanley learned how to do that last year.” :)

  19. I realized the depth of the parenting competition insanity when it became horrifyingly apparent to me that I was *proud* of my daughter getting her first tooth at 5 months (7 months is average, you know). Before I was a mother, I thought I was a pretty good person. Sigh.

  20. Kristine — LOL. When you put it that way, I guess that it is a very tiny universe!

    While it is not exactly Waldorf, I have just written something inspired by Torin Finser at my fairly newborn, neglected-through-December blog

  21. Hi everyone, I’m late joining in, but I’m fascinated by the discussion going on. You can add one more to that Mormon-Waldorf mom – point of intersection…my name is Natasha.

    My kids have been enrolled in our local Waldorf school (Eugene, Oregon) for 4 years now. I have a son, turning 8, grade 2 and daughter, turning 6, K. On the topic of reading, choosing Waldorf as our education of choice was an instinctive choice for a number of reasons. One of the points that has drawn me to Waldorf in the first place was that both my children are bright kids (of course!) and I knew that they would read in their own time. I didn’t want an artificial timeline imposed on the “when” it should happen, and in fact, I wanted the whole idea of the “when” to be completely out of the learning picture. In the case of my daughter, in the kindergarten realm, the play, the fairy/puppet shows, all this is building a strong foundation in imaginative play, and strong listening skills. You must see a kindy class during a puppet story…imagine 22 children spellbound by the story and beautiful scenes these teachers create. It’s never perfect of course, but the teachers set a high standard, which is firmly rooted in a love for the children. Every morning, the teachers make it a point that when they greet the children, and say their goodbyes, each receives a hug. You’ll see in the grades from first grade on through 8th (we’re not in HS yet, so don’t know), that in the morning, and at the end of the day, the teacher stands at the door to shake each child’s hand as they enter and exit at the end of the day, making eye contact, and welcoming them to class, or bidding them goodbye. It is a common sight in the morning and end of day to see the children of each grade lined up waiting to make this connection.

    I have found my son’s classroom work is firmly based in building the foundations of math and reading, with additional help from other curriculum like handwork (that knitting stuff), woodwork, and Games where they do all kinds of physical math games-using beanbags, jump rope, counting, inside/outside in the sunshine, playing cooperatively WITH their teacher or a Games teacher, together as a class. Much of what I’ve personally experienced in the class is laying the groundwork for multiplication and division before they really know what those words are (although in first grade they do learn about 4 math gnomes, Misha Minus, Tasha Times, Dimitri Divide and Peter Plus, who are incorporated into a year long storyline creating the foundation for teaching opportunities, within the context of these fairytale kingdom stories the teacher shares.) Incidentally, if you didn’t know, in Waldorf, children from first through 8th grade move with their teacher.

    Another main point for me (indulge me one more, please), one that Kristine mirrored, (“…It was just that I’m temperamentally inclined to live in my head, not in my body, and reading early made my head that much more interesting and my body that much less.) is that my son, my daughter much less so, is very inclined to being cerebral and in his head, and this type of education is definitely helping him to incorporate his physical body more into his learning experience. In a public school setting, I think he could flourish academically, but that’s not the point, after all. Or is it? All the way around, Waldorf is about creating whole children. They operate firmly from the belief that each child has a spirit, which needs to be nurtured in order for optimum learning to occur. Personally, I think Waldorf is a hidden treasure. (

    ps-Thanks Kris, for your link to the salt march! I met Torin Finser’s wife this past may in NYC at the Rudolf Steiner School 75th anniv celebration. good people.

  22. Well, I feel sheepish. I honestly didn’t realize how borish I was being talking about my four-year-old reader in your post about your eight-year-old reader. What a bore.

    If it helps, my three-year-old isn’t even talking yet and still demands a bottle and always has a binki in her mouth. And my nine-month-old only has two teeth and doesn’t know his times-tables yet.

  23. Lisa, not boorish at all. 4 is a lot more the norm these days than almost 8 (and I still feel compelled to put in the “almost,” because for all my high-minded philosophizing, it still makes me worried not to have had him reading at 4!)

  24. Lisa, you weren’t boorish. Yes, perhaps I was a bit presumptive to go on so much. (…I have no idea what a Waldorf is, except maybe a hotel somewhere?) My apologies; in my obvious enthusiasm I thought you might be interested in learning a little more about it.

    Kristine and Kris W, I would be very interested in learning more about your kids at their schools and the nature of their experience there. We could take this offline. Kristine, may I ask what prompted you to put your son in a Waldorf school.

  25. Don’t take that discussion offline! Some of us want to lurk.

  26. After reading Nate’s comment about reading late, and mine and maybe your sons. I wonder if there is some definitions somewhere for this kind of learning style.

    I think I read words differently than most people, something like Nate and his rote memorization thing. Memorization is how I play the piano also, I never could really learn how to fluently read music but I can play quite well and memorize it almost immediatly if I can smash it out once or twice.

    I wonder if there is some similarity in learning/reading styles that also connects to this bad spelling thing. If this is true don’t be surprised if your son turns out to be a terrible speller. Hum.

  27. In my son’s case, I would say it has more to do with his learning environment, a Waldorf school. Again he is there, because for me it is a given that he’ll read; it’s those other things I mentioned above that just add to the experience.

    As to the memorization, and it being the way you play the piano, could it be that you have a good ear? My brother, who is quite brilliant, as a young boy was never recognized in the traditional way as being such, much less a reader. They discovered later in his childhood that he was dyslexic. He played the violin from 2nd grade all the way until he graduated from HS, in the Youth Symphony of our city, and it turns out… true confessions in adulthood… that he couldn’t read music! In his mind, he was faking it, but the reality was… it was all in his ear!

    I take comfort in Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences: