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Apollonia Bingham-Bianco, at work on her first-grade knitting project: the hat. Photo: Linda Lutton/Front and Center
Apollonia Bingham-Bianco, at work on her first-grade knitting project: the hat. Photo: Linda Lutton/Front and Center

In this first grade, knitting is the focus

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Most schools in the United States begin teaching students to read from the time they enter kindergarten. In fact, it's not hard to find 4-year-olds learning the letters of the alphabet and even reading easy words in preschool.

However, not every early-learner starts that way. For our collaboration on literacy with WEBEZ's Front and Center, Linda Lutton brings us the story of a school in the Great Lakes region that is taking a radically different approach.

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In their sunny classroom, first-graders at the Chicago Waldorf School don’t pick up books. Instead, in every student’s hands are two wooden knitting needles. Seven-year-old Henry Gordon said knitting was complicated at first. Now he’s on his third project: a miniature sleeping bag. Gordon said, “This is harder than my scarf, this thing. You have 28 stitches on the hat. The scarf you have 12. And this one you have to have 15.”

Teachers such as Claude Driscoll say knitting teaches kids skills they need to be good readers. “First grade, well I want them to learn how to knit, for their fine-motor skills,” said Driscoll.  According to her, the students learn focus and concentration through knitting. They alsolearn to see patterns, and they move from left to right in the same way that they will read. They also gaining confidence.

Julia Scott, age 7, is currently working on a scarf that has four colors so far, and she said, “I think I’m really good at it. I can go really fast. And I can do it without looking.” As her fingers moved in a complicated dance with her yarn and needles, Scott repeated a little rhyme that her teacher taught her because it painted a picture in her head of the work she was doing. Creating this mental picture is a skill used in reading, and therefore it’s a skill the teachers in this school want kids to develop before they are asked to read.

That’s why there are no books in the first grade at this private school, where tuition is upwards of $15,000. There aren’t even picture books, because teachers want students to grow their imaginations and to come up with their own ideas of what things look like. In other local schools, first-graders are reading 100-page chapter books already. Scott said, “Well, we’re reading cat and bat and sat, all those, like, three-lettered words.”

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 books, no props and no illustrations. It was about some pesky goblins and an old lady. One student said, “She was too afraid to go into the cave, but she said ‘But I’m so hungry!’ So she went really carefully into the cave.” The students drew a picture of the story. In clumsy capital letters, they copied a sentence written on the chalkboard about the story.

The goal of this method is to get students to hear stories, to internalize them and to hone their sense of plot, conflict and character. Essentially, the school is focusing on comprehension before turning to phonics. It 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, Tennyson on the day I visited, and it’s poetry they’ve only heard, never read. Teachers say all this helps develop vocabulary and a sense of rhythm in language.

The teachers also claim that 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. In Sweden and Japan, kids read when they’re seven or eight. Bowman said, “There’s no question that if you start a little later you get fewer developmental problems so you don’t have to worry about any immaturities. 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 nine.”

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 given that, he did worry at one point and said, “Around eight and a half years old I started getting nervous and anxious. 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 with the program. His second child has dyslexia, and it 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 eight or nine and said, “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. And 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 now.

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