Monday, November 16, 2009

Alternative Schools--Waldorf

First in an ongoing series

Rudolf Steiner (1861—1925) Austrian

Waldorf schools are fairly popular throughout the world. There are currently 994 schools in 60 countries currently in operation. Teachers stay with a class for their entire lower- or upper-grade education to develop a bond in which it is safe to explore and learn.

A very artistic school, children are taught to draw exceedingly well and to perform in choreographed movements called Eurythmy. First graders are taught to draw a perfect freehand circle, sixth graders are taught to create intricate geometrical patterns, and by high school, students are copying classical works of art and detailed architecture. They learn to draw well, I assume, by copying their teacher, who does detailed chalk drawings on the board. Kindergarteners are taught to make perfect letters by first learning lines: vertical, horizontal, and different types of curves. The teacher eventually directs the children to turning these lines into perfect letters. Writing thereafter is done artistically and without error.

Ways and methods at Waldorf schools seem peculiar. Toys in the classroom are all organic. Clothing worn during Eurythmy performances is a simple frock. Work done in the classroom is error free. The only reason I can determine for why this is, is because Waldorf teachers believe in Anthroposophy, a spiritual “philosophy” Steiner created in which one has an inner nature that is to be brought out. It is what must account for the nontraditional methods. Apart from creating what seem to be an idealistic attitude in the classroom, it does, however, create a new way of thinking about teaching the students. From what I've gathered, the students are allowed to focus their education on areas in which they excel or are very interested.

Waldorf Education wiki page
Why Waldorf
E. Schwartz youtube page

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Alternative Orthography and Alphabet Reform

When I was younger, I took up learning Japanese. The first step in learning a language is usually to learn correct pronunciation, and when learning languages with a non-Roman alphabet, it is common practice to spell words using your own familiar alphabet. Japanese written as such is called romanji (lit., Roman letters). I quickly discovered that while reading Japanese romanji, there were very few questions about how to pronounce the words I was learning. The only discrepancies between different transliterators of Japanese text seem to be dropping a silent 'u' when it follows an 'o' (similar to words like colour and favour the Queen's English), and spelling the hiragana (Japanese phonetic alphabet) character ち as 'ti' or 'chi.' Learning Japanese this way struck me as remarkably easy, especially when compared to the difficulties of learning English spelling. Suddenly I started questioning. Why IS English one of the hardest languages to learn? Why do we have so many rules with so many exceptions? Why do we have silent letters? And above all, why does our alphabet have letters with two to three or more sounds as well as redundant letters?

Allow me to explain the last question from a student's prospective. When learning words that include an 'a,' how, as a five-year-old, am I supposed to know whether to pronounce it as in add, ale, or all? How can the same letter even make three different sounds? And when I'm trying to spell a word that has a particular sound, how am I supposed to know if that sound is a 'cuh,' as in 'cat,' or 'kuh,' as in 'kat'? And when I'm in the middle of the room, am I in the 'center' or the 'senter'?

I am not even close to the first person to wonder these things. From the beginning of written language, alphabets have changed so frequently, it's difficult to read texts from more than 300 years ago in almost any culture. But in our modern society, changing something as much of a foundation as our alphabet is unheard of and often deemed ridiculous. And yet, even in modern times, there have been some radicals that have aimed to do just that. With minimal research, here are my findings on alphabet reform.

Our first radical is none other than lovable Mr. Benjamin Franklin. Along with being a founding father of our nation, appearing on our money, inventing every day objects such as bifocals, and doing innovative work in electricity, politics, civics, and so on, Mr. Franklin was interested in orthography. In 1768, he wrote A Scheme for a new Alphabet and a Reformed Mode of Spelling, which included a phonetic alphabet, removing the redundant letters c, j, q, w, x, and y and adding six new letters he felt were sounds that needed to be represented. These new letters included Ŋ (eng, pronounced ng), as well as a letter for the 'au' in 'caught,' the 'sh' in 'she,' the 'u' in 'umbrella,' the 'th' in 'thought,' and the 'th' in 'this.' (And before I go on, let me explain that the difference I see between the last two characters is the placement of the tongue. That one sure had me confused for a while.) The letters are mostly modified lower case h's, and the resulting text looks a little jumbled and confusing. Franklin's alphabet wasn't very popular, obviously, and it doesn't look as simple as I think the ideal alphabet should, but I definitely think his effort is noteworthy. The removal of the redundant letters is the most important part of this system, but I don't think every vowel sound was represented. Franklin doubled some vowels to make different sounds in his reform, spelling 'dear' as 'diir,' etc. This is one approach, but I don't think it is effective enough. I also think the letters should be more distinct and different from one another than his modified h's.

Next comes an alternative alphabet that as actually been used in schools. Initial Teaching Alphabet (ITA) was invented in 1961 by Sir James Pitman, whose grandfather also invented a shorthand alphabet. It has 44 letters, which includes Latin letters as well as letters for sound blends, etc. It is meant to be taught to little ones just learning to read in the hopes that it will be less confusing than traditional orthography. The hope is that they will learn the basics of reading with ITA and then have enough interest to make the switch to traditional reading and writing themselves. There are also rumors that it helps with reading disorders such as dyslexia and dysgraphia. In practice, it does seem to help with spelling, and even comprehension somehow, but only temporarily. The problem comes when it's time to switch to the “adult” alphabet, which confuses almost all of the students who had just gotten the hang of one system of writing and are now thrown into another that is very different. Not to mention the students who were on their way to reading normally with help from their parents at home but were completely left behind in the classroom. ITA also lends itself to spelling errors later in life to those students that relied too heavily on spelling words exactly as they sounded.

ITA seems to have started off with a good basic idea, considering how difficult reading and writing is to very young children. The trouble lies in the tradition, which doesn't seem to be very well thought out. It was originally mildly popular throughout England and parts of Australia and the United States, but is only rarely used today, probably because, apart from confusing students, it is an expensive program to fund, as the class requires all new textbooks. I haven't seen many instances of ITA text, so I can't speak on the appearance, but the letter system, despite all of the hype about it, still isn't perfect. K and C both appear in the alphabet, still making the same sound, and some sources list a backwards Z (as in 'daisy,' they claim) which seems to make the same sound as a regular Z.

Finally, I have saved the best for last. A system called Unifon was created by Dr. John R. Malone in the 1950's to, you guessed it, have one character for “one sound.” It lends itself to reading so precisely, it has been compared to a pronunciation guide in a dictionary. The letters are familiar, using 23 letters of the traditional alphabet and creating 17 more that are very similar to their traditional counterparts. There are three ways to say the letter A, as I have mentioned before, and in Unifon, all three look enough like capital A's that you can tell that they are going to make an A sound, but are different enough that once you learn the difference between the three, they can be easily distinguished. With minimal practice, you can read any Unifon text, and once you can read it, the transition to writing is simple because every word is spelled exactly as it sounds.

Like ITA, Unifon was created to be used as training wheels for young children just learning to read and write, but unlike ITA, Unifon has an easy transition plan into traditional English. Because the letters look so similar to the “adult” alphabet, the only things a student needs to adjust to is the weird spelling rules and lower case characters. Proponents of Uniform claim that it's just as useful to ESL and illiterate adults as it is to children, and that children can master the system in three months, while English-speaking adults can become fluent in less than one week.

I truly see this as the best form of alternative orthography because of its simplicity and familiarity. There are no redundant letters for once, and 40 does seem to be the magical number, at least in today's American English. For some reason, since it's creation, Unifon has been used in few schools with even fewer professional writings about it, most likely because it has been outshone by ITA. Most of its proponents seem to be non-activists on the internet that don't put their love of the system into effect in the real world. Therefore, I don't see it, as someone on the Unifon website declared, overcoming traditional orthography any time soon.

Notice: As a teacher in a public school, it is not my agenda to teach alternative orthography. However, as an educated instructor, I wish to be informed of different methods of teaching.

Unifon Homepage

Friday, November 13, 2009

Whole Word vs. Phonics

Consciousness and day-to-day life is something that I awoke to around when I was six years old. Before that, everything seems hazy and dream-like. I don't remember learning to read, because it must have happened before this time. What I do remember though, is a big emphasis on phonics. The Hooked On Phonics commercials are forever implanted in my mind, “1-800-ABCDEFG, Hooked on Phonics works for me!” A typical problem-solving technique that I use or would tell someone to use if they didn't know a word is, “Sound it out,” which is the basics of what the Phonics method tries to teach. This is the only way that I knew how to teach reading.

So imagine my surprise when I began my co-op career last year and was introduced to a new concept, Sight Words. What? Words that kids just automatically know? It sounded like a cheat sheet. It sounded like teachers weren't teaching reading anymore, they were GIVING students the answers! I was repulsed.

Since then, I've done a little research on the Whole Word vs. Phonics debate, and while I haven't fully accepted it, I understand some of the theory and reasons why it is taught.

The Whole Word (also called Look-and-Say) approach to reading has been around since the 1830s, when it was invented by Rev. Thomas H. Gallaudet. A number of popular children's authors have written using this technique, including Dr. Suess and William S. Gray, the author of Dick and Jane. It is a theory based on memorization, rather than learning specific sounds of letters.

There are instances where I see this method as being completely acceptable, specifically in cases where words don't follow the rules of phonics like weird letter combinations (au in aunt), or silent e's, or when to use a 'k' or a 'c'. When is a vowel pronounced as a long or short sound? English is a difficult language full of anomalies and exceptions. Rules to reading English are complex college-level material certainly not fit for a kindergartener. Teaching reading is a daunting task indeed!

I still maintain that sight words seem like the easy way out. There is only so much that a child can memorize. In my limited exposure, students don't fully understand the reading that they learn through the Whole Word approach. In a class where I work, kindergarteners are given four-page books with lines of simple sight words to read. For instance in one, the pages said “It can go fast” and “It can go slow” and showed pictures of fast and slow boats, cars, and trains. The students read the content of the book fine, but the problem came with the title of the book, “Fast or Slow.” No matter how many times I asked, every one of them told me that the title was “It-can-go-fast-it-can-go-slow.” When given these sight word books, the children aren't reading the words in front of them! They are merely memorizing and reciting.

But what more can you ask from a five-year-old, I suppose. A five-year-old not involved in the Whole Word method couldn't be asked to read even minimal word books like that, could they? At the very least, I see one major benefit of this strategy: children gain the confidence to read. They can go up to their mothers and say, “Look, I can read!” even though they are reciting four simple lines that they repeated 15 times in class. They are no longer hesitant about books, and have the basic knowledge of how letters form words that they can use when they are older and ready to actually learn phonics.

Schools today use a combination of Whole Word and Phonic approaches, and I need to learn how to work with both if I am to be as effective as possible. Here are two fantastic ideas about sight words that my school uses:

Sight word game: Write the sight words on one set of notecards. On another set of note cards, write action words in which to perform while spelling the words: clap, dance, say in a spooky voice, say in a kings and queens voice, sing, etc. One student at a time will pick from both piles, and all of the class spells the word. For instance, if the word was blue, and action word was “Say in a spooky voice,” the students (as well as the teacher, modeling for the shy ones) say in their scariest voices, “B... L... U... E... That spells blue~!” Be careful, this game makes kindergarteners VERY bouncy!

Sight word practice: Rainbow words. Little ones need all the practice they can get with writing, especially sight words. Write the sight words of the week (I've seen it done in a crosswords fashion, just to make it look more like a game), photocopy, and have the students trace the letters in different colored crayons. It's a great way to practice spelling (or just tracing the letters, for those that need a little more help), and the kids will think it looks pretty.

Thursday, November 12, 2009


Teach to every student. Every student is special and every student counts. Keep notes about each student on an individual page in a notebook. The whole page gives you a lot of room to write, and it becomes easy to see if you are forgetting anyone.

As a positive reinforcement incentive, count with tallies on the board or marbles in a jar. Count anything pertinent (compliments from other teachers, books read, homework turned in, attendance, etc.), and the reward can be anything the teacher likes, as little as 15 minutes of recess, or as big as a day-long party. My favorites include a special themed day, such as Pajama Day, Art Day, or Story Day.

When children are excited about learning, they need to talk about it. Get them talking! Let them express what they are learning verbally, it means you are teaching them well! When children come home from school, the first thing they are usually asked by their parents is, “What did you learn in school today, Sweetie?” We ask our own children, why not our students?