John Taylor Gatto on "look-say"
Date: Wed Apr 14, 2004 6:26 pm
Subject: John Taylor Gatto on "look-say"
Here is how John Taylor Gatto characterizes
look-say (and I know, Patrick, you are indignant at hearing Waldorf
reading instruction associated with look-say, but there are unquestionably
elements of this, in your descriptions of how everyone copies
a verse off the board, looks at it a lot, copies and tries to
"Another piece of dangerous
philosophy is concealed inside whole-word practicethe notion
that a piece of writing is only an orange one squeezes in order
to extract something called meaning, some bit of data."
That's exactly the kind of rote learning,
words as dead things, ahrimanic learning style Waldorf prides
itself on avoiding. And Gatto is not a critic of Waldorf, I think
I've heard he's a proponent of Waldorf lately.
Date: Sun Apr 25, 2004 8:12 pm
Subject: RE: [anthroposophy_tomorrow] John Taylor Gatto on "look-say"
I have had occasion to go to my office and
now can give you the reference you asked for. The reference in
question is on p. 88 and continues to p. 94 in the book titled
in English *The Child's Changing Consciousness and Waldorf Education*
(1988: Anthroposophical Press). Since it is likely that many
of our list mates do not have the book in question I am taking
the liberty of selecting a few quotes.
"The most damaging effects,
just during the age of 7 to 9, are caused by one-sided illusions,
by fixed ideas about how certain things ought to be taught. For
example, the 19th century -- but this was already prepared for
in the 18th century -- was tremendously proud of the new phonetic
method of teaching reading, which superseded the old method of
making words by adding single letters -- a method which was again
replaced by the whole word method. And because today people feel
ashamed of openly respecting old ways, one will hardly find anyone
prepared to defend the old spelling method. According to present
opinion, such a person would be considered an old crank, for
to enthuse over the old-fashioned spelling method is simply not
done. It is the phonetic and also the whole word method that
carry the day. One feels very proud of the phonetic method, teaching
the Child to develop a feeling for the quality of sounds. No
longer do young pupils learn to identify separate letters, such
as P, N, or R, but they are taught to pronounce letters as they
sound in a word.
There's nothing wrong in that.
The whole word method is also good, which sometimes even begins
by analyzing a complete sentence, from which the teacher progresses
to separate words and then to single sounds. What is bad is when
these things become fads. The underlying ideas of all three methods
are good -- there is no denying that each one has its merits.
But what is it that makes them so? Imagine that you know a person
only from a photograph showing a frontal view. The picture will
have created in you a certain image of the person. Now imagine
that another picture falls into your hands and that someone tells
you that this is the same person. The second picture shows a
side-view and creates such a different impression that you may
feel convinced it could not be the same person. Yet in reality
both photographs depict the same individual, only from different
angles. And this is how it always is in life-- everything has
to be considered from different angles. It is easy to fall in
love with one's own particular point of view because it appears
to be so convincing. And so one might have good reasons with
which to defend the spelling method, the phonetic method, or
the whole word method, to an extent that anyone of the opposite
opinion could not refute one's arguments. Yet even the best of
reasons may prove to be only one-sided. In actual life everything
has to be considered from the most varied angles.
If the letter forms have been
gained through painting-drawing and drawing-painting, and if
one has gone on to a kind of phonetic or whole word method, which
is now appropriate because it leads the Child to an a appreciation
of a wholeness, and it prevents it from becoming too fixed in
details -- if all this has been done, there is yet something
else which has been overlooked in our materialistic climate.
It is this: the single sound by itself, the separate M or P,
this too represents a reality. And it is important to see that
when a sound is part of a word, it has already entered the external
world, already passed into the material and physical world. What
we have in our soul are the sounds as such, and these largely
depend on the nature of our soul. When we pronounce letters,
such as the letter M for example, which actually say "em".
The ancient Greek did not do this, he pronounced it "mu".
In other words, he pronounced the auxiliary vowel after the consonant,
were as we put it in front of the consonant. Today in Middle
Europe we make the sound of the letter by proceeding from the
vowel to the consonant, but in ancient Greece only the reverse
path mistaken. This is an indication of the underlying soul condition
of the people concerned.
Here we have a significant
important phenomenon. If you look at language not merely from
an external or utilitarian point of view -- for today language
has mainly become a means of conveying thought or messages, and
words are hardly more than symbols for outer things -- if you
go back to the soul element living in the word, living in language
as a whole you will find the way back to the real nature of the
so-called sounds. For every sound with a consonantal quality
has an entirely different character from a vowel sound..."
After this follows a discussion of two different
theories of the origin of language. I pick up now on p. 93
"With the whole word
method one gains only the physical aspect. With the phonetic
method one is already approaching the region of the soul. And
-- however absurd this may sound -- with the spelling method
one really enters the realm of the soul. Today this last method
is of course looked upon as a form of idiocy, but without a doubt
it is more closely related to the soul than the other methods.
However, it must not be applied directly; it needs to be introduced
with a certain pedagogical skill and artistry, which will avoid
a too one-sided drill in pronouncing single letters in the conventional
way. Instead, the Child will gain some experience of how letters
came about and this is something which can live with its formative
forces, something which is real for the Child. This is the crux
of the matter. And if young pupils have been taught along these
lines, they will be able to read in due course -- perhaps a few
months after the ninth year. It does not really matter if they
cannot read earlier, because they have learned in the natural
wholesome way. Depending on the various children's response,
this stage may be reached a little earlier or later."
In doing a bit of research I find that the
whole word method is the basis of look-say. The phonetic method
mentioned led to phonics. The writing road to reading is a further
development of the spelling method. As you can see, Steiner is
depending on the artistry and thinking of the teacher how to
weave these methods together giving good indications about how
to do its with a possible order of instruction. This is what
I've been trying to say to you all along, namely, that we use
the best of each approach making sure we begin in the way indicated.
The timing of the children learning to read and write is certainly
different than the fourteen year demarcation that you offered
in your quote and more in line with what Waldorf schools are
doing today. I also remember you making a somewhat snide remark
to the effect of, "0 so Waldorf knows the right way and
everyone else is wrong!" I don't know how you could get
that from reading this passage or from what I said. How can we
say that everyone else is wrong if we are open to the value inherent
in each method? There are certainly quite a few mainstream reading
instructors who value a balanced approach as long as it is well
Awaiting your reply,
Date: Mon Apr 26, 2004 6:34 am
Subject: Re: John Taylor Gatto on "look-say"
Hi Patrick, I appreciate the quotes. I still
mean to reply to a post you wrote on this subject last week,
I'm a little behind. (It's harder than arguing with Dottie and
Quickly, though, Steiner's opinions on phonics
and look-say are interesting, but these quotes aren't what I
thought you were saying was at issue here. I perhaps misunderstood.
It is Steiner's opinions (actually, it is a polemic) about the
value of various reading methods coming in and out of style and
their spiritual correctness. I thought you said that Steiner
had a phonics method outlined somewhere.
From what I can get from this very briefly,
and I need to read it again, it's a long way of saying the "spelling
method" is the best of the bunch and what you really need
to be doing it correctly in terms of the child's soul. He says
the others have their place, but something would be missing without
the spelling method, which works in the soul realm. (I never
said you or Steiner said the others were wrong; without going
back to dig up the exact quotes, you said something about only
Waldorf having the "whole" truth, as opposed to the
others which are partial. This reminded me of the anthroposophic
notion that other world religions all have pieces of the truth,
only anthroposophy brings them together in a whole, a la Bradford,
where Christ is a Fact.) Steiner begins by denouncing the following
of fads (which it is hard to disagree with, of course), but he
has a polemical purpose, and this is one of Steiner's tried and
true rhetorical strategies, to suggest mildly that other people
follow fads, and some of the fads are very nice of course, and
now I'll tell you which of the fads are really correct and you
should be following them and ignoring the others. His real point
is that the "spelling method" is the best one.
Anyway, to respond to this more fully I need
a better idea of what is meant by the "spelling method"
- what Steiner is actually advocating you do, what this means
you do in class. Is there an actual method outlined by Steiner
somewhere? Since Steiner never taught children to read, to my
knowledge, I find it unlikely he developed a reading method for
classroom use. Off the top of my head, it doesn't sound like
something anyone else would use today, but I'm far from convinced
that there is actually a method deriving from this that Waldorf
teachers are applying in many Waldorf classrooms today. So thanks
in advance for any further light you can shed on this. I'll parse
the whole thing more fully later.
P.S. I must say this claim somewhat surprises
In doing a bit of research I find that
the whole word method is the basis of look-say.
This took you a bit of research? After 20
years of teaching children to read? No one mentioned this in
your teacher training?
one more P.S.:
The timing of the children learning to
read and write is certainly different than the fourteen year
demarcation that you offered in your quote
I offered a direct Steiner quote and I certainly
think it is an influential one in the Waldorf world in terms
of the view of reading and writing. The quote you are referring
to is the one about how a child who can't write well before about
the age of 14 (like Steiner himself) is "blessed" in
terms of spiritual receptivity. You may scoff at the mention
of age 14 but obviously it is the age that makes the most sense
as it ends the second 7-year developmental period. I continue
to maintain that if the developmental timetable outlined in anthroposophy
were followed strictly, as presumably would be best for ideal
development, reading and writing should not be taught till age
14. I do not, of course, claim that this is what Waldorf schools
are doing, or what Steiner suggested. It is obviously not practical.
What I do maintain is that this contradiction, between the ideal
in which reading and writing are really only wholly appropriate
after age 14, and the need for practical reasons to at least
begin teaching reading and writing much earlier than this, explains
much of the tension and ambivalence about reading instruction
Critics, and Controversy
Click to subscribe to anthroposophy_tomorrow
Taz "Anthroposophy Tomorrow" Files
Anthroposophy & Anarchism
Anthroposophy & Scientology