John Taylor Gatto on "look-say"

From: winters_diana
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 remember it):

"Another piece of dangerous philosophy is concealed inside whole-word practice—the 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.



From: Patrick
Date: Sun Apr 25, 2004 8:12 pm
Subject: RE: [anthroposophy_tomorrow] John Taylor Gatto on "look-say"

Dear Diana,

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prepared for in the 18th century -- was tremendously proud of the new phonetic method of teaching reading, which superseded the old method of making words by adding single letters -- a method which was again replaced by the whole word method.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 thought out.

Awaiting your reply,



From: winters_diana
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 Mike) :)

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 me:

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 in Waldorf.


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