Our bookstore is now open. Shop today →

The Rudolf Steiner Archive

a project of Steiner Online Library, a public charity

Practical Course for Teachers
GA 294

V. Writing and Reading — Spelling

26 August 1919, Stuttgart

In the last lecture we spoke of how the first school-lesson should be conducted. Naturally I cannot go on to describe every step separately, but I should like to indicate the essential course of the teaching, so that you are able to make something of it in practice.

You have seen that we have considered as most important: first, the child's consciousness of why he has actually come to school; then the transition by which he becomes conscious that he has hands; and then, after making him conscious of this, that a kind of drawing should be embarked on, and even a kind of transition to painting, from which the sense of the beautiful and the less beautiful can be developed. We have seen that this emerging sense can be observed in hearing, too, and that the first elements of the musical experience of beauty and the less beautiful will be linked up with it.

Let us now suppose that you have pursued such exercises with pencil and with colour for some time. It is absolutely a condition of well-founded teaching that a certain intimacy with drawing should precede the learning to write, so that, in a sense, writing is derived from drawing. And a further condition is that the reading of printed characters should only be developed from the reading of handwriting. We shall then try to find the transition from drawing to handwriting, from writing to the reading of handwriting, and from the reading of handwriting to the reading of print. I assume for this purpose that you have succeeded, through the element of drawing, in giving the child a certain mastery of the round and straight-lined forms which he will need for writing. Then from this point we would again seek the transition to what we have already mentioned as the foundation of teaching in reading and writing. To-day I will first try to show you by a few examples how this can be done.

We assume, then, that the child has already come to the point at which he can master straight-lined and round forms with his little hand. We began with the fish and the F. You do not need to proceed alphabetically; I am only doing it now so that you have it in encyclopaedic form. Let us see what success we have in beginning to evolve writing and reading on the lines of your own free imagination. I should first say to the child at this point: “You know what a bath is” — and here I will say in parenthesis that much depends in teaching on being able to make use of any situation in a rational way, that is, on always having between the lines of the lesson anything that may help your purpose. It is well to use the word “bath” for what I now intend to do, so that the child remembers, in connection with being at school, baths, washing, and cleanliness. It is well to have something like this in the background, without having to moralize or give orders. It is well to select your examples so that the child is compelled to think of something which contributes at the same time to a moral-aesthetic attitude. Then go on to say: “Look; when the grown-ups want to write down what a bath is, they write it like this: BATH. So this is the picture of what you mean when you say Bath and when you give a name to it.” Then, again, I simply let a number of children write this after me, so that whenever they come to something of this kind they get it into their little hand; they do not merely look at it, but they grasp it with their whole being. Now I shall say: “Watch yourself beginning to say ‘bath.’ We will just get the beginning clear: ‘B.’” The child must be guided from saying the whole word “bath” to breathing the first sound, as I illustrated with “fish.” And now it must be made clear to the child that just as Bath is the sign for the whole bath, “B” is the sign for the beginning of the word “bath.”

Then I draw the child's attention to the presence in other words of a similar beginning. I say: “When you say ‘band’ you begin just the same way; when you say ‘bow,’ which many women wear on their heads, a bow of ribbon, you begin just the same way; and perhaps, too, you have seen a bear at the zoo; for that, too, you begin to breathe the same way; each of these words begins with the same breathing out.” In this way I try to pass with the child from the whole of the word to the initial letter, to lead him to nothing but the single sound, to the letter, always to develop the initial letter from the word.

Now the problem for you is to try, let us say, first to evolve the initial letter yourself in the same visualizing way from drawing. You will be able to do this easily if you simply call your imagination to your aid and say to yourselves:

Diagram 1

“The people who first saw animals which begin with B, like beaver, bear, etc., portrayed the back of the animal, the feet on which it sits and the lifted fore-feet; they drew an animal in the act of rising, standing on its hind legs, and the drawing became the B. You will find in every word —” and here you can give full rein to your imagination; there is no need to go into histories of civilizations, which are incomplete in any case — you will find that the initial letter is pictorial, representing the form of an animal or plant or even an external object. This is historically the fact: if you go back to the most ancient forms of the Egyptian writing, which was still hieroglyphic, you find that everywhere the letters are imitations of such things. And not until the transition from the Egyptian civilization to the Phoenician was the process completed which we can call a development from the “picture” to the “sign” to represent a sound. Let the child follow the same line. It leads to the following:

In the earliest periods of the evolution of writing in Egypt, literally every detail which had to be written down was written down in picture-writing, was drawn — indeed, was so drawn that it became necessary to learn the easiest possible way of making the drawings. Anyone who made a mistake, when he was appointed to copy these hieroglyphics, if, for instance, the error occurred in a sacred word, was condemned to death. In ancient Egypt, then, matters of writing were taken very, very seriously. But all writing which existed was picture-writing of the kind I have described. Then civilization passed over to the Phoenicians, who lived more in the world outside them. Here the initial

Diagram 2

image was always retained and transferred to the sound. As an example I will show you from a word where the process is most easily paralleled in our language (though we cannot here study Egyptian) and is also true of the Egyptian language. The Egyptians saw that the sound M could be best shown by watching chiefly the upper lip. So they took the sign for M from the picture of the upper lip. From this sign there then evolved the letter which we have for the beginning of the word Mouth and which then remained for every similar beginning, for everything beginning with M. The picture of the word was taken over. Thus transferring the picture of the word to the initial letter one came to the sign for the sound.

This principle, which is contained in the history of the evolution of writing, can also be very well applied to teaching, and now is the moment to apply it. That is: we shall try to arrive at the letter from the drawing: just as we get from the “fish” with his two fins to F, we get from the bear, dancing, standing up, to B. We get from the upper lip to the mouth, to the M, and we try with our imagination to trace for the child a path like this from drawing to writing. I said that you have no need to study the history of writing in civilized life and refer to it for what you need. For what you look up in this research is of far less value to you in teaching than are the discoveries of your own soul's making, of your own imagination. The activity which you apply to the study of the history of writing deadens you so that your influence on your pupil is far less living than when you think out for yourself something like the Ð’ from the picture of the bear. This thinking out for yourself refreshes you so that what you want to convey to your pupil is much more living than when you embark on excursions into the history of civilizations to discover something for your lesson. And from these two points of view both life and teaching must be considered. For you must ask yourself: “What is more important, to have learnt an historical, most elaborately ascertained fact and incorporated it painfully into your teaching — or to feel yourself so astir in your soul that you transmit to the child with your own enthusiasm the discovery you make?” You will always feel joy, even if it is a quite calm joy, in transferring to letters the form of some animal or some plant which you have found yourself. And this joy which you yourself feel will live in what you make of your pupil.

Then you go on to draw the child's attention to the fact that the letter which he has seen at the beginning of a word occurs in the middle of words too. You go on to say to him: “Let us see; you know what grows outside in the fields or on the hills, what is gathered in autumn and what wine is made from: the vine? (Rebe). The grown-ups write Rebe like this: REBE. Now just think, when you say Rebe quite slowly there is the same sound in the middle as there was at the beginning of Bear.” Then always write it up first in big letters so that the child sees the resemblance with the picture. Like this we teach him that what he has learnt for the beginning of a word is found, too, in the middle of words. We go on to split the whole into its atoms.

You see the important thing for us who wish to achieve living teaching as opposed to dead: all depends on starting from the whole. As in arithmetic we start with the sum, not with the addenda, and analyse the sum, here, too, we go from the whole to the part. This has the great advantage for education and teaching that we succeed in leading the child into the world in a fully living way; for the world is a whole, and the child lives in enduring intimacy with the living whole when we proceed as I have suggested. When you let the child learn the separate letters from their pictures he enters into a relation with living reality. But you must never omit to write up the letter forms so that they are seen to emerge from an image, and you must always be careful to explain the accompanying sounds, the consonants, as

Diagram 3

drawings of external things — but never the vowels. The vowels must always be made to render the human inner being and its relation to the outside world. When, for instance, you try to teach the child a, you will say to him: “Now just think of the sun which you see in the morning. Can any of you remember what you did when the sun rose in the morning?” Then perhaps one child or another will remember what he did. If he does not, if nobody remembers, you must refresh the child's memory a little to bring back to him what he did: how he must have stood, what he must have said if the sunrise was very beautiful: “Ah!” You must let this echo of emotion resound; you must try to derive the resonance, which we hear in the vowel, from emotion. And then you must try to say: “When you stood like that and said ‘Ah!’ it was as if a sunbeam had streamed out of your mouth in the shape of an opening angle. When you see the sunrise you let the life inside you stream out like this (Fig. 1) and you reveal it when you say ‘Ah!’ But you do not let it all stream out; you hold some of it back and that becomes this sign (Fig. 2).” You can try some time to clothe in picture-form the essence of the breath in a vowel. In this way you get drawings which can represent to you in images the process by which the vowel-signs arose. Vowels, you remember, are also rare in the primitive civilizations known to-day. The languages of primitive races are very rich in consonants; much more is expressed in the accompanying sounds, in the consonants, than we know. They sometimes literally click their tongues, they have all kinds of refined resources for pronouncing complicated consonants, and the vowel only vibrates in an undertone between them. Among the African races you find sounds which are like the cracking of a whip, etc.; on the other hand, the vowels are only faintly heard, and the European travellers who meet with such races usually sound the vowels much more than the natives do.

We can always derive the vowels from drawing. If, for instance, you succeed in making the child imagine — by appealing to his feeling — that he is in a situation like this: “Your brother or your sister is coming to you. They tell you something, but you don't understand them. Then there comes a moment when it begins to dawn on you. What sound do you make, then, to show that it is dawning?” Then, again, a child will discover, or the other children will be drawn on until one of them says: “i, i, i” (English ee, ee, ee). The pictorial form of the sound ee then expresses the pointing to something that has been understood. In Eurhythmy it is more clearly expressed. The simple stroke, then, which ought to be thicker at the bottom and thinner at the top, is turned into “i;” the stroke alone is made, and the vanishing at the top is expressed by the smaller sign above it. In this way all the vowels can be extracted from the shape assumed by the breath, from the shape of the breath.

Diagram 4

In this way you teach the child first of all a kind of picture-writing. Then you need not be at all shy of calling to your aid ideas which evoke real experiences of past history. You can teach the child this: you can say to him: “Just look at the top of the house; what do you say for that? ‘Dach!’ (roof). But then you ought to make a D like this, (Diagram 5); that is awkward. So people changed it round: D.” Such ideas lie concealed in writing and you can utilize them by all means. But then people did not want to write so complicatedly; instead, they wanted to make writing simpler. So from the sign D, which should really be (Diagram 6) (and here you pass on to small letters) there grew this sign, the little d. You can derive the existing letter-forms like this without exception from figures which you have taught to the child pictorially. (Diagram 7)

In this way, always explaining the transition from one form to another, you bring the child on, never by mere abstract teaching, but so that he discovers the real transition from the form first derived from drawing to the form which the modern written letter actually takes.

Diagram 5
Diagrams 6 & 7

These facts, of course, have already been observed by individual people; very few in number, it is true. There are educationists who have already drawn attention to the fact that writing should spring from drawing. But they proceed on different lines from those laid down here. They more or less anticipate letters in their final forms; they take a letter in its present form and do not come to the Ð’ from the drawing of the sitting or dancing bear, but they take the b as it is now, divide it up into its separate strokes and lines: | ), and try to lead the child in this way from drawing to writing. They do abstractly what we are attempting to do concretely. That is, several educationists have already rightly observed the practicability of deriving writing from drawing, but people are too firmly rooted in the dead husks of civilized life to be able to conceive of the living process clearly.

Here, too, I should not like to forget to warn you of being led astray by many modern attempts. Don't say: here, this has already been attempted: and there, something else. For you will see that the attempt has not been very profoundly and firmly willed. Humanity continually feels the urge to realize such aims, but it will not be able to carry them out until it has taken spiritual science into its culture.

Thus we can always link up with man and his relation to the world around him by writing organically and teaching reading from the reading of what is written.

Now it is natural to teaching — and we should not leave this out of account — that there should be a certain yearning to be completely free. And notice how freedom inspires this discussion of the preparation of lessons. Our discussion has an inner relation to freedom. For I draw your attention to the fact that you are not to enslave yourself by cramming yourself with the knowledge of how writing evolved from Egyptians to Phoenicians, but you are to look to developing yourself the capacities of your own soul. Positively the same results can be achieved by one teacher in this way, by another teacher in that. Not everyone can make use of a dancing bear; perhaps someone else will make use of something much better for the same point. The ultimate aim can be secured just as well by one teacher as by another. But every teacher puts himself into his teaching, and thus it is that his freedom is perfectly preserved. The more the staff wish to preserve their freedom in this respect, the more they will be able to put into their teaching, to devote themselves to it. This fact has been almost completely lost sight of in recent times. You can see this in a certain phenomenon.

A few years ago there was some agitation — the younger among you have perhaps not had the experience, but it caused the older ones, who had an understanding of such things, a good deal of annoyance — in favour of imposing in spiritual things something similar to the famous “Imperial German State-Gravy” in the material sphere. As you know, it was frequently insisted that a uniform sauce or gravy should be made for all the inns which did not depend entirely on foreign visitors, but rather on Germans. It was called “Imperial German State-Gravy;” people wanted to organize things uniformly. In the same way the attempt was made to make spelling, orthography, uniform. Now people have a quite extraordinary attitude to this question. You can study it in concrete examples. German spiritual life contains a very beautiful, tender relationship between Novalis and a woman. This relationship is so beautiful because Novalis, after her death, still continued to live with her consciously. He speaks of this, following her, in his meditation, into the spiritual world. It is one of the most beautiful, most intimate things which you can read in the history of German literature — this relationship of Novalis to a woman. Now there is a very intelligent, even very interesting (from the point of view I have mentioned), severely philological treatise by a German scholar on the relation between Novalis and his beloved. The delicate, lovely relationship is “put in its proper light,” for it can be proved that the beloved died before she could spell properly. She made spelling mistakes in her letters! In short, the portrait of this personality in its relation to Novalis is shown up in a thoroughly trivial light — in accordance with quite strict scholarship. The method of this scholarship is so good that everyone who writes an essay in which he follows this method deserves to get full marks for it. I only want to remind you that people have already forgotten that Goethe could never spell properly, that in reality he made mistakes all his life, especially in his youth. In spite of this, however, he could rise to Goethean greatness! Not to mention the people who knew him, whom he valued very much — whose letters, in the facsimiles now made, would leave a schoolmaster's hand literally scored with red ink! They would get a thoroughly bad mark!

This absurdity is connected with an utter lack of freedom in our common life, which should play no part in teaching and in education. But a few decades ago it was so pronounced that the enlightened minds among the teachers were seriously annoyed by it. A uniform German orthography was to be set up — the famous “Puttkammer” orthography. That is, in the very school itself the State did not merely exercise a right of supervision, it did not merely control administration, but it laid down even the spelling by law. It looks like it, too! For through this Puttkammer orthography we have really lost much that might still awaken us to-day to some of the intimacies of the German language. Because nowadays they are given an abstract kind of writing, people lose much of the quality which used to live in the German language; the so-called standard language (Schriftsprache) suffers loss.

Now the thing that matters in such a case is, above all, to have the right attitude. Obviously we cannot let any sort of orthography run riot, but we can at least know the extreme ways of dealing with this question. If, after learning to write, people could write what they hear from others, or from themselves, just as they hear it, they would write very variously; they would have very varied fashions of orthography; they would be very individualistic. It would be extraordinarily interesting, but it would obstruct intercourse. On the other hand, our task is to develop not only our individuality in human intercourse, but also our social impulses and social feelings. Many things which we would develop as individuals must be sacrificed where we have to meet others. But we should feel that this is the position, and the feeling should be educated with us, that we do such and such a thing only for social reasons. When you come with your writing-lessons to orthography you will have to start with a certain definite feeling-complex. You will have to draw the child's attention again and again — I have already mentioned this fact from another point of view — to the necessity for reverence, respect for grown-up people, to the fact that he is growing up to an already finished life, which is to receive him, that therefore he must respect what is already there. From this point of view, too, we must try to introduce the child to a thing like orthography. Along with the spelling we must cultivate in him the feeling of respect, of reverence, for what our forefathers have settled. And we must not try to teach spelling from some abstraction, for instance as if orthography had been created by a “divine” — for some, а “Puttkammer” law, as though it came from the Absolute — but you must develop in the child the feeling that the grown-ups, whom one must respect, write like this, therefore their example should be followed. There will result, indeed, a certain variety in spelling, but it will not run riot; instead, it will represent the adjustment of the growing child to the grown-up people about him. And we should reckon with this kind of adaptability: we ought not to want to produce the belief: that is right, and that is wrong; but we ought only to encourage the belief: that is how the grown-ups write; that is, you build here, too, on a living authority.

That is what I meant when I said: “The transition must be found from the child's first period up to the change of teeth, to his second period up to puberty, that is from the principle of imitation to that of authority.” What I meant by this must everywhere be realized in concrete detail, not by inculcating authority in the child, but by proceeding so that the sensitiveness to authority arises of itself, that is by basing the teaching of spelling and the whole orthographic form of writing on so-called authority in the way I have just described.