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Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching

Here is more on the Rudolf Steiner debate. There is also Stefan Rathert’s voice in the Letters section. The two contributions have coincided.

A Reply to Stefan Rathert's Article and a Discussion of Steiner School Foreign Language Teaching

Peter Lutzker, Germany

Prof. Dr. Peter Lutzker taught English in Steiner Schools in Germany for twenty five years and has been regularly giving courses in pre-service and in-service training for Steiner School teachers throughout Europe for almost twenty years. His publications include The Art of Foreign Language Teaching (2007) which was also reviewed in HLT. Since 2010 he has been a professor at the Freie Hochschule in Stuttgart, Germany, which is a state- accredited teachers college training Steiner School teachers.


Addressing Mr Rathert's errors and distortions
Learning foreign languages in Steiner schools
Curriculum and methodology in Waldorf FLT
Waldorf teacher education
Continuing a constructive dialogue

Addressing Mr Rathert's errors and distortions

Stefan Rathert's article about Rudolf Steiner and Steiner School education (www. is so replete with factual errors and obvious distortions that were each point to be addressed individually, it would require a lengthy article in itself. However, since I would also like to clearly elucidate the actual principles of foreign language teaching in Steiner Schools and not simply correct Mr. Rathert's article, I will restrict myself to examining the four conclusions he draws at the end of his article.

To claim that Anthroposophy/Waldorf education is "not a theory let alone science, but an esoteric movement that is opposed to modernism" is to ignore not only the extensive writings of educators within Waldorf education, but also to ignore a wide range of well-known scholars and educators outside of Waldorf education who have consistently demonstrated both a deep interest in and appreciation of Steiner schools. This is most clearly the case in Germany where for over 25 years there have been on-going dialogues between Waldorf educators and prominent German professors which have also led to a series of joint publications with contributions from leading educational authorities such as Fritz Bohnsack, Horst Rumpf, Christian Rittelmeyer, Peter Buck and Harm Paschen to mention just a few (Bohnsack/Kranich (eds.) 1990; Buck/Kranich (eds.) 1998; Rumpf/Kranich 2000, Paschen (ed.) 2010). In an Anglo-American context, the longstanding Waldorf teacher education programmes offered by well-known universities such as the University of Plymouth in the U.K. and Antioch University in the U.S.A., clearly demonstrate the interest and willingness of both Waldorf educators and academic institutions to engage in constructive collaborations.

For those readers who are not able to read German and who want to acquaint themselves more broadly with anthroposophical ideas viewed from a scientific and/or philosophical standpoint, I would suggest the writings of Prof. Arthur Zajonc, the reknowned physicist and scholar who has been instrumental in setting up international conferences with the Dalai Lama and the world's leading scientists in universities like MIT and Columbia University and/or in a more philosophical vein the writings of the esteemed English philosopher Owen Barfield. The academic journal Research on Steiner Education ( is a good source of information with respect to the discourse between Waldorf education and academic research.

In the specific field of EFL there has also been an on-going dialogue for decades between Waldorf language teachers with some of the worlds leading authorities. This connection is evident, for instance in the yearly international Steiner School EFL conference English Week in Germany where regular guests have included Alan Maley (four times), Mario Rinvolucri (three times), Rod Bolitho, Hans Hunfeld, Hans-Eberhard Piepho and Werner Bleyhl.

Hence, there can be no doubt that there has been and continues to be a wide-ranging and constructive dialogue between Waldorf education and other educational approaches which have proved fruitful for all concerned. The fact that, at the same time, there also exist some highly critical writings on Waldorf education is hardly surprising. The problem, and herein lies Mr Rathert's distortion, is that he only chooses to refer to those writings along with a few dubious internet sites (which are obviously anything other than scientific) and apparently has no interest whatsoever in presenting a more differentiated and thus more accurate picture.

His second conclusion in which Waldorf education is "accused of preventing young learners from developing critical thinking skills through a refusal of intellectualism" is equally absurd. Waldorf education is based on the age-appropriate development of intellectual capabilities; this means, for instance, that in the primary grades an emphasis is placed not on abstract, causal thinking, but on direct sensory/affective experience. In the specific context of EFL this leads, for instance, to an approach in which in grades 1-3, pupils are actively engaged in the target language orally through songs, poems, games etc., making use of their imitative capabilties and only afterwards from grade 4 on, being taught the skills of reading and writing in the foreign language and still later a conscious understanding of grammar. This approach to the gradual development of intellectual thinking through taking into account the appropriate stages of a child's cognitive and emotional development, an approach which incidentally was later clearly elucidated in the works of Jean Piaget, can only be called a "refusal of intellectualism" by someone who is not interested in attempting to understand it.

Perhaps the most obvious refutation of Mr. Rathert's second conclusion lies in the extensive empirical study of former pupils of Waldorf Schools which was conducted by Heiner Barz of the University of Düsseldorf and Dirk Randoll of Alanus University. This study documents both the striking degree of positive attitudes of former Waldorf students towards their former school experiences (87%), as well as the successful careers of these students in a wide range of professions, among which those that can be considered to require 'intellectual skills' play a particularly prominent role (Barz & Randoll, 2007, p. 16-19). Need more be said in this context?

In his third and fourth conclusion, Mr. Rathert questions the particular nature and value of any specific Waldorf contributions to foreign language teaching as a whole. I would like to use these questions as a starting point for a description of some of the key elements of Waldorf language teaching and thus let readers draw their own conclusions as to the nature and value of the Waldorf approach.

Learning foreign languages in Steiner schools

From the very beginnings of Waldorf Education in 1919, the study of foreign languages was considered to have an essential role in the curriculum. Long before this idea gained general currency, Rudolf Steiner proposed a curriculum in which all pupils learned two foreign languages from the first grade on. In common with all other subjects taught in a Steiner school, the learning of foreign languages was viewed as contributing to the holistic development of the person.

In his excellent discussion of the goals of foreign language teaching in Steiner Schools, Erhard Dahl begins with the new experiential perspective which learning a foreign language offers:

Through gradually entering into another language, which isn't presented to us as only consisting of different words and structures but as another experience of the world, we learn to think and perceive in a manner which we could have never done in our own language. Foreign languages thus create a balance and a complement to the specific and inherently limited possibilities of thought and expression in the mother tongue. (Dahl, 1999, p. 14 my translation).

He proceeds to explain this extension of perspective as constituting more than a broader basis of cognition. Within the context of Steiner's view of all language perception as based on a specific sensory processing of language integrated within the larger framework of sensory perception, he views the learning of a foreign language as leading to the development and refinement of new sensory faculties:

Along with this aim which one could term as 'extending one's understanding of the world and oneself', another goal becomes realizable – the extending and refining of perceptual capabilities. What is true of understanding is also true of perception. The capacities of perception which are already developed through the mother tongue can certainly be extended.. (Dahl, 1999, p. 15 my translation)

Viewing the perception and learning of a foreign language in this manner calls for an approach in which experiencing and accepting the 'otherness' of the foreign language become primary elements of the entire learning process. This entails establishing an openness to foreign sounds, words, structures and thoughts; enabling students to be continually receptive to the 'unknown' and concurrently helping them to overcome the temptation to translate this 'otherness' back into the mother tongue. This is a long-term process which begins in the songs, poems, and games of the first grade and continues throughout the entire curriculum:

If the foreign language is only taught as a different language 'system' consisting of different rules, structures and sounds, but not having different meanings and evoking different responses, the experience of the foreign language for the learner will be reduced to a recognition of what is already known. If, however, it becomes possible for the learner to experience that the foreign language offers another way of seeing and feeling, then one extends and enriches the entire perceptual capabilities of a young person. (ibid.)

When a foreign language is perceived and 'taken in' in this manner, it leads to a greater openness to the world:

...through getting to know and 'taking in' a foreign language, more openess, elasticity and flexiblity is created, leading thereby to a more active and varied perception of the world. The more it reaches my soul, the more awake, the more attentive is my perception. At the same time, I am more willing to perceive, am more willing to actively receive and respond to the impressions the world offers me. (ibid., italics in original)

Considering foreign language learning within a larger framework of sensory perception and affective development also implies taking into account non-semantic dimensions of language. Language learning is far more than a cognitive process: the entire human body is directly and wholly involved in both the perception and expression of language (Kendon, 2004; McNeil, 2006). There is a substantial body of research which clearly indicates that the entire linguistic-kinesic organization of a human being constitutes a basis for both the perception and acquisition of language (Condon 1970; 1976; 1985; Lutzker, 1996, p.38-48, p. 238-263; Malloch & Trevarthen 2009, p. 1-11; Mazokopaki 2010; Powers 2010). In the case of learning a foreign language, this then involves becoming receptive to an entirely different linguistic-kinesic system and learning to 'participate in' and express oneself within a new medium of linguistic-kinesic behaviour (McCafferty, 2006). Moreover, an approach going 'beyond semantics' will also continually draw upon the purely tonal, emotional level of language; that dimension of language normally processed in the right hemisphere of the brain (Ross, 2010).

It is this encompassing understanding of language in conjunction with a view of education in which the fostering of a child's healthy development is seen as requiring that intellectual learning be inextricably tied to her emotional and physiological/neurological development and not simply 'as soon as possible' that shapes every element of Waldorf foreign language teaching. It is within this broader framework that considerations of curriculum and methodology can be placed.

Curriculum and methodology in Waldorf FLT

The curriculum and methods used to achieve the above-mentioned aims are in fundamental respects modelled on the way children naturally acquire their mother tongue. The first language/s is/are acquired through living in a rich linguistic environment of joint attention and shared interests and experiences. Language acquisition is always in context and supported by non-semantic processes of understanding such as imitation, gesture, body language, mimicry, tone of voice and kinesic interaction. Waldorf language teaching methodology is based on the asssumption that these processes can also provide the basis for later language learning.

Most Steiner schools introduce the children orally to two foreign languages from the first grade onwards in three regular subject lessons a week. The children participate in the lessons in the foreign language by reciting poems, singing songs, playing games and carrying out activities using the language, rather than being instructed directly. The participation is natural and unforced and involves friendly encouragement and involvement, without conscious attention paid to the learning of individual words or structures. Generally, there is little need for translation in the lower grades; the aim is to understand and actively take part wholly within the foreign language.

The teacher, of course, has a clear consciousness of what the children are learning and guides them through whole fields of vocabulary relating to everyday experience in the classroom and home, familiar activities, parts of the body, clothing, colours, sensory qualities of light, weight, warmth and well-being, the seasons, the times of the day, the days of the week, months, seasons, typical weather conditions, common forms of transport, familiar professions and what they do, along with common phenomena in nature, plants and animals. At the same time, the children learn a wide range of sentence structures, such as statements, questions, dialogue, active and passive forms in a variety of tenses through oral usage, in much the same way as these forms are learned unconsciously in the mother tongue. The competent speakers - the teacher and other children - scaffold language development by building on what the learner knows and extending this progressively with new words and language structures. The learning of the foreign language is thus situational arising out of the reality of the context. The class becomes a learning community that acquires language skills and knowledge together.

From the fourth school year on, the children are introduced to reading and writing in both foreign languages. The 'glove of literacy' fits over and reflects the 'hand of orality'. At first the children learn to write and read texts that they already know by heart, such as descriptive sentences, songs, or poems. Once the children become more fluent, they are introduced successively to age-appropriate literature. The choice of texts is made on the basis of attempting to reach and interest pupils at their respective emotional/cognitive levels and not on the basis of teaching specific grammatical structures or specific vocabulary. The choice of texts is also made by the teacher herself and accordingly tailored to the specific interests and needs of a particular class and not prescribed by either a standardized curriculum and/or by course book authors. In this context, the entire affective dimension of learning through authentically engaging pupils is considered as decisive with respect to fostering growth, developing motivation and achieving competence.

The pupils in the middle school (classes 5-8) also build on the awareness of grammar and syntax that they have acquired in their first language, such as the idea of nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions pronouns, tenses and cases and the relationships they reflect, by learning corresponding grammatical structures of the foreign languages. The general approach to grammar is heuristic: for example, the pupils are presented with many situation-based examples referring to a specific element of grammar and are then challenged to gradually arrive at an understanding and formulation of the rules underlying the phenomena. In this process a gradual transition is made from using and recognizing correct grammatical structures to an understanding and remembering of the rules and principles involved. This naturally takes a number of years and relative proficiency often precedes a full understanding of rules. In classes 8 and 9, pupils often need to revisit many aspects of the languages that they have previously half-consciously grasped and they can then take hold of this form of knowledge in a more systematic way.

In the upper school (classes 9-12/13), work continues on refining usage and accuracy of speaking, though the emphasis moves to literature and themes of social, cultural and historical interest related to the foreign language and culture. The pupils engage with authentic literature and poetry from all periods as well as with a broad range of non-fiction texts. As before, the choice of themes and texts is made on the basis of appropriately addressing and fostering age-specific emotional/intellectual development. In this context there is also a strong emphasis placed on creative writing in the upper school, both in poetry and short story writing. Moreover, theatre projects and drama techniques are viewed as crucial elements in helping pupils to more fully experience and embody the foreign language and its literature. These emphases also invariably shape all other areas of language teaching and can lead to an approach, for example, in which the learning of new vocabulary is not an abstract process, but clearly rooted in creative and artistic experience.

It is this pedagogical focus on the entire engagement of the learner – emotionally, cognitively, physically - which can be seen as an underlying principle shaping foreign language lessons in Steiner Schools. Beginning with the traditional nursery rhymes, songs, poems and games of the lower school, continuing with the classic tales, stories and books of the middle school and ending with Shakespeare, contemporary literature and cultural studies in the upper school, the primary experience of the aesthetic and cultural dimensions of the foreign language in conjunction with an approach to language learning deeply rooted in a pupil's active sensory/affective participation can be viewed as an underlying thread going through the entire curriculum and methodology. It is from such a rich basis of affective experience in the foreign language that pupils will be able to respond authentically and personally. Herein lies also a fundamental connection to Steiner's holistic understanding of the developing child and the task of education in providing children and young people with a broad range of opportunities for their individual development.

The encounter with another language and culture is not a neutral, objective act; the manner in which a language is approached, experienced and learned will crucially shape one's understanding of it. Hence, the learning of a foreign language cannot be viewed apart from the qualities of the materials and the nature of the learning process. Accordingly, it is apparent that this view of foreign language learning inherently precludes a regulated use of course books, whose choice of texts is not based on their intrinsic value as meaningful literature, but rather on their offering a structured and largely 'undisturbed' progression in the target language. The canon of oral and written literature which Steiner School pupils encounter in the course of their schooling stands in stark contrast to the format of such course books. The essence of what distinguishes an aesthetic and heuristic approach from a solely pragmatic one lies in these contrasting experiences of a foreign language. It would naturally go past the constraints of this article to examine in more detail what this specifically means for different classes in Waldorf schools: fortunately, there exists a broad range of books discussing both the theoretical and practical aspects of the specific elements of Waldorf foreign language teaching at each age level (Kiersch 1992; Jaffke 1996; Denjean 2000 ; Lutzker 1996; Lutzker 2007; Rawson/Richter (eds.) 2007; Templeton 2010).

Waldorf teacher education

The approach which I have attempted to elucidate here clearly requires a very different kind of teacher education than that generally offered in a traditional university setting. Within the broader context of viewing teaching as an art, the entire approach to all pre-service and in-service Waldorf teacher education is deeply rooted in an extensive artistic training in a broad range of the arts. In this context the entire personal development of the teacher which is initiated through the kinds of processes and demands which learning in the arts invariably requires is viewed as an essential aspect of what it means to become a Steiner School teacher. At the same time, the actual skills and competences which one then acquires also play a crucial role in the teaching itself.

In the specific framework of training foreign language teachers this has led to a particular emphasis on both drama and theatre clowning insofar as the particular expressive and improvisatory abilities which these arts require are viewed as closely linked to those qualitites which foreign language teachers continually need in their classrooms (Lutzker 2007, p. 150-221). The particular challenge of fully embodying and conveying the non-semantic dimensions of language calls for an approach to teacher education in which teachers are given a wide range of opportunities to develop such capabilities. Thus in both pre-service and in-service training, teachers are given the chance to work extensively with professional actors, directors and theatre clowns in developing these skills. Our experience has been that becoming a successful Steiner School foreign language teacher generally calls for this form as training, as what is called for in the classroom is deeply rooted in these forms of artistic experience.

The greatest problem that Steiner Schools presently face is that through the continuing growth of Steiner Schools throughout the world with presently more than 1200 schools worldwide, there is in many schools a clear lack of specifically Waldorf-trained teachers. Consequently, the goals and methods elucidated above are too often not being realized, leading invariably to frustrated pupils, disappointed parents and a high teacher turnover. Unfortunately, there is no subject where this problem has been more acute than in foreign language teaching and finding qualified teachers remains our greatest concern and challenge.

Continuing a constructive dialogue

There are significant connections between what has been elucidated here and many of the so-called 'humanistic' approaches to foreign language learning. In fact, a number of key aspects of the methodology being used in Steiner Schools, particularly in the areas of creative writing and drama, have been strongly influenced by leading humanistic EFL authorities such as Alan Maley, Mario Rinvolucri and Hans Hunfeld. In considering the implications of viewing teaching as an art, educators such as Parker Palmer, Maxine Greene, Elliot Eisner, Horst Rumpf and Seymour Sarrason have also played a crucial role in the further development of our approach to teacher education.

At the same time, as evidenced for instance in Waldorf contributions at international conferences in both Europe (ECER 2011) and Asia (MICELT 2010, ICELT 2011) as well as in academic publications (Jaffke 1996; Lutzker 2007; Tomlinson 2012), there is also a serious and growing interest in learning from a tradition that was initiated in the first Steiner school in 1919 and which has continued to develop over 90 years. Steiner School teachers, as evidenced by the highly enthusiastic receptions which non-Waldorf authorities have continually received at Waldorf conferences, are deeply interested in seeking ways to develop and enrich their approach through constructive exchanges. As part of this on-going dialogue, we have also always welcomed critical questions and criticisms. My hope is that in these pages and others we will be able to continue such a dialogue - on the basis of an accurate understanding of the actual goals and methods of Waldorf Education. It is certainly with that wish and intention that this article has been written.


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---. "Molding the Self and the Common Cognitive Sources of Science and Religion" available online at


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