Monday, July 24, 2006

Teaching the Alphabet

In Waldorf education, the capital alphabet is taught one letter at a time using the medium of story and art to really bring the letters alive for each child in a memorable, meaningful way. The letters emerge out of the story, usually a Grimm’s Fairytale (but it doesn’t have to be,) and come to life on the chalkboard and page. For example, to introduce the letter M many people tell Simeli Mountain and draw a mountain that resembles an M.

While it’s not the quickest way to teach the alphabet, I found it to be the most rewarding. Not just for Sunburst, but for myself, as well. Every bit of it seemed important. The stories engaged our hearts. The artwork (drawing a story picture and letter) engaged our hands, and the learning of each letter awakened her thinking. That’s what the lesson is designed to do, but really it did even more than that. It awakened my creativity and belief in my ability to teach my own children. It deepened her respect for me as teacher and storyteller, and it awakened this magic world between us, steeped in goodness, beauty, and adventure.

There are many ways to go about this lesson. Some people just tell each letter story as a separate piece, and others weave a larger story that incorporates smaller stories for the letters. The idea of a larger story really appealed to me, but in my searching none of the complete stories I found really seemed to fit Sunburst’s needs and my own. If I was going to make a story come to life, it needed to work for my child and had to be engaging for me as well. In the end, I made one up.

I combined ideas from Path of Discovery Grade 1, Genii of Language by Alan Whitehead, Christopherus First Grade Syllabus, postings on various Waldorf e-groups by other homeschoolers, and mixed them with my own thoughts and what we were emoting based on our own personalities and the season (we started the lesson in late Fall.) It turned out to be a huge success in my house.

Seeing how others go about a lesson always helps kick my own creative gears into motion. It’s my hope that a glimpse into our story will do the same for others.

Here’s how it began:

* * *

Once upon a time there was a great kingdom with a brightly shining lantern, for all who lived there were happy and prosperous. The King of this land was kind and generous—he had a great castle and plenty of land and riches, but his greatest treasure by far was his only child, the Prince, whom he loved above all else.

Once day this King noticed that the light of the lantern was growing dim. He noticed the people of his kingdom were not as happy as before. Things just didn’t seem right. So he sent out his royal page to make inquiries around the kingdom, and the news he received was not good. Not only were the people of the kingdom unhappy and feeling lackluster,

1. The hens had stopped laying eggs.
2. The cows had stopped giving milk.
3. And even the grain had stopped flourishing in the fields.

So the kind and thoughtful King sat down and scratched his head and tried to fix the problem. He declared that the people should:

1. Feed the hens more food.
2. Pet the cows.
3. Water the grain.

Of course the good people of the kingdom followed his orders at once. The hens were given plenty of food. Children spent all day in the fields petting the cows, and the farmers watered and watered the grain. But it was to no avail. Nothing seemed to work, and everyone grew unhappier with each passing day, even the King himself.

Now it just so happened that there was a Wiseman who lived at the edge of this vast kingdom. He was quite old and wise and knew all about the healing ways of stones and plants, the ways of the stars and planets, and many, many stories of the land and its people. He was often called upon to solve the more difficult problems, sometimes at a moment’s notice, and so he kept on him always a blue satchel that he wore at his side—a place to put all things of importance and magic that would help him do his work.

The King, in his desperation, called upon the Wiseman for help. The Wiseman and his daughter Clara came to the royal castle in great haste, whereupon the King told him the details of the grand problem.

The King said, with a great sigh, “Our bright lantern is growing very dim. My people are unhappy, my family is unhappy, and I, myself, am unhappy, and yet I know not why. Furthermore, the hens have stopped laying eggs. The cows have stopped giving milk. And the grain no longer flourishes in the field.”

The Wiseman listened with great concern, and told the King he would be glad to try and help, but he would need three days to think the matter over. The King, having come to his wit’s end, quickly agreed.

On the first day, the Wiseman visited the hens. He spoke to them and asked them why they had stopped laying eggs, but they did not answer. On the second day the Wiseman spoke to the cows. He asked them why they had stopped giving milk, but they did not answer. And on the third day the Wiseman spoke to the grain. It was dry and brittle in the field. When it did not answer, the Wiseman plucked three pieces of grain and placed them in his satchel.

That night, the Wiseman took three smooth stones from his blue satchel and tossed them on the ground. He studied them carefully, and then reached back into his satchel for the three grains. He tossed those onto the stones and looked up into the night sky. Three stars shone brightly, and with a sudden flash, one of them shot across the sky, like a brilliant flame, leading West.

The Wiseman told the King, “The answer you seek lies outside of the kingdom. I must go on a quest, and I will take with me three things:

1. my wise daughter Clara
2. the kingdom’s lantern
3. the thing which you love the most (Prince)

Make the necessary preparations. We will leave in a fortnight.”


The characters set off on their quest to restore the light in the lantern, and thereby they would restore happiness and prosperity in the kingdom. But they didn’t know how they would do this, they sort of blindly set off on the wings of faith. That seemed to me to mirror the start of our formal educational process. In raising a child, or choosing to homeschool a child, you don’t get any guarantees that it’s going to work out. You have to rely on faith. For a child starting out on a formal path of learning, she can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. She just knows she has to sit here and pay attention-- to have faith that something worthwhile will come of this.

As for the light in the lantern, well, we started this lesson late, around Martinmas. And restoring happiness and prosperity, restoring the light in the darkest time of the year, that’s a goal everyone can agree on and get behind. It was an unspoken something we could feel and relate to on the inside. This story took us through the bleak days of winter and culminated with the arrival of Spring, a return to happiness and prosperity.

On the journey, the specific tales emerged in direct relation to feelings and encounters, like the swan on the lake, the bear in the woods, or waiting for the heavy rains to let up. Sometimes the stories were told by people they met along the way, like the Queen and her jester, or Pirate Jack looking for buried treasure. Each of these people had their own stories to tell, as well, and it gave the greater story a sense of fullness.

We covered one to three letters a week. The map of our drawings and stories follows below.

J=Jug (Water of Life -Grimms)
~ O ~ (surprise)
T=(Three Little Men in the Wood - Grimms)
M=Mountain (Simeli Mountain - Grimms)
D=Door in the mountain
~ E ~ (fear)
H=House (Mother Holle - Grimms)
N=Needle (The Spindle, the Shuttle, and the Needle - Grimms)
Q=(The Jolly Queen – own)
G=(The Golden Goose - Grimms)
C=Cave of Mysteries
----> Intro to Numbers ---->
Z=Zigzag of lightning
R=(Rapunzel - Grimms)
B=Bear (Masha and the Bear – Spindrift)
~ U ~ (concern)
S=Swan (Six Swans - Grimms)
~ A ~ (wonder)
X=X on treasure map (Pirate John - own)
F=(Fisherman and His Wife - Grimms)
Y=Yew tree (Birth of Christ)
~ I ~ (understanding of one's place in the world)

For the vowels I used the magical idea from Christopherus First Grade Syllabus of writing the letters on golden star paper from an art store. The vowels represented different feelings, and the Prince represented the kingdom. So when the Prince felt the fullness of these feelings along the way, in our story the stars fell from the sky. Each time a star fell, the light in the lantern would grow stronger. The Wiseman told the Prince to put the stars next to his heart, but at the end, when he reached into his pocket for the stars they weren’t physically there. There was only a happy warm feeling –they had become a part of him.

Sunburst pasted the stars into her book, which was great, except that the stars themselves posed a problem for any other drawings that would come next. We had to put an oil cloth between her pages to prevent an etching of the star to come through on the next several pages when she drew. Otherwise, it worked out great and seemed really magical.

At the end of our story, when the light shone as brightly as could be, our travelers hitched a ride back home on the back of a dragon they had met in the Cave of Mysteries when we segued into the Intro to Numbers.

Sunburst wanted to fill up the end pages of her main lesson books (we filled TWO of them with our letter drawings,) and so we drew a few pictures and sentences that brought the story to a close.

Sunburst was sad to see the characters go. She deeply connected with Clara, so I resurrected her to travel along with us into our Maths lesson. That’s the great thing about homeschooling and making it up to suit your own child. When you find or create a story or character that really engages their heart you can take it with you into other lessons. It’s all about making it your own, making it work for you and your child.

Here are some examples of our work:

This one shows the progression from my chalkboard drawing (using crayola chalk), to Sunburst's rendition of it in beeswax crayon, and her drawing of the letter T.

I switched to Mercurius blackboard chalk partway through the lesson, and it made the chalk drawings appear much more intense and captivating.

The Cave of Mysteries was one of my favorite drawings. The orangeness was inspired by our visits to Southern Utah.

Here is the Wiseman for W, the King for K, an ancient Yew tree for Y, and a sample of a golden star/vowel pasted into the book.

I'm a sucker for happy endings.

We also made up fun little sentences for each letter and marched around the house repeating them ad nauseum. Here are a couple examples:

"Katie kindly kissed the king of kangaroos."
"Ten toads with twisted tounges drank tea in Timbuktu."

*For a great online list of Grimm’s Fairytales worth considering for your own First Grade lessons, check out David Darcy’s article.


  1. Your way of teaching the alphabet is both creative and fun! It seems like it would keep kids active and excited to continue learning more and more letters. It is a great hands on way to learn. I think this lesson plan could be incorporated in a classroom and the students could work together to make a picture book.

  2. Hello! I have just found your blog and am enjoying reading a bit each day. I too am a mid-30's homeschooling mama to 3 kids (7.5, 5 and 1.5), with a Waldorf focus. I am getting many great ideas and great smiles from your entries. I'm thinking I'd like to do this Waldorf Alphabet story with my children, and my question to you is, my eldest kids are 2.5 years apart, and I'd like them to have their own stories and their own quiet story time. What did you do with your other children while you told your eldest her story and worked on these letters/Grimm's tales?

    I think what so many of us homeschoolers need is an insight into how each of us get things done! When do you blog? How do we juggle our time with our kids and caring for the home and ourselves? Thanks for putting your words out there, I'm happy to have found them.

    Victoria BC

  3. Thanks so much for the kind words. :-)

    Caelen, these are great questions-- ones I frequently return to in my own homeschooling venture. The how and the when of homeschooling is just as crucial, if not more so, than the what. I will try to form these answers into a post in the next few days, as surely it would make quite a long comment.

  4. Hi ,
    I a new to waldorf and today stumbked on your alot.Its inspire me alot.
    I do have a ques.In your post at the link "" you mentioned -There are many ways to go about alphabet lesson. Some people just tell each letter story as a separate piece, and others weave a larger story that incorporates smaller stories for the letters.

    I need to more about larger story part that incoporates smaller stories for the letter.Pl let me know how can it be done.

  5. Bab, what I've done (and have seen many others do) is to have an adventure story with a set of main characters that your child can relate to (similar age, interests, etc.) and along the journey they encounter someone or something that leads to a story-- the sighting of a bear would lead to B - for bear, and someone in the story tells a bear story like "Masha and the Bear." -- Hope that helps.

  6. Thank you very much for sharing your experiences. ALthough I m spanish speaker I can use some advice of your to help my little girl to improve her writing while on summer hollydays. We are trying on spontaneous letter discovering but I wonder an ordered way to reinforce caps to her. TY again

  7. You're quite welcome, Gianna. Thanks for the kind words.

  8. I just wanted to thank you for the detailed post. I wanted to buy the Christopherus syllabus, but its way out of me means right now. I honestly find it way to expensive, even used. This article is just what I needed. I think I can wave a story now. Just a couple of questions. Are the letters supposed to taought in that order? Are the kids supposed to write whole sentences? thanks so muuuuch!!!

  9. Sorry, I did not add the "notify me" check!!!!


Thank you for taking the time to leave a message. I appreciate your sweet words so much!

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