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Preschool Spanish with Sonrisas

Language Learning—We’ve Got It Backwards

By now it has been clearly established that learning a second language promotes substantial cognitive and academic benefits. It is also evident that a critical period for learning a second language exists when humans are young, and that once this period has passed, language learning becomes more challenging. As Kristi Hemingway recently wrote for Edcuration, we seem to have language education backwards in the United States. Most language courses do not start until high school when the critical period is winding down, and it is too late to take advantage of early language learning. This is why teaching preschool Spanish makes so much sense.

In the early days of Sonrisas Spanish, our curriculum was focused mainly on early learners—those in preschool and early elementary. To this day, the Sonrisas curriculum is a highly effective preschool Spanish curriculum which can set young learners on a path to lifelong language learning. What makes the Sonrisas Spanish curriculum so effective for preschool students is that we utilize a solid pedagogical approach within a consistent routine and structure.

Routine and Structure

We know that young learners thrive with routine and structure. Practically speaking, routine and structure make young learners feel safe. When they feel safe, their brains are extremely receptive to learning. This is why we designed the Sonrisas lessons with the consistent structure of Circle Time, Story Time, and Art Time. Every lesson follows this structure and is designed to incorporate a consistent routine of age-appropriate activities for young learners.

In Circle Time the teacher and students sing songs, play games, role-play, and do introductory activities for each lesson—all in Spanish. Circle Time is very kinetic, engaging, and fun for students. Circle Time opens learner’s brains to the sounds of Spanish and connects the language to learner’s bodies through physical activity. There is lots of opportunity for interpersonal communication as students build comprehension and speaking skills.

In Story Time the teacher reads a children’s Spanish storybook to students. The storybook is always related to the theme of the lesson, and it does several things: 1) It introduces vocabulary and phrases for the lesson. 2) It gives students an authentic experience with Spanish—exposing them to different voices and styles in Spanish. 3) It engages their imaginations in Spanish.

In Art Time students complete an art project which, like the story, is always related to the theme of the lesson. The idea is that while students are engaged working on the project, the teacher can engage them in one-on-one conversations, in Spanish, about what they’re working on. This reinforces the vocabulary and phrases for the lesson.

It’s wonderful to see preschool students thrive within this structure as they engage in Spanish, but there is more going on than just providing routine. The Sonrisas Spanish curriculum utilizes research and pedagogical methods that capitalize on young learner’s ability to acquire language.

Young Learners and Acquisition

Too many early language learning programs do not take advantage of young learner’s ability to acquire language. They focus instead on teaching vocabulary in isolation or trying to grab kid’s attention through animation, apps, or other technology. Dr. Stephen Krashen and Spanish teacher Tracy Terrell developed the Natural Approach methodology to learning language which focuses on meaning. They point out that communication takes place when messages are comprehended. In the Natural Approach, the teacher uses “comprehensible input” (language that students can understand) to convey messages in the second language. Research and experience has shown that when students are exposed to this input in low-anxiety contexts, acquisition is inevitable.

In order to control anxiety levels in the learner, one does not demand a premature production of language, and one does not correct errors in speech except when they compromise meaning. In lessons using the Natural Approach, the teacher’s role is to allow students multiple opportunities to understand language through the use of multiple strategies. There are two important parts to this idea: 1) that instruction is done by a teacher—in other words a human and not technology—and 2) that multiple strategies are used. This is why the Sonrisas lessons incorporate strategies such as song, verse, actions, gestures, visual aids, illustrations, and manipulatives.

Every segment of the Sonrisas lessons utilizes comprehensible input (CI). In Circle Time, CI occurs through movement and gesture as children sing songs. In Story Time, CI occurs through illustrations and repetitive texts of the storybooks. In Art Time, CI occurs through the physical product of the art project and the art materials. Young learners acquire Spanish using the Sonrisas lessons because there is lots of opportunity for meaningful communication, using multiple strategies, with language that they understand.

Lifelong Language Learners

Of course no language learning would occur at all if students were not having a good time. All of the songs, stories, and art projects in the Sonrisas lessons have been developed with this in mind. They are fun and engaging for young learners and incorporate age-appropriate themes. One of our main goals as language educators is to give students a positive world language learning experience. When we do this, children develop positive connotations towards language learning, and they develop habits that help them become lifelong language learners.


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