The Waldorf Foreign Language Approach in Preschool and Elementary Spanish

A third methodology that has informed the Sonrisas curriculum has perhaps made the strongest impact on us as teachers and on our students who are acquiring language. Unlike TPR or NA, the Waldorf foreign language approach is not an ESL technique. It is a carefully designed approach to foreign language instruction and acquisition.

Rudolf Steiner started the first Waldorf School in Germany in the 1920s. Among other things, Steiner offered very specific guidelines for teaching foreign languages, guidelines that are to this day implemented in Waldorf schools throughout the world.

Like NA, the Waldorf approach is based on the idea that the primary purpose of foreign language acquisition is to develop the ability to communicate. Foreign language study also raises one’s social conscience and cultivates an interest in and respect for others. In fact, the Waldorf School sees foreign language study as a window into the soul of another culture. Because the manner in which we think is expressed through the languages that we speak, we nurture a cultural understanding of other peoples through acquiring their languages.

This concept struck a chord with us when we thought about our own experiences learning Spanish. The very nature of the way the Spanish language is constructed and expresses the world is very different from that of the English language. In the Spanish language, we reflected, words seem to flow together with no verbal punctuation between them. There is even a tense—the subjunctive—that infuses verbs with emotion. Taking these ideas to the next level, when children are exposed to another language, they are building much more than linguistic agility. Their minds are opening to a very different way of thinking about and seeing the world. Being continually mindful of this openness is important, we believe, when choosing what we teach and how we present it in our classroom.

Central to the Waldorf foreign language approach is the recognition that in the first grade, the imitative and memory capacities of children are still strong and spontaneous. Because children at this age are ripe for acquiring foreign languages, Steiner advocated that two foreign languages, from two separate origins, be introduced in the first grade. Further, during the first three years of foreign language instruction, all learning should occur within an oral context through verse, song, activities involving rhythm, dramatizations, and situational dialogues. Through these activities, students learn vocabulary and language concepts. The thematic content of the curriculum is grounded in children’s everyday experience, i.e., through nature, colors, the body, clothing, food, the home and family, numbers, etc.

The structure and flow of the Waldorf classroom can perhaps best be described as a well-orchestrated concert. The teacher leads students through a wide range of activities in a relatively short period of time. In each lesson, students are given adequate room and opportunity to move their bodies, alternating sitting with physical activity of some kind. After an initial greeting, the class enters an oral segment that emphasizes a lively, rhythmic pace. This portion of the class may include song, recitation, counting, Q&A, and dancing; it brings the class together and puts students in a receptive mood for the next activity in which new material is introduced. In the Waldorf classroom, teachers introduce this new material using a basket or “special box” with objects that represent the new content. Following this “lesson,” students actively engage in a project or activity that they can complete without help from the teacher. The lesson closes much like it began, through singing, recitation of verses, etc.

During the first three years of foreign language instruction, there is a gradual shift in emphasis from receptive to productive use of the language, ensuring that students have plenty of time to absorb the language before they are asked to produce it. In the Waldorf classroom, repetition is imperative to successful absorption of the language.

Though much of the Waldorf foreign language approach complements TPR and NA techniques, there is one quality that differs significantly. While NA focuses on comprehensible input, through which students acquire language as they understand its meaning, in the Waldorf classroom students learn extensive poems and verses by heart before they completely understand the content of these poems. This is not to say that in each lesson students do not also learn through comprehensible input. The idea of introducing substantial and often complex verse and poetry, however, is based on the belief that until the age of six or seven, children relate less to meaning and more to sound. To put this another way, children relate to emotional content long before they relate to intellectual content. Although children may not fully grasp the meaning of the poem, they can become familiar with the language on an emotional level through the sound of the poem.

In our classrooms, we see this emotional reception to the language demonstrated over and over again. Our students learn beautiful poems that come to life for them through the beauty of the sound and through accompanying gestures. Teachers need not worry about choosing poetry that is thematically simple so that students understand each word they’re reciting. It’s more important that the poetry reflect the richness and beauty of that language. Young children possess flexible tongues and strong imitative skills. One can see these strengths at work in any young child who loves to listen to verse and nursery rhymes. Although he may have little idea of what the individual words mean, he has a clear understanding of the emotional content of the words, evident through his intonation and gesture.

The Sonrisas classroomresembles the Waldorf classroom in many respects. As in the Waldorf classroom, songs, poems, games, and drama are central to our lessons, as is the focus on rhythm. Also like Waldorf lessons, Sonrisas lessons begin with a lively oral segment that involves singing, dancing, and playing, followed by the introduction of new material. However, while Waldorf lessons use a visual aid such as a basket, Sonrisas lessons rely primarily on well-illustrated books to introduce new material. In both approaches, the third segment of each lesson consists of a hands-on independent project that involves the new material that’s just been introduced.

Sonrisas Spanish School creates, publishes and sells preschool and elementary Spanish curriculum and Spanish music for children. The Sonrisas curriculum can be used to teach preschool, elementary and home school Spanish. Currently, our Spanish language curriculum for kids is being used nationwide to teach Spanish to children.

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