Grade School Foreign Language Program

We live in a vibrant, linguistically rich, globally connected metropolis where parents value foreign language instruction for their grade school-age children. They may recognize that with language acquisition comes cultural understanding, flexibility in thinking, and clarity of expression in both native and new languages. Foreign language instruction can also strengthen comprehension in seemingly nonrelated subject areas like mathematics.

At SFWS, students gain a strong foreign language foundation with an engaging curriculum that is tuned to each age and stage of development. Some of Waldorf’s instructional approaches are common in other schools, including an immersive technique in which very little English is spoken in the classroom.  It is also widely accepted across the educational spectrum that an early start is key to near-native pronunciation. Young children’s innate joy in imitation simply allows for speech to flow uninhibited.Other parts of the foreign language program are decidedly Waldorf: integration of arts with language learning and dual language instruction in Mandarin and Spanish, which begins in grade one and continues until the middle school years.  The two foreign languages provide balance in learning and contrasts in linguistics and world views.  

Poetry, Music, and Early Language Learning
Foreign language lessons in the early grades have the feel of a morning main lesson:  songs, poetry, and rhymes help children absorb the musicality and feeling of the language.  Stories also engage the imagination and help students create essential mental pictures.  Meaning is acquired slowly through repetition and accompanying visuals, gestures, intonations, and body language. Body movement is especially helpful for children learning Mandarin tones. 

In the first grade there is no reading or writing – just songs, stories, and poetry. By second grade, students begin to respond conversationally. Music and poetry continue to engage the children; young children can sometimes be heard at recess practicing their Spanish songs together.

By the middle of third grade, students begin to put pencil to paper, recording a well-known story of elefante or mariposa with a drawing and a word on a page. Students discover the Old Chinese characters from the pictures they draw and explore the progression to the modern characters. The order of the strokes sets an important foundation in Chinese writing; this is taught with colors of the rainbow – first a stroke of red, then orange, yellow, and so on. 

Fourth grade marks an important curricular change: oral language acquisition is enhanced through reading, writing, dictation, and written exploration of grammatical structures. Students have the capacity to identify parts of speech, and are able to make written and oral presentations of their cultural studies. This process deepens and expands throughout fifth grade, where grammatical instruction in Spanish includes verb conjugation, personal pronouns, and gender agreement. 

Depth of Instruction
By the middle‐school years, students choose to specialize in either Mandarin or Spanish, doubling instructional time. Foreign language classes are now skills classes that demands practice, consistency, and analytical thinking. Students use newfound intellectual capacities to learn proper uses of grammar and syntax and build oral expression through situational dialogues.  Instruction continues to mirror the main lesson curriculum: seventh grade Mandarin students, for example, work with the radical of fire during their chemistry block and the radical of heart during the physiology block. These students also begin to use a dictionary, building a foundation of independent work which will open the door to thousands of Chinese characters. 

In Spanish, teachers work with students by telling and retelling the stories read in class. Students enhance their written comprehension and grammar by recording summaries of what they understood in essays, reports, and presentations. Student presentations support linguistic skill development. By eighth grade, Spanish students are immersed in the study of Latin American and Mexican history. They explore the literary masterpiece Don Quixote de la Mancha and visit Diego Rivera’s mural masterpiece, Pan American Unity, at City College.  

Cultural Understanding
Gong xi fa cai! The Year of the Horse was a community-wide celebration at San Francisco Waldorf School. This began with stories and cultural history, then first and second graders crafted lanterns, third graders made and served 300 dumplings, while fourth graders designed a firecracker banner. Fifth and sixth graders cut paper characters, an exercise in geometrical symmetry. Sixth and seventh graders practiced the art of calligraphy which demands focus and patience. 

In both Mandarin and Spanish, SFWS teachers bring to life the culture of the languages of origin and impart the meaning and stories behind the festivities and fun. The Spanish program focuses on different regional traditions and studies, always including singing, dancing, and plays from the countries honored. This year is El Caribe, the Caribbean, which includes history and cultural studies as well as a performance by musicians playing native instruments.  Years past have been dedicated to Spain, Andean countries and Peruvian legends and instruments, and Mexico with Aztec Spanish plays. Every year, the fall brings the campus-wide festival of Dia de los Muertos, a centuries-old tradition with Aztec and Spanish roots.  The honoring of ancestors includes an altar and a shared meal of “pan de muerto.” 

Note:  Congratulations to Elena Forrer on the upcoming publication of Andando Caminos, Teaching Spanish in Waldorf Schools, published by Steiner Press and available at Barnes & Noble and Amazon. ~ Kim Hopper