The pedagogical approach to this subject in Waldorf schools entails introducing the pupils to two foreign languages from grade one onwards. The idea is that they be immersed in the living, active world of the target language right from the start. They speak rhymes, sing songs, play games and follow simple instructions – all in the foreign language. But there is no direct teaching as such. The atmosphere of the lessons should be as unforced and natural as possible. The teacher gives the children friendly encouragement and engages them in activities, without consciously directing their attention to the learning of particular words or grammatical structures. This means that in the early school-years translating things into the children’s mother tongue is not necessary. The aim is to create understanding in the foreign language through active participation.
Although learning takes place in this imitative, participatory way with no intention on the children’s part, the teacher, of course, has a clear idea of what they should learn in the first three years, and takes them into certain distinct areas of vocabulary. These include every-day experiences in the classroom and at home, greetings, modes of address, familiar every-day activities, parts of the body, clothes, sense-perceptions such as light, colour, warmth and weight, health, the seasons, times of day, days of the week, months, types of weather, means of transport, familiar professions, animals, plants and other natural phenomena. In conjunction with all this the children are learning a range of sentence structures – including active and passive – in various tenses, and that in a purely oral manner, in other words, rather like the unconscious way they learn these structures in their mother tongue. Competent speakers – the teacher and possibly also fellow-pupils – provide a framework for the child’s language development by always using what is already familiar as a springboard for getting to know new words and structures.
Learning the foreign language is thus situational and grows out of the authenticity of a particular context. This is why children often know much more under the direction of their teacher in the familiar surroundings of their classroom than when they are confronted by the foreign language in another setting. The class becomes its own learning community.
In grade 4 the children are introduced to writing and reading in both foreign languages. At first they use texts which they already know by heart – little poems, prose texts or individual sentences. This is a fitting way to go about it: once it’s internalized, the written form will have living content. The “glove of literacy” fits, and precisely mirrors, the “hand of orality”. Once writing and reading become more fluent, the children can be gradually introduced to age-appropriate literature which they haven’t spoken before. The ultimate criterion in choosing a text is not as an aid to learning particular grammatical structures or elements of vocabulary (and this goes in principle for texts used all the way through school). Rather, the important thing about the chosen text is that it corresponds to the children’s phase of emotional and cognitive development and engages their interest. What is decisive for the students’ motivation and progress in becoming competent in the language is the authentic character of the reading material and its relation to the “affective dimension” of learning. Authenticity and the element of feeling are also important in classroom conversations and other activities, and in the matter of homework as well. Little plays and scenes can also make an invaluable contribution here.