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The Principles of Teaching ESL in Waldorf Elementary School

The Principles of Teaching ESL in Waldorf Elementary School | ITTT | TEFL Blog

The first Waldorf School was founded in 1919 in Stuttgart for the children of the workers in the Waldorf Astoria cigarette factory. The school’s doors were open for all the children regardless of their social status. It was the end of World War I and because of post-war chaos, people were looking for new educational systems. In such an environment, it was not difficult for Waldorf pedagogy to find its place among other reform movements. Today there are more than 1000 Waldorf schools all around the world.

This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Hande B. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.

The History of Waldorf

One of the most special features of this school was the language education, which suggested teaching two foreign languages from the first grade on. This can be considered a common educational approach nowadays, but at that time it was quite revolutionary because learning foreign languages was a privilege for only the upper-class children.

Waldorf pedagogy is a holistic, human-oriented system adopting the view built on Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophy, the ‘knowledge of man’. Anthroposophy is a philosophy with some special features, one of which is the ‘concept of man’. Rudolf Steiner describes man as a three-part organism that consists of head, trunk, and limbs. These parts correspond to different soul forces of man which are respectively thinking, feeling, and willing. He says that these must be developed in a balanced way and art can be a very useful tool for this to be accomplished. He also suggests that man has four different levels of bodies: the physical body, the etheric body, the astral body, and then I (the ego). He views man as a potentially free spiritual being who is to develop himself to reach freedom with the help of I and suggests a healthy and fulfilled childhood can help reach this ultimate goal. Another important concept is the developmental phases of childhood. According to the anthroposophical view, human development can be divided into stages of roughly seven years and the first three seven yearly phases make up childhood. To provide meaningful support for a healthy childhood, curriculum and methodology must be prepared according to a deep understanding of these phases, and the development process must not be put on a fast track with the worry of teaching children the most in the shortest time possible.

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Why Children Learn Fast?

According to Steiner, children are not empty and they don’t need to be taught. What they just need is the appropriate environment to develop themselves and to bring out their innate treasures. In this process, the role of the teacher is very important because the child wants to learn with a genuine will and to follow, therefore the teacher must be an adult who is worth following. Rudolf Steiner described education not as a science but as an art, and he also viewed the teacher as an artist. The teacher is free to choose and apply the methods that are necessary for the class and must keep in mind the fundamentals of Waldorf pedagogy and respect the individuality of each child.

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Waldorf System

All the subjects in a Waldorf school are given according to these fundamental ideas including foreign languages. Language learning is seen as a source of enrichment because it is not only about learning another language but it also gives the child a chance to learn a different way of thinking, since different cultures have different ways of encoding their experiences and this is represented through their language.

In our school, we have an English class three times a week and each lesson lasts 40 minutes. Learning a foreign language depends on imitative musical abilities, for this reason, in the early grades, we try to immerse the children in the living atmosphere of the spoken word as much as possible. We don’t start writing until the third grade, all the work is done orally. The lesson can start with greeting the children in English and then we can go on speaking about the weather and date. We start each lesson in the same way and by repeating the same sequence children learn naturally.

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Lesson Structure

After this introduction part which will take around 5 minutes, we have a rhythmic part. It is very important to move our bodies and limbs so that the learning can be internalized fully. In this part, we can recite a poem, add movements and gestures to it, we can work on some tongue twisters, make a circle game, or learn a new song or a dance.

The rhythmic part of the lesson will take around 15 minutes, after which the head is ready for intellectual learning. At this point, we give the context we would like to give through introducing the children to the seasons, animals, plants, nature, or daily activities. We can also tell a story. They will listen to it and then they can act out small parts from the story or they can act out a daily conversation. In the end, we finish the lesson with a verse, a song, or a game depending on what we feel is suitable for our class.

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Curriculum

In the fourth year eventually we start writing and reading and gradually the elements of grammar will be introduced. We don’t use a textbook for teaching grammar. Children create their textbooks by writing the rules down starting from the simplest. As we are learning the grammar, we always try to keep the sequence of the lesson and the relation with the living spoken word.

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The context of the lesson can vary from teacher to teacher but in essence we try to keep the same fundamentals. The teacher tries to bring as much diversity to the class as possible, yet doesn’t get tired of repeating the form s/he has established. There must be a balance of breathing in and out, standing up and sitting still, moving the desks to the side to make a circle, sitting and listening to a story, listening and writing, etc. Therefore, both the active and passive elements of the language can have a place and different elements of thinking, feeling, and will can be developed.

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