“... in a kind of factual conversation”

Christoph Jaffke

Early foreign language teaching rests on two pillars: the legato language of poetry and the language of daily interaction, prose. Ru­dolf Steiner’s expressly stated preference for poetic language unfortunately led to the decades-long misunderstanding that children should primarily learn foreign language poems and songs by heart in the first three years of school. Yet he indicated equally clearly that the dialogical element and “factual conversation” should be fostered just as much. 

Research in foreign language teaching has shown that it can be a great help for learners at the beginning if they are given certain formulaic expressions or chunks which have not yet been analysed, i.e. understood, in detail, but whose meaning as a whole can be clearly recognised through their context – and through the body language of the teacher. They represent “secure havens” for the beginning learners and enable the children to communicate with one another in the foreign language right from the first lesson.

“The penny is hidden, where can it be ...”

This procedure can be most clearly demonstrated in connection with learning games. Let us start with the little dialogue which, like so many, starts with a rhyme:

“The penny is hidden,
Where can it be –
In my right hand, in my left hand,
Please tell me.”

The teacher shows the children an British penny and then hides it behind her back. Now one of the children is given the coin, puts both hands behind his or her back and then brings each closed hand to the front in rhythm with the lines “right hand, left hand" with the coin in one of them. Then the other children ask: “Is the penny in your (right) hand?” “No, it isn’t. It is in my (left) hand.” ... The child who has guessed correctly is allowed to hide the penny the next time round.

It makes sense to practice this short dialogue in chorus to begin with, but then the individual children can ask and answer the question from the first lesson in class 1.

We can take the action rhyme “I’m standing, I’m sitting” as the starting point for a second activity:

I’m standing, I’m sitting,

I’m writing, I’m knitting,

I’m reading, I’m counting,

I’m swimming, I’m shouting.

I’m eating, I’m drinking,

I’m talking, I’m thinking.

I’m giving, I’m taking,

I’m sweeping, I’m baking.

I’m laughing, I’m looking,

I’m washing, I’m cooking,

I’m driving, I’m rowing,

I’m kneeling, I’m growing.

I show my right hand,

I show my left hand,

I show both my hands,

And now I will stand (sit) still.


Through the fixed expressions, this sequence of actions offers a whole series of possibilities to give children the appropriate expressive tools for guessing games. To begin with, the children work their way into the context of the chain of actions through speaking them in chorus accompanied by the appropriate movements. Then this context is broken up and leads over into various question and answer games:

•  The teacher asks: “Am I sitting?” The children answer, initially in chorus: “No, you’re not, you are standing.” “Am I driving?” “No, you are not, you’re sleeping.”

•  On pupil is allowed to leave the class and does something out in the corridor. Another child stands at the door and watches what is happening outside. The children in the classroom now ask the “reporter” in turn: “Is she (he) looking?” “No, she isn’t / is not.” – “Is she counting?” “No, she isn’t.” ... “Is she jumping?” “Yes, she is.”

•  One child goes out and comes back a short time later. Now he or she is asked. “Were you looking?” “No, I was not/wasn’t.” “Were you laug­hing?” “No, I wasn’t.” “Were you running?” “No, I wasn’t.” ... “Were you lying on the floor?” “Yes, I was.”

“The English bag”

Another example can be used to introduce various word families: the English Bag. It might be toy cars (if possible authentic ones like a London taxi, a London double-decker bus, a police car, an ambulance, a fire engine ...). It might also be various animals, or objects which the children deal with every day in school or at home. Using five different formulaic expressions, the children can take part in this game with almost no other prerequisites:

• “In the English Bag there is ...” The objects are taken out of the bag one after the other, displayed, named and laid on a table or, in the case of the movable classroom where all the children are sitting in a circle, on the floor. The children repeat the words in chorus. It makes sense to keep the number of objects small at the beginning, not more than five.

• In a second step, individual children are allowed to say which object should be put back in the bag. Teacher: “Please tell me what to put back in the English Bag.” Pupil: “Please put back the London taxi.” “Please put back the ambulance.”

• One child is given the English Bag, puts his or her hand inside and touches an object – hidden from the other children. They try to discover what object the child is just touching: “Have you got ... in your hand?” “No, I haven’t.”/”Yes, I have.”

• Five children are given an object from The English Bag. They stand in a circle and as soon as the other children have closed their eyes (“Eyes shut, heads down, please!”) they swap the objects among one another (“Give one, take one. No grabbing!”). Then the five children go around and put their object on the table of one of the children (in the movable classroom on the floor in front of one of the children). When all the objects have been distributed, the five children stand next to one another in front of the blackboard and the others are told to open their eyes: “Heads up, please.” All the children open their eyes and those with an object in front of them pick it up and stand up. Now the gripping question: “Did you put the crocodile on my desk/in front of me, Robert?” “No, I didn't/did not.” – “Yes, I did.” ... The children who have guessed correctly move forward to the next round.

• Finally, the children who were not guessed say which object they put in front of which child: “I put the rattlesnake on Jennifer's desk / in front of Jennifer” ...

Current teaching experience in lower school in Germany and abroad has shown me how easily and, indeed, naturally children immerse themselves and move about in the foreign language with the help of fixed expressions. Recent research into teaching methodology has shown that the expressions absorbed in the early learning stages are transferred to other contexts over time.

About the author: Dr. Christoph Jaffke is professor of foreign language teaching at the Seminar for Waldorf Education of the Freie Hochschule Stuttgart. He teaches English at Stuttgart Waldorf schools, founded the series Materialien für den Fremdsprachenunterricht an Freien Waldorfschulen and advises Waldorf schools in all parts of the world.