Language learning in blocks

By Ulrike Sievers, November 2018

Block teaching is a particular feature of Waldorf education. At the same time there is a debate as to whether this principle can be extended beyond the classic main lessons to other subjects.

Photo: © Charlotte Fischer

At the Elmshorn Free Waldorf School, the author was involved in the change from three regular English lessons to three three-week blocks in upper school. At her present school, the Christian Morgenstern School in Hamburg, alternating blocks of Spanish and English have been part of the concept from the beginning. 

Questioning and rethinking concepts

There were, above all, two aspects which motivated us at the time in the upper school teachers’ meeting to think about transforming traditional ways of doing things. As a foreign language teacher, I was teaching five classes in parallel – some of them whole, some of them split classes. That meant a daily mishmash: after class 5 into class 10. Then class 12 and then twice half a class 8. Next day it was class 9 in the timetable. The right tone, suitable pictures, the appropriate way to address the class always had to be found – never mind the preparation of five different subjects. 

The observation that mostly one or two classes went on autopilot while my main focus was on another one at that particular moment made me dissatisfied; after all, I was convinced of the importance of being properly prepared to give a quality lesson. I felt restless, sometimes harassed and was envious of the colleagues who were able to immerse themselves in a subject without rush in a main lesson. 

We know how important it is for the course of a lesson that a relationship can develop between the teacher and the children and young people. I felt that meeting three times a week – and that was before absences due to class trips, drama projects and work experience – did not build the commitment which some of the young people needed to take the language lessons seriously. 

Beyond that it was my experience particularly in upper school that often only 35 minutes remained of a 40 to 45-minute lesson – very little for a working atmosphere to develop, immersing oneself intensively in the other language and managing demanding tasks. The phase changes in short steps familiar from lower and middle school no longer seemed appropriate to me in upper school. 

With the goal, beyond the aspects described above, of offering the pupils greater continuity and sufficient space to concentrate on a subject and stick with a task, instead of a rapid alternation of lessons, we set about reorganising the timetable of classes 9 to 12. Ultimately this led to two consecutive main lessons in which English and some other subjects and projects also found a space. This represented a fundamental change for English lessons! 

Newspapers as subjects of research 

The school year starts for me with a block in class 11. We examine English-speaking news media, comparing the layout of various newspapers and then analysing the typical structure of an article. The results of our “phenomenological object-based research” form the basis for group work in which the young people produce their own English-language newspaper in the lesson. 

In passing, we learn a lot about the way news and reports are handled. In writing an article, the young people see the sense and benefit of looking at the rules of indirect speech and can directly apply and put into practice their knowledge of grammar. 

Class 9 works for three weeks with a book dealing with the way Japanese children examine the period of National Socialism. The story of 11-year-old Hana provides an insight into the fate of Jewish children in Theresienstadt and Auschwitz. The class 9 pupils are fascinated by the subject. Even those who do not immediately understand the text as they read it are motivated by the subject matter and immerse themselves in the story through a variety of tasks. In doing so, they also learn how the Japanese educator Fumiko investigated the fate of Hana Brady with a group of children in tireless and detailed work. 

In the second block, the young people will then in groups turn important parts of the story into an audio drama which they will record themselves: a step on the way to media competence which will be supplemented during their time in upper school through the newspaper block described above as well as a further English block on the language of film. 

A double period each day for three weeks …

… that corresponds to 30 individual lessons or about ten weeks of teaching in the conventional system. But a simple calculation like that is only half the story. Block teaching to me means intensively immersing oneself in the other language for three weeks with sufficient time each day. A block offers the space to deal with relevant subject matter appropriately; with subjects which not only familiarise the young people with the English-speaking cultural sphere and its history, but also support their personal development. Furthermore, double periods enable phase changes which are appropriate for upper school in which there is sufficient time to communicate with one another in the other language – for language learning is, after all, primarily also about speaking. 

Blocks invite us to set priorities. Thus in class 10 the rules of English debating are for example practised for three weeks. The task is to research valid arguments and represent various positions independently of our own opinion. In another block, the pupils read a book for an hour which they have chosen themselves. This extensive reading project not only supports the self-confidence of the pupils with regard to complete literary texts but it also makes a surprising contribution to their individual language development. At the end, the topics and stories are presented to the class – supported by posters. 

Other blocks focus on drama and theatre, such as Thornton Wilder in class 10 or Shakespeare in class 11. A double period offers sufficient time to understand a text not just through reading it but also through acting it out.

Here it is impressive to experience the enthusiasm with which above all those less gifted in the language are committed to the task when a scene from a play is to be transferred to another place or time or when it is their job to direct a scene from Shakespeare. 

From foreign language lessons to teaching in a foreign language 

A fundamental transformation takes place: foreign language lessons turn into teaching in a foreign language. We do not primarily learn something about the other language but we use the other language to learn something about the world. A language environment is created which invites the young people to immerse themselves in it because it offers them subjects which are interesting and of relevance to them. 

They feel themselves addressed and involved and so they want to ask questions and express themselves; they enjoy project work even if the content is demanding; and since at the same time we also work consciously on dealing with mistakes, they acquire new words and learn to apply unfamiliar structures. This frequently project-related work also makes a valuable contribution to personality development. Adolescents learn in heterogeneous groups and are able to experience that despite different abilities, each person is able gradually to extend their own boundaries. 

Parents (and teachers) who are not yet familiar with this system do occasionally express doubts. Is it even possible to learn languages like this? Isn’t there a lack of continuity? Isn’t everything lost in the intervening weeks when the class lives in a different language? Certainly, the last-minute cramming of vocabulary and learning of grammar rules off by heart before a test will not easily survive the intervening period. But then, sometimes they won’t even survive the weekend. 

But our concern is not short-term tests of knowledge about vocabulary and grammar rules, about the language. We want our pupils to become familiar with and learn to live in another language; we want them to develop self-confidence and courage to meet new people, discover new texts and express their own thoughts in the other language. 

Our goal is to fill them with enthusiasm about the language and to encourage them to read English books and watch English films also between blocks. Our concern is sustainable language learning, the absorption and incorporation of new words and structures rather as happens automatically in the acquisition of a first language. Furthermore, brain research has shown that learning in this sense includes – as in other subjects – breaks and forgetting as essential phases. 

Now our Waldorf school is not, of course, located in a space devoid of reality (and examinations). The particular worry about the success, above all, of English lessons is connected primarily with the situation that English plays a central role at all three examination stages. 

It is, however, the case that the wrong conclusion is frequently drawn from this. Instead of reverting to state school methods and introducing textbooks, we should concentrate on a better understanding of the learning theories of Waldorf education and thus recognise their value for meaningful, sustainable and definitely successful language learning. Looking out of the box at the most recent findings about language teaching methodology only affirms our approach. 

Above all, it is thus also about children and young people being given the opportunity to develop their language skills to the best possible extent as permitted by their individual capacities. In Elmshorn, all pupils have had to prove their English skills not just in first and intermediate school leaving qualifications but also at an advanced level of educational requirement in the Abitur(university entrance exams). That they do so confirms for me that pupil-oriented, creative language teaching with interesting topics not only supports the development of the young people but can also lead to good language skills. 

Deceleration through intensive immersion

My life as a subject teacher has calmed down. I too can be involved, am permitted to concentrate on a small number of classes simultaneously, and in between also occasionally to let go and start from the beginning. Particularly in the turbulent time of middle school this can be very refreshing. 

Here, as in lower school, the blocks are restricted to one period each day, corresponding to five periods in the week or 2.5 hours of teaching load. Depending on holiday dates, they are between three and five weeks long. For the children it means that they only have to deal with one language at a time – which represents an enormous relief for many children, particularly in the lower classes. In middle school, blocks are ideal for organising lessons in the form of various small projects: extensive reading projects, writing stories or putting on a play. 

And having grappled intensively with pubescent class 7 pupils for four weeks, we let go and leave the field to our colleagues. 

About the author: Ulrike Sievers is an English and biology teacher at the Christian Morgenstern School in Hamburg and works in teacher training. 

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