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Mouse Paint and Lessons in Language

Recently, I was invited to guest teach an English lesson in Crawford’s German elementary school classroom. I was excited to share with klasse 2b one of my favorite books, Mouse Paint by Ellen Stoll Walsh.

As an art teacher in the US, I used the story of Mouse Paint each year to teach primary and secondary colors to kindergartners. I was so impressed to see it included as part of the foreign language curriculum in Germany. (Yes, there is a foreign language curriculum in German elementary school and it is excellent.) The curriculum is completely literature based and includes activities for each story to reinforce the vocabulary taught in each literary section.

Reading the book to the students that day, I was excited to hear the children of Crawford’s class name each color in English when we came to a new page in the book.

These clever 2nd graders already knew red, yellow, blue, green, purple, and orange!

After I finished reading the book, I led an art activity using primary colors to blend into secondary colors. Crawford’s amazing teacher, Frau Thull, encouraged me to give directions in English only. She reminded me that this was their English lesson, so I should not attempt to translate any of my instructions to German.

I was worried the students might not understand me enough to complete the project, but she assured me that they would.

She was right; the students were able to follow along and even repeated words like scissors, cut, paper, and color! I loved hearing many of the students ask me, “Do you like?” in beautifully accented English! I was amazed that they wanted to show me their artwork and knew how to ask me what I thought about it in English!

Continuing Thoughts

I have noticed that almost all Germans have at least some knowledge of English, French, and Spanish. Many of our German friends are fluent in at least one of those languages. They are always surprised when I share that while foreign language is often a graduation requirement, the majority of Americans are not bilingual, and if they are, it is because English is their second language. They often ask, “What do students learn in those classes if they don’t finish them with at least some foreign language ability?”

I have wondered the same thing: are our students completing these classes with conversational ability in a foreign language?

I know that I finished Spanish 1 and 2 knowing how to ask for coffee with milk, but that is about it. However, that was almost 20 years ago, surely there have been improvements to foreign language instruction since then, right? What curriculum is used to teach foreign languages? Why don’t we begin introducing foreign languages in all elementary schools? I believe it is great exercise for the brain to learn words from other languages, a practice that expands the perspectives of our students when they are introduced to new languages and cultures.

What do you think? Should we improve foreign language instruction, and, if so, how do we begin?

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