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Oral language and the Little Yarra Steiner School.

'Oral language is powerful and needs to be treated with reverence and respect' ... Jean-Michel David (Education Administrator, Little Yarra Steiner School, Yarra Junction, Victoria)

In the early school years (Classes 1 to 8) the Little Yarra Steiner School places less emphasis on the traditional methods of learning rote reading and writing skills and more on cultivating children's emotional life and imagination. What are the advantages of this, and how is it done?

Oral language is accorded particular importance in the curriculum of the Little Yarra Steiner School, and is used as a significant teaching tool throughout the school years. The student's development of oral language too is encouraged via story-telling, songs, poems and movement games, incorporating these into units of works.

Beginning with the children in Class 1, fairy stories and legends from around the world are told rather than read from a book because, as Jean-Michel David says, 'There is a different quality when telling rather than reading: you imbue the story with something of your own, but you must make sure not to make it too dramatic because you want the child to build their own picture, develop their own imagination.' If the teacher speaks rather than reads, the child sees the teacher as the author of the creative entity, rather than the book. Young children love to mimic and will copy the teacher, developing their own story-telling and language skills.

Oral stories utilise:

* Repetition of phrases to emphasise points or themes and segments that are important. Repetition creates a rhythm and meter to the text that grows and becomes stronger with use

* Interaction with the students

* Strong rhythm and metre

* Idiomatic expressions: Spit the dummy, true blue, chook

* Strong imagery

* Techniques such as onomatopoeia (sounds that imitate sounds found in nature): bang, tinkle, hiss, click

* Alliteration where speech sounds are repeated in words that are close to each other: Three grey geese in a green field grazing. Alliteration provides its own kinaesthetic, aesthetic, musical and rhythmic language.

Pre-reading and writing skills are introduced to the students in Class 1 via stories, poems and verses in concert with rhythm and movement. The stories or verses are told and repeated to the children who are then encouraged to use kinaesthetic movement and rhythm to form letters with their bodies such as a 'K' for King, 'Q' for Queen or a 'C' for cat. This, together with a drawing of the letter on the blackboard and the memory of the story or verse, reinforces the image of the shape of the letter in the child's imagination.

In the early years of school the children make their own readers from a story they have been told and become involved in so often they think they can already read it. All the children write from the same story, one in which they have participated in class. Their spelling may be atrocious, and some may even hold their readers upside down when they 'read', but it gives first readers confidence in their memories and vocabulary.

Poems and stories with a language of reasonable complexity are introduced to the younger children to encourage vocabulary. The children understand the complex words from the context of the poem or story.

Storytelling and interacting with the stories helps teach not only good vocabulary but also good listening skills. Discussion, response and, to a lesser degree in the earlier years, questioning of stories is used to help develop the children's social and communication skills.

Between the ages of 7 and 14 years, children primarily learn through presentations and activities appealing to their feelings and imagination. Storytelling and artistic work is used to convey and depict academic content so students can connect more deeply with the subject matter.

Performance, too, is an important aspect of the Little Yarra Steiner School's curriculum to help develop language and listening skills as well as self confidence. When performing a play, everyone in the class learns the whole play and any one student can play any part. In the younger years several children play one part. In Class 1 the children perform their play in a circle of their peers, which gives them a feeling of inclusion and security. In Class 2 they perform in an arch as they open up, become braver, more confident. Class 3 children are introduced to unfretted instruments (violin, cello) because they have to listen and find the note rather than simply learn it from a book or on the internet. This helps the students develop musically.

The value of story-telling and oral language is continued throughout the school years. Class 6 Astronomy, for example, incorporates Aboriginal dreamtime stories, American Indian legends and Greek myths and weaves them into the night sky of constellations. Or learning about light in Science can involve a blackened room with a pinprick of sunlight coming in--the children then have to describe their observation, observe and describe being the basis of science. The transformation of the seasons too--by observation and stories rather than pure dry facts will be interlinked with astronomy and natural sciences. Daily and annual rhythms are a focus of the Little Yarra Steiner School, thus nurturing the connection between self, community and the environment.

Subjects at Little Yarra are taught in three-week blocks and the children are immersed in all the different aspects of that subject, such as the facts and history through stories, myths and legends, art, poetry and songs surrounding the topic. The children then create their own books on the subject, drawing on all the components they have learnt. Therefore they write their own text books, particularly in Classes 1 to 8.

This approach emphasises cultivating children's emotional life and imagination. The Little Yarra Steiner School's core curriculum, which includes Language Arts, History, Mythology, General Knowledge, Geography, Geology, Algebra, Geometry, Biology, Astronomy, Physics, Chemistry and Nutrition, is introduced through stories and creative presentations. 'Dry facts don't stay as well as those we hear, or read, in story format', Mr David says. 'Those related to us through story format are much more likely to be remembered because stories, poems, songs, et cetera, engage not only the imagination, but feelings, which imbed into a deeper memory'.
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Author:Pepyat, Deborah
Publication:Practically Primary
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Feb 1, 2014
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