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Hola! Spanish in the Nursery, UK
Introducing Foreign Language Learning in the
Foundation Stage (3-5 year olds)

EduCare Nurseries are located in a multi-cultural inner-city area of Nottingham and provide day care for children from birth to 5 years as well as an after-school and holiday club. Pam McKenzie, one of the Directors of the Nurseries, was a teacher of French and a former leader of the Language Programme at Nottingham Trent University. Pam describes below why she and staff at EduCare became involved in the ALLEGRO project, how the project was set up and how language teaching in the nursery has developed since the initial involvement and funding by ALLEGRO in August 2003.

Why EduCare became involved in the ALLEGRO project
Because of my own interest in languages, we have always tried to offer the 3 – 5 year old children at EduCare the opportunity to start learning a foreign language as part of our Foundation Stage educational programme. Before our involvement in the ALLEGRO project, this took the form of an ‘add-on’ activity run once a week by a specialist French teacher. Although the children enjoyed and benefited from the sessions and they were very popular with parents, there were a number of issues which I felt needed addressing:

1. There was no follow-up on the weekly half-hour sessions. Like language learners of all ages, the children would have learnt more effectively and more rapidly with shorter and more frequent exposure to the language. Although many of our nursery staff had some knowledge of French from school, they did not have the skills, confidence or materials to provide any follow-up language practice activities. The commercial French teaching materials used by the teacher, although designed for young learners, were not very ‘user-friendly’ for non-specialist language teachers.

2. It was often difficult to find suitable specialist teachers, particularly those who had had the skills or experience of teaching very young children.

3. We were not able to give all children the opportunity to learn French as many of them attend nursery on a part-time basis and were not always present on the day that the session took place. Also numbers of children in each session were limited to no more than 8.

I felt that one solution to these issues might be to train and support a number of interested nursery staff to deliver some simple language learning activities. For the nurseries, the benefits of this approach were;
• We would not have to rely on the services of external specialist teachers and would be better able to ensure the continuity of our foreign language provision.
• The nursery staff knew the children well and could respond better to their individual needs than a teacher who visited just once a week.
• Our staff were familiar with the Foundation Stage and experienced in planning and delivering educational activities appropriate for this age group.
• The children would benefit from increased learning opportunities as these could be incorporated into daily nursery routines and activities as well as planned for in special focused sessions.
• More children would have the opportunity to start learning a foreign language.

It was at this point that we decided not to continue with French in the nursery but to introduce Spanish in its place. Although it would have been easier to continue with French, as many staff had studied it to GCSE level at school, the reasons for making this change were:

1. As we were trying out a completely new approach to teaching languages in the nursery, it felt appropriate to start a new language.

2. Many staff were keen to learn some basic Spanish for holiday use. As a result, they were motivated to learn and, consequently, more committed to developing language learning opportunities for the children.

3. I felt that, perhaps, the sound, structure and pronunciation of the Spanish language would possibly make it easier than French for the children to learn.

Initial Training Course for Staff
It was through the support and funding of the ALLEGRO project that together we were able to develop an initial training course for our nursery staff. The great majority of participants were young nursery nurses. They had been educated to GCSE level and some had obtained a GCSE in French, mainly at grade C or below. They would not have neither furthered their studies in French or taken up a new language, without the opportunity offered by this project. The aim of the course was two-fold:

1. To teach participants some basic Spanish language which they could use both in language activities with the children and for their own holiday use.

2. To provide them with a range of simple language teaching strategies and ideas for activities for this age range of children.

The course was spread over 10 sessions, each lasting 90 minutes. Seven of the sessions were spent on learning basic Spanish and covered topic areas such as Greetings and Introductions; Personal Information; Numbers; Colours; Parts of the Body; Food and drink; Animals. The remaining three sessions were devoted to strategies on teaching the language and activity ideas for young learners.

Of the 12 members of staff who joined the course, all complete beginners, nine completed it. Feedback from staff showed that they found the course to be an enjoyable and rewarding experience (even those who admitted that they had not enjoyed learning a language at school!). They were very motivated and keen from the start to pass onto the children what they had learnt. As a result, even before the course had finished, Spanish words and phrases could be heard throughout the nurseries.

How foreign language learning has developed since our involvement with ALLEGRO
In the two years since the initial training course funded by ALLEGRO, Spanish has continued to develop and flourish within the nurseries. Many opportunities for learning Spanish have been found in everyday nursery routines. The following are just a few examples:
• Staff greet the children and say goodbye to them in Spanish. The children quickly respond to this and often anyone coming into the Pre-School rooms is greeted with ‘Hola’!
• ‘Happy Birthday’ is sung in both Spanish and English whenever a birthday is celebrated at nursery. This is also an opportunity for children to say how old they are.
• Simple songs and rhymes in Spanish are incorporated into circle and music time. To give children the opportunity to display their Spanish language skills, we now include Spanish songs in our annual concert for parents.
• Numbers in Spanish are learnt and reinforced by counting everyday objects and simple number games.
• Colours are all around us and can easily be learnt in Spanish.
• There are numerous educational games that all nurseries have e.g. snap, lotto, dominoes that can be used to learn and reinforce Spanish words.

Consequently, many of the children have acquired a wide range of Spanish words and phrases in a very natural, unstructured way.

Our Early Years’ teacher at one nursery was inspired to continue learning Spanish and was funded by ALLEGRO to undertake further courses for beginners on the Language Programme at Nottingham Trent University. She has completed two years of part-time study of Spanish and is planning to continue with further courses.
She has now reached the stage where she is capable and confident to teach Spanish to the children and includes in her educational planning 10 – 15 minutes per day of focused Spanish activities.

Ongoing support and development of staff
Ongoing support for all the nursery staff to continue to develop their language and language teaching skills has been achieved in the following ways:

As a language teacher with some knowledge of Spanish, I regularly plan and teach sessions of Spanish in the nurseries in order to develop and embed language learning within our educational provision. During each session, I am joined by a member of staff who joins in and supports the activities. At the end of the session, that member of staff is given a copy of the session plans, activity sheets and materials. She will repeat the whole session or individual activities with different groups of children on different occasions. Suggestions are also given on the plan for cross-curricular extension activities which link with the different areas of learning within the Foundation Stage.

Over the last 2 years, we have developed at EduCare a wide range of materials, activity ideas and detailed session plans for teaching Spanish to young children. The materials have been written so that they can be followed and implemented easily by ‘teachers’ who have a very basic knowledge of the language but are in no way foreign language ‘specialist’ teachers. Support for the pronunciation of new vocabulary is provided on the activity sheets through transliteration into English sounds, so that these can be referred to, as necessary, when delivering the activities.

At the moment our materials cover topics such as: Greetings and Introductions; All about me; Numbers; Colours; Animals; My body; Christmas and Toys. Materials for further topic areas are planned for the future.

Many of the topics include an action rhyme or song in Spanish which have been written to be sung to familiar children’s tunes. The song or rhyme usually forms the starting point for each topic, but we also use them quite independently during circle or singing time.

Our involvement with ALLEGRO has been a very positive experience for everyone at EduCare. Support and funding from the project provided our nursery staff with the opportunity to develop a whole set of new skills. This, in turn, has enabled us to develop a more effective approach to early years’ language learning, one which has now become firmly embedded within our Foundation Stage educational programme. As a result, many more children have enjoyed and benefited from early exposure to learning a foreign language, which should give them an excellent start, when they begin a studying a language at primary school, whether or not this is Spanish.


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 (c) 2005 Copyright, last edited: 15.05.2007