*Note: I received free copies of both Whistlefritz French and Whistlefritz Spanish for review, along with a number of additional copies that I will be giving away on Instagram later this week—follow me to ensure that you get a chance to win!
What do you need to teach a foreign language to young children?
I’ve answered this question at-length before, but here’s my response in a single word: exposure. Lots and lots and lots of exposure.
How do you go about getting this exposure? Well, you could spend hours on the Internet, looking up hands-on activities, multi-sensory games, and music in the target language…..or, if your child is interested in learning French or Spanish, you could simply invest in a copy of Whistlefritz, and have all of these activities already planned out for you!
Recently, I was asked by Whistlefritz to review a copy of their homeschool curriculum for French and Spanish, and having examined their materials thoroughly, I’m now ready to share my opinion on them. However, before I jump in, let me give you some basic facts about this popular homeschool curriculum for young language learners. Here’s what you need to know about Whistlefritz:
Curriculum Title: Whistlefritz French and Spanish
Target Ages: Grades Preschool-Grade 2
Cost: $125-160/course of study
Materials Included: Instructor’s guide with lesson plans, videos, audio CD (music), and memory game vocabulary flashcards
Parental Involvement: High
Description: Whistlefritz is a versatile and professional curriculum that uses an immersive approach to teach foreign language, meaning that it does not provide translations for its students (although those are available for the teacher!). It is structured around thematic units that introduce new grammar and vocabulary through music and short animated videos, which are then practiced with hands-on, parent-led activities.
So, with that said, let’s look at Whistlefritz’s curriculum from two angles—first, to evaluate it as a foreign language curriculum (from a pedagogical standpoint) and second, to evaluate its usability for homeschooling families.
When we’re looking at any homeschool foreign language curriculum, the first question to answer is this: Is this curriculum pedagogically sound?
To answer this question fully for Whistlefritz, I took a look at the following elements.
Does this curriculum use best practices in language teaching? Yes.
The lessons are highly communicative, and as such, are structured to get kids using the target language as soon as possible—which is excellent. It is especially important for young children—the ideal audience for this curriculum—since they require lots of aural and oral practice to learn a new language. The lesson plans included in Whistlefritz’s curriculum are also clearly designed using principles of backwards planning. This means that each lesson is designed with a specific learning objective in mind—such as, for example, getting kids to use clothing vocabulary in Spanish. If that’s the lesson objective, each of the activities within will be devoted to moving children closer to that goal, which means that every activity is designed as a purposeful step. As a trained teacher—and I’ve now taught everything from elementary school to college—this is how I was taught to plan my lessons, and it really is very effective. There aren’t any disconnected or time-wasting activities in these lessons, because everything in them is moving towards a single, measurable goal.
If you haven’t seen a lesson designed like this before, here’s a sample from Whistlefritz. You might even consider sharing the lesson objectives with your children prior to beginning each lesson, so that they can understand the day’s goal and where their focus should be.
Is it developmentally appropriate for the ages that it is marketed to? Yes.
Whistlefritz knows its market, and has designed its curriculum to emphasize those language skills that develop first (and best) in young children—speaking and listening. There is little reading and writing practice and for the younger grades, this is good. Many of the activities that Whistlefritz includes are multi-sensory, involving sock puppets, matching games, conversation, and active play. These not only keep kids’ attention but also get them using their bodies to speak the new language, which in turn helps them internalize it.
One thing to be aware of: the lessons, as written, last between 30-40 minutes, which simply may be too long for some children at this age—even despite the fact that a large bulk of lesson time is devoted to fun, interactive activities. If that’s the case for your child, I would split the lessons into two, stopping the first lesson after the guided practice section of the lesson plan and picking up the second lesson by repeating that same guided practice (as a form of review) before moving into independent practice.
Does it have realistic expectations for student learning throughout its course of study? Yes and no.
Here’s why I say yes: as individual units, I think that the lessons themselves are very well-constructed and I like how they build upon one another. One example: in lesson 3 of the French curriculum, children learn to identify the numerals 1-10 and practice using them. In subsequent lessons, they are required to use the same skill at increasing levels of sophistication, which shows that Whistlefritz is clearly making appropriate use of Bloom's taxonomy. Moreover, as a whole, the lessons cover most of the basic vocabulary that you could expect a young child to want and need: greetings and introductions, colors, numbers, clothing, seasons, family, food, etc. These are all strongly positive elements of the curriculum.
And here’s why I say no: I think that one weakness of the curriculum is the lack of a clear study schedule provided for homeschool parents. While the lesson plans are themselves rigorous, they’re presented as if they were a once-a-week activity—which, if you’ve read my blog posts about deliberate practice, you know isn’t enough to make real gains in a foreign language. I know that Whistlefritz intends for parents to use their supplemental materials (such as the music CDs and DVDs) for additional practice, but homeschool parents who may be juggling many curricula (and children!) at once might be overwhelmed with planning out such a schedule for themselves. Therefore, in my opinion, the the curriculum would be greatly improved if it included a simple weekly schedule of practice to go along with each lesson, so that the burden of planning is taken off of parents.
Does it introduce new materially clearly and provide adequate practice opportunities? Yes.
New material is introduced very clearly and the supplemental practice activities do provide a good amount of practice. However, you may find that your child needs additional practice with the concepts presented. If that’s the case, you should know that it doesn’t mean that this curriculum is necessarily ineffective—it just reflects the fact that language learning requires a lot of practice, especially for young children, and especially those who are learning multiple languages at once.
Is it engaging, from a student perspective?
To answer this question, I tested out the music and videos from Whistlefritz’s French curriculum on my four-year-old, Xavier—and they were a hit! The music is simple and repetitive enough for young children to catch on quickly, but very professionally produced and enjoyable for mom to listen to. This is really important to me as a mom—I will not be subjected to cutesy, synthesized kids music, not even in the service of language learning.
In addition, the vocals are incredibly clear in all of the Whistlefritz songs, which I appreciate as well, because it makes it easy for young language learners to learn new words with ease. Here’s proof: after listening through to the Elephant song JUST ONE TIME, Xavi came up to me in the kitchen where I was making lunch and casually asked, “Hey mom, do you know how to say elephant in French? Éléphant.” Perfect pronunciation and all—and we haven’t done any French in our homeschool.
The videos included in the program include a number of engaging characters—including the program’s friendly teachers and the its mascot, Fritzi—and are simple and well-paced for a young audience. I also appreciate that the songs on the CDs and the DVDs are the same—this really helps young children with retention!
Does it include cultural learning to help students put language in a broader context? Very indirectly.
Whistlefritz does includes some indirect cultural learning through the music provided on its supplemental CD—in that it exposes children to new styles of music—though there’s not much in the lesson plans. With young children, I don’t think that this is a serious concern, although if you’re using this curriculum with elementary-aged kids, you could consider supplementing with some easy cultural learning activities to complement what they’re learning with Whistlefritz.
Question #2: Is this curriculum practically useful--and for whom?
Here's where I evaluate foreign language curricula from the perspective of a homeschool mom. I want to know who this curriculum will suit best—and these are the questions that I ask to find out:
What level of language proficiency does it require of the teacher (i.e. homeschool mom)?
Moms who have not studied the target language can certainly use Whistlefritz, as the lesson plans are scripted for both English and the target language. However, if you want to be consistent with the curriculum’s immersion method, it is helpful to have at least a basic level of French or Spanish proficiency. The lesson plans provide the phrasing for those who haven’t practiced in a while, and you can learn alongside your children as you go with the music and DVDs provided.
What level of preparation and teaching does it require from mom? For the lesson plans, a significant amount, though hands-off practice is offered with the CDs and DVDs.
All of the communicative activities require significant hands-on involvement from mom—however, research shows that this is exactly how young children learn languages best. For moms who are up for the challenge, this curriculum should be a very effective way to teach languages.
If it does require mom's involvement, are the lesson plans and schedule presented clearly? The lesson plans are clear, but mom will need to do some planning to carry them out.
At the risk of repeating what I’ve already said above, I will say that the lesson plans would be excellent in a co-op setting, though I think that they might need to be tweaked for effective use at home. If you’re doing these with very young children (preschoolers or even kindergarteners), you may find that they are simply too long. I would have liked to see shorter lesson plans and a more clear calendar provided for homeschooling parents—for example, a weekly schedule that aligns the songs and videos with the lesson plans in the curriculum.
How much instruction is provided via screens?
Whistlefritz assumes that you will use their DVDs and music—and indeed, those elements are the core of the program—but I also think that this curriculum could be effectively used by a screen-free family with just the lesson plans and music.
Can it be used for multiple children (either at the same time, or reused later on)? Yes.
If you have young children (ages 8 and below), you can teach them all together using Whistlefritz, differentiating with the lesson plans as necessary. All of the consumables included in the lesson plans can be easily copied, so a family can re-use the curriculum with multiple children as they age.
Does it align with any particular homeschool philosophy? No.
Whistlefritz is not influenced by any particular homeschool philosophy.
Does the cost reflect the value offered in the curriculum? Yes.
For all that Whistlefritz includes, I believe that it is very fairly priced.
Whistlefritz is a thoughtfully designed curriculum that is appropriate for use with young children. Although a parent who does not speak the language could certainly use this curriculum—and Whistlefritz makes accommodations for such parents—I believe that it will be most effective with parents who have some familiarity with the target language or who are willing to invest the time to learn alongside their children. For such families, the curriculum could be easily used at home with young children of varying ages, and it would shine as the core of a French or Spanish co-op class. What I like most about this curriculum is that it is pedagogically consistent with the way that young children learn languages, as it focuses on playful, real-life use of the language over more formal activities such as worksheets and direct grammar instruction. I recommend it.