Teaching Young Learners
The Young Learners Special Interest Group will focus on the needs,
interests and concerns of those working (or training to work) with pupils aged 4–12.
This is a new and developing area of ESL/EFL in Russia and offers exciting possibilities
and various challenges. The most effective approaches to teaching English to young
learners are unlike any other area of foreign language instruction and call for special
skills, methods, and techniques.
As a group we will meet monthly to define our most pressing problems,
to discuss how best to share our experiences, to support one another’s professional
growth, and to exchange materials, ideas and suggestions. We will promote publications and
seminars for teachers of young learners and evaluate resources useful for working with
Coordinator – Erin Bouma: email@example.com
Practical Advice for Teachers of Young Learners from the
As head of the MELTA Young Learner’s Interest Section, I have come
across so much valuable advice from experts in the field. I have extracted the essence of
the messages here in a more compacted form and added my own comments in italics. I
finish with my own guidelines.
There are Four Teaching Roles Relevant to Working with Young Learners:
1. As a Communicator: It is important for the teacher to be a
conversational partner of young children since they (like everyone else) develop their
language skills through interactions with more accomplished speakers of the language. But,
when children are in groups, this role can be very complex. Often more verbal children are
spoken to more by adults and those with undeveloped abilities receive less interaction
then they need. The teacher must support children’s language learning at various levels
2. As an Evaluator/Assessor: This is an important role because
it involves identifying children with developmental delays or special gifts in language
learning. Since children at this stage are growing at different rates (mentally,
emotionally, and physically), the potential of each child needs to be measured
individually. The youngest children should not be formally tested and graded; in an
activity mode they can frequently be assessed as to understanding and production.
3. As an Educator and Educated Human Being: Teachers need to be
generalists in their knowledge of the world because children are interested in almost
everything around them. This is a wonderful opportunity for cross-cultural, nature,
musical, artistic and dramatic studies and experiences. It is important for teachers to
model themselves as people who love learning and use many strategies for mastering new
skills and information. The teacher should be the #1 Learner in the class.
4. As an Agent of Socialization: This process occurs alongside
language development, as much of what we express is our own needs, interests, and
concerns. Because teachers of young learners must focus on the whole child (full of
feelings, fears, hopes, habits, etc.) as we lead them into new experiences and
relationships, they need models and direction to more smoothly work with others and reach
their own full potential. Children at this level are adapting to being with others
outside their protective homes and need new coping skills and flexibility to work both
alone and with others. They may also be taking their first steps to form friendships and
deal with new social pressures and challenges, so teachers must be extremely sensitive to
the class atmosphere, individual sensibilities, and try to build an inclusive,
non-threatening and spirited environment for learning.
Mario Herrera, teacher trainer and co-author of Balloons
(kindergarten) and Parade (primary) believes the teacher’s role is
special. He maintains that what is needed is “enthusiasm and having fun in the language
(including doing silly things!)”.
MODELING. Herrera stresses that young learners learn by seeing or
doing. He advises that teachers demonstrate new vocabulary by showing realia, pictures or
actually performing an action. “By watching and listening to your modeling, children
understand what they must do or say. Modeling is the most important technique or strategy
to use when teaching a new language. Kids watch and listen, copy and learn. Do it
PACE. He recommends that the pace of early learner classes should be
lively and activities should be short. Then, since children like to repeat activities,
they will want to return to the same things again and again. He advises teachers to repeat
activities as long as the children maintain an interest.
VARIETY. Herrera suggests that teachers plan a variety of activities
that practice using target vocabulary and sentences: songs, Total Physical Response (TPR)
activities, working with picture cards, conversation games, asking children questions as
they cut and paste, asking children to listen and follow directions, pantomiming and doing
actions. These can all serve to hold the children’s attention. “Anything with
movement, chanting and singing works well,” he says.
TPR. Total Physical Response lets you put children’s natural energy
to use to learn English. He reports “This approach is ideal for young learners whose
verbal abilities are still underdeveloped and even the shyest children like it because
there is no speaking involved. It provides intense listening practice of basic language as
children physically respond to commands. Children show they understand the action by
acting it out and they can feel successful at English from the very beginning.”
PARTICIPATION. Planned activities, he says, must be designed for
children’s active participation and variety. “By doing different things children can
experience the world and English together. Children naturally enjoy participating, and
learn as they do! Let them feel the roundness of a circle with their hands, or walk
through a hoop to understand ‘through’. Such activities allow children to communicate
in a very natural way.”
MATERIALS. “Using materials that are appealing to children also
maintains a high interest level: toys, puppets, masks, pictures, cutouts, their drawings,
and cards – cards to hang around necks, to play games with, to hold up and put somewhere
while listening, etc.” He recommends using paper of different sizes, colors, textures
when you make materials and use crayons, markers and paints.
FEEDBACK. Herrera explains “that children need to know if they are
doing something right or wrong. Feedback must be given carefully, however. Catch them
doing something right and give them lots of praise. Correct them sensitively, taking pains
not to single out or embarrass an individual (have the whole group practice the correct
pronunciation together) Most of all, repeat the correct version, sometimes overemphasizing
so they get the correct way of saying it.”
I feel it is most important for teachers of young learners to
develop pacing through a variety of shorter activities to work with the limited attention
spans of younger pupils. Also I could not imagine working with this age level without lots
of visual and manipulative materials. When one teacher asked me how long it took me to
build up my bank of activity materials (which is still growing) I responded that 1) it can
be fun to produce colorful and interesting materials that you can use again and again, and
2) children need concrete objects, visual displays and things they can touch, hold and
work with to connect the real world with the language that naturally goes with it (here,
in a foreign language).
In her “Tips for Teachers of Children” Helene Jarmol Uchida,
teacher-trainer, Director Little America English Schools (Japan) and author of The
Challenge Book (elementary students) stresses that “Elementary children are the most
gratifying age level to work with. Why? Because they possess three very important
conditions before they even enter the classroom: they are naturally cooperative, curious
and the least self-conscious of all students.” She goes on to give eleven points she
feels are the most important to remember:
l. Make fair and consistent rules, clear from the first day of class.
2. Remember students’ names. Use names often when teaching.
3. Show students what to do. Don’t explain. Just do. Just be. English
needs to be experienced, not explained.
4. Nourish trust between you and the students of each class. Let them
know you will never embarrass them for making a mistake in English.
5. Use eye contact to communicate your praise and disappointment.
6. Create well-planned, consistent lessons with a predictable format
giving students a sense of security and balance.
7. Always be pleasantly surprised when students interact with each
other or you in English.
8. Reassure your students that you understand their English and you
approve of their attempts.
9. Show respect to the children and let them sometimes be teacher.
10. Use English as a tool to build their self-esteem.
11. Remember childhood through your students.
This director of Japanese language schools is especially concerned
with setting the right atmosphere in the classroom. I think two of her points would make
outstanding mottos for all of us: “Don’t explain. Just Do.” And “Remember
childhood through your students.”
Young ESL Learners, Maria Spelleri of the Literacy Council of
Sarasota (Florida) reports, respond enthusiastically to the following classroom activities
1. Drama and role-play, especially if costumes and props are used.
2. Using a ball to pass around, or an egg timer to turn dull classes
into games, competitions.
3. Doing a project that raises awareness of other children in the
4. Take photos in class and use a Polaroid camera on occasion for
instant gratification and classroom fun.
5. Give kids some “power” and choices. Let the kids take
attendance, call the class to order, dismiss the class, sometimes choose between lesson
alternatives, etc. (works up to age 8).
I feel Ms. Spelleri is on to something when she promotes empowering
younger students in the classroom so it truly “belongs” to them. She also sees the
role of English class to help raise children’s international awareness through relating
to children of other lands.
When asked, “What can we do with Young Learners (4-8)?” Jane
Delaney, a teacher-trainer in the Cambridge-RSA Young Learners Training Course, and
Director of Studies, International House, Tarragona, Spain, replied, “Try to educate the
whole child. What we do in the classroom with them forms a part of their entire learning
experience. Young children are like sponges. The teacher’s objective must be to
stimulate them in any way she can.”
In contrast, she explained that teenagers develop “the boredom factor
at school”, but very young children have a great interest in the world around them and
seemed to be interested in everything.
So, she asks, “How can we create children’s need for a second
language? If the teacher shows that she likes being with them, children naturally want to
please the teacher and want to find out more about her. If children become involved in the
classes they are motivated.”
She continues with another question and answers it: Why are some
teachers afraid of very young learners? A lot of new teachers fear the unknown. They think
their classes will become a zoo and the kids will eat them alive! What many inexperienced
teachers need before they come to class is: 1) some knowledge about cognitive development
of their students; 2) what students are capable of in their own language; 3) what our
expectations are of the particular age group; and 4) help with classroom management.
Delaney believes the optimum class size with very young learners is 8-10 students. The
classroom should be spacious for a number of different activities. She concludes by
sharing, “Children are capable of so much, they can do much more than they are given
credit for. We often hold them back because we are afraid.”
It is so true how she contrasts teenage student attitudes with the
eagerness of younger pupils Because she sees the teacher-pupil relationship as crucial,
the fact that teachers fear their charges and underestimate their ability to learn is a
judgment on our profession for “holding students back” rather than setting them free.
Another expert, Margaret Lo, CELTYL teacher-training courses,
Head of the Young Learners unit, British Council, Hong Kong, also discusses teacher’s
attitudes towards young learners. She also emphasizes that teachers must focus on
children’s whole development. She recommends a cross-curricular, activity-based
approach, where children are engaging in meaningful tasks and activities. “Then, she
says, “children use English genuinely, learn something new, and develop as whole
It is important to “see children as unique individuals. Give them a
voice in the classroom to choose which song to sing or decide the topic of a project.”
In fact, “Make the whole classroom experience meaningful in the moment, through
activities intrinsically interesting and engaging from the child’s viewpoint.”
I agree children must be educated holistically and language related to
the whole of their reality. Pupils should also be empowered in class and valued as unique
David Nunan of the University of Hong Kong asks “How young is
young in Young Learners?” He believes that the important factors in introducing English
to very young students are the amount of time kids are given, the competence and training
of teachers, and the quality of resources. Most importantly, is the need to effectively
exploit the natural learning abilities of young learners.
Nunan is concerned about the “great danger that children will be
turned off English early if it is done badly. In that case,” he advises, “it should
not be attempted. But if it is done well, then kids love it and thrive!” With beginners
he has two principles: 1) Avoid overload – select key grammar, vocabulary, etc. stuff
that learners are familiar with in their own context and 2) Recycle.
In Nunan’s experience the order of acquisition is not critical.
“Regardless of the tense you use/introduce, students won’t ‘get it’ until
they’ve encountered the target structure in lots of different contexts and environments
in many different situations. So students’ understanding will naturally be partial and
piecemeal.” He advocates something like “guided acquisition” where the teacher helps
learners to “notice” about how language works.
Mr. Nunan’s wise counsel insists that young learners be approached by teachers who
know what they are doing, not be given too much and be given time to digest new material.
Working with Children in an Activity-Based Environment
1. Establish a class behavior code. Remember that interest and
involvement are the best forms of motivation.
2. A good teacher knows that learning takes place during quiet times
(drawing, cutting, gluing). Chatting to children while they work is part of teaching.
3. The priority must be the working relationship with children, taking
the role of teacher, parent, friend and organizer.
4. Children learn best when they can experience and experiment for
themselves by doing. This means child-centered activities.
5. Children need to use their hands and bodies to express and
experience language. The teacher should focus on physical responses rather than just
speaking correctly. Appropriate body language sends messages, too.
6. The pacing of a children’s class must be based on
experience and intuition. Be sure not to work too fast through the material. Slow down and
exploit each experience for the benefit of the children.
1. Build confidence through a supportive environment (called
“scaffolding”); give children a sense of security to take risks.
2. Children should experience English.
3. Teach children to communicate with what vocabulary and structures
they have; use language as a tool for real communication.
4. Show that learning English is fun.
5. Establish trusting relationship between yourself and the children
(and also between children)
6. Give children the experience of a wide range of language functions
and experiences in a non-threatening environment.
7. Avoid correcting children in class.
8. Give correct language examples to a group of bright students and let
them teach the others/each other.
9. Accept good tries. Don’t insist on perfection. Mistake-making is an important part
of language learning.
Use English as the language of
instruction. Use it to give directions as part of the English lesson.
Speak in short sentences, and discrete phrases. Pronounce clearly and
slowly, looking directly at the class. Write clearly, using print.
Act out meanings, or use props, objects, pictures, or gestures to make
meanings clear. Pause after each sentence or phrase to associate it with a set of sounds.
Repeat cheerfully and patiently and continue to associate clues to
meaning with your words as long as needed.
Gain a sense of pacing, that approaches life and the world
holistically. Less is more, if a subject can be approached in many ways, connecting to
other disciplines and in song, verse, and pictures.
Check each pupil’s comprehension by: 1) giving directions to follow
and 2) asking yes/no or one-word answer questions.
Take the pressure off pupils to produce new language “cold”. Walk a
pupil through how to follow instructions as you speak.
Allow children to be children and bring their natural motivation and
curiosity to learning.
Encourage children to act out or draw a picture of their intended
meanings when they don’t have the vocabulary to communicate.
Play with language and be free to act silly, making up rhymes and
songs, telling stories, talking even “nonsense” and playing playing with sounds.
Encourage the use of picture dictionaries (bilingual and mono-lingual)
so that students take some responsibility for their own learning. Teach dictionary skills,
including the fundamentals of alphabetical order.
Remember to use lots of “pleases” and “thank yous” and encourage them in
classroom relationships. And always show your pupils respect, dignity and a good and
Give explanations and directions in the
native language. This cheats pupils of their motivation to understand. They will become
lazy and wait for the Russian instead of reaching to understanding.
Confuse pupils with incomprehensible language. Speeches, lectures,
explanations and directions without clues to meaning are boring and not useful.
Rely on only the spoken word. Pupils need more visual and tactile
stimulation and often need to be physically active.
Expect pupils to grasp new material the first time through. Remember
they have many years ahead to fully master things.
Race through a coursebook or curriculum, but also don’t drag out a
point when students have lost interest.
Always resort to translation back to the mother tongue. This prevents
students from starting to think naturally in English and invites them to speak to you in
Focus on tests as the only measure of one’s language skills and marks
as the only reward for communication skills gained.
Put individual pupils on the spot to produce language or respond if
they are unlikely to be able to accomplish it. This creates “mental static anxiety”,
and sets them up to fail.
Expect young learners to think like older learners, needing logical
explanations for new material.
By Erin Bouma