A knowledge of English is now considered a basic life skill in many contexts, and as a result it is increasingly being offered to more and younger learners. If you have just finished your initial teacher training and are about to start teaching young learners, or if teaching younger learners is new to you, the following essential skills will come in handy!
1. Empathy and Sensitivity
Unlike adults, most young learners do not decide to sign up for English, their parents make this decision for them. What we seek to do as their teachers therefore is to create a welcoming, positive, stimulating and of course safe classroom environment in which they would opt to spend their time, if they had the power to choose. Young learners respond best to those teachers who they identify as genuinely interested in them and enthusiastic about joining them in their world. If they are running down the corridor to get to your classroom and tell you about their day, then this is the dynamic we are aiming for. It is vital to create relationships of trust with your students so that they know you care about and understand them. If you would like to feel better informed about the social, affective, cultural, emotional and physical needs of particularly VYLs (3-6 year olds), FutureLearn offers a free, online course here.
There are also excellent books available which will help you better understand the wonderful world of Young Learners – see the References section below.
2. Organisational Skills
Effective classroom management is essential in the young learner classroom, both for safety and for harmony. Clear, easy to follow routines and shared classroom responsibilities from the outset will help children feel that the space is theirs and that they have a defined and important role within it. Make clear from the outset what is acceptable behaviour or not in class and always try to manage behaviour issues positively. Give lots of praise, give it as often and as broadly as you can, and not just in relation to language. Being kind and helpful to others deserves a shout out!
Consider dividing the space into different, colourful sections, for example, a picture books and story corner, a space for movement and play and an area with seating and the board/screen. Don’t expect young learners to be able to sit still for very long and make sure that you frequently vary your materials and activity types to hold their interest: stories, songs, rhymes, chants and games. Have everything you need ready to hand, plus extras for fast finishers or those with special needs, before you start. If you are switching between classrooms, think about a system which best helps you organise all the equipment and props you’ll need. This will help conserve your own energy while managing that of your class!
3. Flexibility & Imagination
Young learners’ affective, social and physical needs are of paramount importance and will vary – every child is unique. Take the time to get to know your younger learners so you can best judge how they are on a given day and respond kindly to them. Explain to parents the value of some use of L1 in the classroom if you speak it and its importance in cognitive development. Be prepared to adapt your plan, for example, when they haven’t been out on the playground at school due to bad weather and arrive for class absolutely bursting with energy. Encourage children to bring in items from home which are important to them and link these to the target language or theme. Take a multi-sensory approach and use lots of realia to engage the different senses. Consider offering your students choice in the tasks they can do, encourage them to express their views and take their opinions seriously. Ask them to think about how well they did and what they could do even better next time. If they request another fruit party this term, be prepared to oblige!
4. Humour and Optimism
One of many things young learners excel at is enjoying and benefitting from pronunciation practice. This is best incorporated through rhymes, chants, games and in stories which introduce sounds, stress and intonation naturally and allow them to play with these. Children love a joke and one of many things we can learn from them is to remain optimistic and see the funny side when things go slightly sideways. You will inevitably have days when you don’t feel satisfied with how a class has gone and these are the classes from which we can learn most. Be patient with yourself, as well as your students, and keep an open mind.
Children’s abilities can change markedly over time and it is important not to label them according to our expectations, but to allow them to show what they are capable of. Our beliefs about our students affect the way they respond to us. Talk things through with colleagues or if this is not possible, find a community online where you can share ideas (for example here) or attend a local workshop or short course to deepen your knowledge. If you feel under pressure from parents about testing, investigate all the different options available for young learners. Official language tests vary in format and content and some may suit your learners far better than others.
One last thing
Finally, make sure you are aware of child protection issues, especially when using technology. There is no greater responsibility than protecting the well-being of students in our care.
New to teaching young learners? Or do you need some fresh ideas for your young learner classes? You could consider our Online One-To-One, Online Group or Face-to-Face Teaching Young learners course. Next face-to-face course in Barcelona takes place September 6th and 7th 2019. Apply here to gain an additional certificate in this area.
Ellis G & Ibrahim N Teaching Children How to Learn Delta Publishing (2015)
Read C 500 Activities for the Primary Classroom Macmillan (2007)
Moon J Children Learning English Macmillan (2005)