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Fun & Challenge in the YL Classroom

While fun is an important element in the young learner (YL) classroom, it’s not just simply colouring, playing games and singing. Teachers of this age group need highly-specialised training to plan lessons with age-appropriate activities that help move students forward in their learning, and oftentimes this training is not available or perceived as essential for a teacher walking into a YL classroom for the first time. My talk, Saturday May 12th at 17.40h (Room 7), provides practical activities so that teachers can bring Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) to life in the YL language classroom. Fun and challenge complement each other, they’re not binary opposites.

Teaching YLs
Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) has seen the emergence of a new student profile, that of the YL. It is commonly accepted that teaching YLs is not the same as teaching adults: it requires a different set of teaching skills and methodology. Nowadays there is more demand on YL teachers to deliver high quality programs; with teachers needing in-depth knowledge of child development. This is essential because the number one motivating factor for YLs is fun. Having this knowledge means that teachers are better able to choose relevant topics and activities that will motivate students, as well as foster language development. The other motivating factor for YLs is challenge. When they are able to achieve objectives that are difficult, but not impossible, there is an increase in self-esteem (“I did it!”) and the more times students experience success, it gives them confidence as well as helping to develop a growth-mind set, where difficulties are seen as obstacles to be overcome.

A holistic approach is taken to teach this age group, allowing YLs to be active participants in their language development. Experiencing the language helps YLs to construct meaning (Moon, 2005). Using activities that are familiar to the students in their first language (L1) such as songs, chants, TPR, task-based activities, crafts, and role-playing helps establish a positive and familiar atmosphere for the students in the class. Once established, the teacher can start identifying individual students’ current developmental stages to then scaffold the language for the students to bring their learning forward. This is the heart of Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development: the teacher helps students to build on their linguistic competencies in a controlled, non-threatening manner to maximise the learner experience.

The Young Learner
Teachers of YLs will have experienced students going through a silent period, when they listen, look and observe what is happening around them. 40% of daily communication is listening (Flowerdew & Miller, 2005). It is possible that there are students who don’t speak for a month, or two, and that is ok. YLs will speak when they feel ready and confident to do so. In order to scaffold the students’ listening comprehension teachers can use gestures, demonstrations, repetition, pausing, emphasising key words, and grading their language.

When developing speaking skills, the key is interaction. In class teachers often use pair or group work to increase the chances students have to practise speaking. However, while the teacher may see this as fun, YLs are still developing their social skills and may feel frustrated when asked to use their underdeveloped social skills, which may lead to misbehaviour or silence. Teachers with specialised YL training will be able to set up pair and group work more effectively, and at the pace of each individual child. Helping them once again to experience small steps of success. Another potential misinterpretation for misbehaviour or non-participation is that the student does not like the class, when perhaps it is the topic that is not relevant or interesting. Teachers who fail to understand the reasons behind non-participation may label learners as unmotivated or weak. As Carol Read (2005) says, “learners need topics that generate interest.” YLs participate when they have something to talk about (Vale & Feunteun, 2004). And this may be in the students L1. While there is still disagreement over L1 use in the language classroom, I believe accepting all languages to be a sign of respect for the child (with their language, identity and culture) as well as being an excellent tool to bring real communication to life by supporting students’ contributions towards an English-only ability.

In terms of literacy development in English, it is essential that the YL teacher respects the learning burden YLs already have with their L1. Reading material needs to be short, repetitive, and personally interesting topics. Turning once again to the ZPD, teachers can help students to recognise words, or train students to read by running their index finger along the text because YLs may not know what to do when presented with a written text. When learning to write the YLs’ fine-motor skills will play a big part in successfully completing a task. It takes YLs time and effort to write. One activity I like to do as a teacher trainer is to get trainees to copy a text with their non-dominant hand so that they can understand the effort that is required from a YL to write a single letter, which in turn helps to reduce underestimating the time needed for YLs to complete a writing activity. This is important because if this is not catered for, the lesson itself (aims and activities) is directly affected. Teachers make on-the-spot decisions about which activities and tasks to remove from the plan, even though these may be essential for achieving learning outcomes.

The Current YL Teacher
Pre-service teachers have minimal input devoted to the unique context of YLs. Consequently, many of our newly-qualified teachers do not have the knowledge, skills or support to teach YLs. More specialisation is needed: specialised research into YL profiles, and specific YL teacher training programs which can better equip our teachers with the knowledge and tools needed in YL pedagogy. As with our YLs, YL teachers need scaffolding and guidance, bringing us back one final time to Vygotsky’s ZPD. A personalised continuous personal development program can be created to help YL teachers experience positive classroom experiences early on in their career. Just like their students, teachers will be more confident and competent the more times they experience success in the YL classroom. Examples of a CPD program could include: a specific YL course, YL workshops, webinars and conferences. For those who show an interest in VYLs or teenagers, there are also the same resources available for these student demographics. Teachers can also become Speaking Examiners for YL exams like the Cambridge Starters, Movers, Flyers, KET and PET. There are organisations such as TESOL and IATEFL that can help individual teachers develop, either through conferencing, or blog and journal contributions. Both the DELTA and DipTESOL now allow trainees to work with YLs during these courses for their teaching prac in module 2, and as a focus group for module 3. There is also an option to do a Master or PhD focusing on YLs for those who are more academically inclined. There is a lot of support and material available to our YL teachers. It is time that YL pedagogy moves away from singing and colouring without a linguistic purpose, known as “edutainment”, and demands more from its teachers, as this will have a knock-on effect and increase expectations in the YL classroom. It is time that YL pedagogy is seen as the highly-specialised profession that it is.

What will you get out of this session?
Attendees will have the opportunity to bring fun into the classroom while still maintaining challenge and language. Teaching children is not just singing and colouring. The modern young learner teacher is expected to deliver high quality classes with clear learning outcomes.

Flowerdew, J., & Miller, L. (2005). Second language listening: Theory and practice. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Moon, J. (2005). Children learning english. Oxford, UK: Macmillan Education.
Read, C. (2007). 500 activities for the primary classroom. Oxford, UK: Macmillan Education.
Vale, D., & Feunteun, A. (2004). Teaching children english. (11th ed.). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

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