What you should know about teaching very young learners

What you should know about teaching very young learners

There is a growing trend in many countries to make children start studying a foreign language at a very young age. This means that many teachers need to be trained to teach VYL. On the one hand, I will be honest, this age group is hard to work with. Some kids can be selfish and uncooperative, others may scream or bite. On the other hand, they are curious about everything, keen to learn, and very receptive.

In this article, we will talk about the characteristics, instincts, and interests of VYL that teacher should keep in mind teaching very young learners.

Who are very young learners?

The term “very young learners” (VYL) refers to children who have not yet started compulsory schooling and have not yet started to read. This varies according to the country and can mean children up to the age of six-seven.

What should teachers pay attention to while working with very young learners?

  • Individual attention

If you work with a group of students, make sure that every child gets the teacher’s individual attention as much as possible. That might be just a small talk or a little bit of help while drawing or colouring. Develop rapport with the students, talk about their weekends, friends, family. They respond well to praising and it is important to encourage and praise small efforts of every child!

  • Attention span

Don’t worry if your students get distracted and start wandering off in the middle of a song or story to play with a toy or stationery. It does not mean they are bored, they just have a short attention span. It is very difficult to hold the attention of a whole group of small children and the best way to do it is to change activities every five to ten minutes (but don’t interrupt them if they are all really involved in what they are doing). What is more, vary the pace during the lesson: have dynamic activities, when students can run around, and quiet ones. Make notes of the things they really enjoy and which you know will get the attention of the whole group.

  • The ‘silent period’

Remember that it might take a lot of time for young children to absorb language before they actually start producing anything. Don’t force them to speak in the target language as this can create a lot of emotional stress. Some children say nothing at all in class but go home and tell their parents what they have learnt. Some children feel stressed when they have to speak individually. What can help is doing repetitive songs, rhymes, games, and plenty of choral work.

Read more about the ‘silent’ period here.

  • Total physical response

Apply multi-sensory learning. Pre-school children learn through direct experience via the five senses and do not yet understand abstract concepts. For this reason, get the children to actually do or mime what you are talking about -- use the TPR method. The younger the children are, the more important TPR is.

Read more about TPR here.

  • Class management

It’s not always easy to organize group work or pair work with VYL. Mainly the activities will be done either whole-class, led by the teacher (singing, choral work, listening to a story, etc.), or individually. However, it is important to teach children of this age to learn to co-operate. Sometimes children just do not want to join in. Don’t push them, usually, when they see that the others are having a good time, they will want to join in.

As in any lessons, some children might finish an activity earlier. Therefore, if possible, arrange the corners of the classroom as special areas (one corner could have some toys, one could have some games, another could have some picture-books) so that they could go to one of the corners and play for a few minutes.

It’s very important to always begin and end your lesson in the same way each time. The more children are familiar with class routines the easier they are to manage. You should also establish toilet or drinking water rules in the first few lessons.

  • Classroom language

Children can pick up a lot of language from a teacher through the normal day-to-day routine classroom routines. For many children, their only source of exposure to English will be the teacher. For this reason, it is advisable to take all possible opportunities to speak English in the classroom -- greetings, instructions, running comments should all be carried out in English. Therefore, teachers who eager to work with VYL should have a high level of English proficiency. They are less shy than older learners. Ask them to repeat utterances, resort to mechanical drills. Working with kids isn’t easier than working with Upper-Intermediate students. Once my student brought small dinosaurs toys and asked to name them in English. Teachers can even respond in English if the children use their first language (children are very smart, they will understand most of their teachers say especially if the latter use a lot of gestures). However, that does not mean you should avoid using L1 at all.

Read more here.

  • Language skills

Very young learners naturally acquire oral language by listening, imitating and repeating -- they learn by doing! Concentrate on listening, enlarging vocabulary and speaking practice (starting with single words, then short phrases and, finally, use “backward chaining” to help children to remember longer strings of words). Use songs and chants with the repetition of vocabulary and phrases. Do not burden your children with reading and writing, they are still learning to write and read in their own language.

They enjoy imitating and skilful in listening accurately and mimicking what they have heard, so use a lot of chants, songs, stories etc.

Also, young learners learn best when they learn through games. Let games be an essential part of your teaching BUT avoid competition. Children like playing games, but they also like winning and become really angry if they lose. It can be stressful and overwhelm them. Play games where everyone wins.   

Avoid abstract concepts and use real items (realia, puppets, toys, flashcards) that children understand and relate to.

They benefit from meaning-focused activities and natural language use -- not from explicit rules.

  • Promote positive behaviour

Young children often need visual aids to help them judge their behaviour. Create a colour code chart (find a lot of free printables at Pinterest)

  • R-R-R: Repeat, review and revise

Every lesson, use short games to review vocabulary and phrases you have taught. If you neglect this, the children will have no recollection of the language you have covered!

Lots of children, especially very young, can mean lots of noise and challenge but it also means a lot of fun. If you are interested in other strategies and techniques, watch the webinar of Professor Herbert Puchta:

Watch this video on YouTube.

and check out videos from lessons with VYL, for example, this one:

Watch this video on YouTube.

Have great lessons!