Tips from the book ‘Teaching Languages to Young Learners’ by Lynne Cameron

Lynne Cameron is Professor of Applied Linguistics at the Open University and ESRC Global Uncertainties Research Fellow. She has also been a teacher of children and adults; a trainer of teachers. She has written articles and books on complex systems theory and applied linguistics, on metaphor, reconciliation and empathy, and on teaching languages to young learners, some of which won prizes.

In her book ‘Teaching Languages to Young Learners’ Lynne Cameron highlights the basic principles of working with young learners 5-12 years old. She offers some practical tips on teaching children, reinforces her ideas with scientific findings, and provides examples of beneficial activities. Here are some ideas retrieved from Cameron’s book.

  • Teaching young learners is not simple or straightforward. In fact, teachers need to be highly skilled. They require not only a knowledge of language and teaching but also management skills, ability to engage and understand how little ones make sense of the world and how they learn. 
  • Children’s learning can be scaffolded in many ways: teachers can make them interested in the task, simplify the task by breaking it into smaller steps, keep the learners on track towards completing the task, model the language etc. In comparison with adults, young learners need much more guidance, such as plentiful opportunities for repeated listening, opportunities to say the words and phrases, support for remembering the information, rehearsals of large chunks of talks.
  • Classroom routines provide development opportunities. Children like the familiar security of the routine in which the language is predictable. Teachers should keep routines but gradually add more complex phrases.
  • Receptive skills are developed first. Building up a useful vocabulary is central to learning at the primary level. 
  • Adults and children usually have different types of motivation when it comes to learning. Adults require ‘realness’ in outcomes, such as ‘after practising I will be able to rent a flat abroad’, whereas for younger learners it doesn’t work. Motivating topics and an element of choice, for example, which animal they will talk or write about, are much more effective. Educators should construct a reason why one person might want to talk about something and think of an imaginary situation in which such phrases would be naturally used. For example, to describe a pet because it escaped and it will help to find it.
  • It is essential to check whether pupils understand the language that is used and the purpose of activities. Youngsters want to please their teacher and continue doing the task even if they don’t understand. 
  • Making mistakes indicates that learning occurs. Teachers can use ‘corrective feedback’. For example,

 S: My mummy hospital.

 T: Oh, your mummy is in hospital. Why? 

  • Communication skills are not developed: children don’t take other discourse participants into account and they are not good at planning their talk. Only 8 years old pupils (and older) can be trained to communicate effectively. The range of topics for speaking should follow familiar patterns: family, home, school experience etc. Conversations are often directed by the teacher’s questions.
  • Young pupils can’t handle abstract notions, they deal with mostly concrete words they can see. At  9-11 years old, they will be able to understand abstract connections. Very young pupils learn words as collections: dog-bark-paws. Older children are able to make connections between the words and use the paradigmatic organization of concepts: dog-animal.
  • Words are remembered well if they are used regularly. Pupils won’t know the words from their coursebooks which they met once or twice. Teaching needs to include the recycling of words.
  • Grammar should be taught without technical terms, for example, intensifying adverbs.
  • If foreign language cues are not particularly obvious, the probability of them being used is very small. There should be much focus on form. Youngsters need to learn how to notice grammatical patterns.
  • Learning through stories is very beneficial to young learners. Stories are rich in vocabulary because they are written to entertain and keep readers interested. Children tend to remember more words if they are pictured, repeated and accompanied by teacher explanations of new words through pictures, acting out the meaning of verbal explanation. The more little ones are involved, the more vocabulary they will learn. Moreover, stories help to form a thematic organization of words. Most of the phrases are learnt as chunks, for example, not a part of it but all of it, and will be broken down later.
  • The most frequent method of assessment is the paper-and-pencil test. But there’s a mismatch between testing single vocabulary and grammar items and the experience of children learning through stories and songs. In this case, an oral test should be included. Moreover, educators should use supportive ways to assess youngsters through observation, portfolios and self-assessment. 

Here are the examples of the tasks from ‘Teaching Languages to Young Learners’ which I often use in my lessons:

Short activities for learning spoken language

  1. Listen and identify.

The teacher describes a picture and a child points to it: This animal has four paws and fur. It barks.

2. Bingo.

Each learner chooses 6 pictures of animals. The teacher says the names of animals at random. When a pupil hears one of their animals, he turns that picture over. The first with all the pictures turned over shouts ‘bingo’ is the winner.

3. Listen and take away.

Children start with the full set of pictures. The teacher instructs them to take away certain objects: Take away all the animals with wings/tails/ who live in hot countries.

4. Odd one out.

 The teacher says the names of four animals and children decide which one is an odd one out.

5. Listen and sort.

The instructor names some animals and pupils pick out their pictures. Then they have to describe the group, for example, dangerous animals.

6. Tennis game.

Pupils are divided into two teams. One pupil says the name of the animal and a child from the other team responds with another animal. The teams keep going for as long as they can.

Examples of activities that lead to noticing.

  1. Listen and notice. Pupils should tick the prepositions they hear (target grammar)
  2. Presentation of new language with puppets. An educator acts out a dialogue between a puppet crocodile and a puppet squirrel discussing going swimming. Dramatic irony is added because the children know that a crocodile really wants to eat a squirrel. The dialogue highlights how to talk about regular routines using the Present simple tense.

S: I wish I could swim like you, Croc.

C: I’ll teach you to swim.

S: Oh, will you?

C: Let’s start next week. Shall we go swimming on Monday?

S: No, sorry. On Mondays, I clean my house.

C: Shall we go swimming on Tuesday?

S: No, sorry. On Tuesdays, I visit my grandmother.

Similar patterns for Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays.

C: (wearily) What about Sunday?

S: Yes! On Sundays, I’m free.

C: (more excited, licking his lips) OK. On Sunday we’ll have our first swimming lesson!

We hope that ideas expressed in Lynne Cameron’s book will help teachers to gain an understanding of the inner world of young learners and therefore create opportunities for effective learning.

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