Teaching Young Learners

A class full of Young Learners: Teacher’s expectations and focal points in the EFL/ESL classroom

Characteristics of Young Learners     

By Marina Siskou

The conventional feeling towards the definition of “Young Learners” is that it is interchangeable with the concept of childhood.


Annamaria Pinter (2011) divides Young Learners into three groups.


The first group, preschool or early school years, is comprised of children who initiate pre-school about the age of three.


Conventionally, they are referred to as Nursery English classes in the EFL/ESL learning environment.


During this level, also named kindergarten and reception, ages range from three to five years old, learners are not exposed to the formal classroom instruction and the learning modus operandi.


The limited development of Young Learners’ motor skills necessitates the employment of kinetic and aesthetic activities in the ESL/EFL learning.


It is anticipated that, although children entering the EFL/ESL class are already equipped with their first language, they exhibit limited ability for reading and writing.


Whereas some of the Young Learners might grow into their English Language teaching smoothly, others will be struggling to align their letters.


Interestingly, those manifestations of late progress or resistance to English learning is not necessarily condemning for their future progress.


As children mature and enter the second phase, they might automatically or with minimum effort recuperate loses of Nursery English.


Though not dooming, late progress, coupled with difficulty in adjusting to the learning setting, even after a decent amount of time has lapsed, might serve as an early indication for potential underlying learning difficulties.


Those manifestations are valuable, therefore the teacher needs to be alert and closely observe, keeping an agenda of the student’s progress.


Though not dooming, late progress, coupled with difficulty in adjusting to the learning setting, even after a decent amount of time has lapsed, might serve as an early indication for potential underlying learning difficulties. 


This is not an age of metalinguistic consciousness. Students might lack a sense of purpose and orientation. During this stage, EFL/ESL teaching and the acquisition of school skills coexist, so it is wise for teachers to be over explanatory and proactive: for Young Learners, there is no prior knowledge and little is to be taken for granted.


Gamification of learning is therefore imperative for Young Learners. Fun activities, puppets, rhymes, songs, stories, fairy-tales, coloring, visual materials are not only enjoyable and educative; to Young Learners, playing means communication.


Feelings of joy will stimulate the Young Learner’s interest in EFL/ESL teaching, an accomplishment that can go a long way, even to the most mature learning stages.


The second group of Young Learners is comprised of children who attend  primary school at around the age of five to seven and complete primary school at eleven or twelve years old.


This second categorization comprises a wide spectrum and is also the stage where the most groundbreaking progress unfolds.


It is a very fertile age for Second Language Instruction. Language School classification system is established according to the specific elements of each age group of this categorization, beginning from A junior and extending to B1 or in some cases B2 level.


Once Young Learners reach the age of six, they develop their analytical and logical thinking. For the following two to three years, Young Learners will be acclimatizing to the expectations, meaning and purpose of second language schooling.


Either at a faster or at a slower pace, during those early primary school years Young Learners begin to comprehend patterns of their native, as well as their second language.


They will obtain awareness about the function of ESL/EFL classroom.


Their analytical abilities are expressed in their emerging ability for wh-questing, the ability to paraphrase, self-correct and self-repeat. Yet, metalinguistic consciousness in not in complete maturity. Young learners of this stage might still fail to sense that they did not understand language input, a factor that necessitates modified and ongoing repetition, as well as modified input.


This third and final stage of Young Learners is a revolutionary milestone in Second Language Learning. Learners are familiarized with the function of ESL/EFL, are mature, have clear perception of their learning goals and have developed an extensive knowledge of their first and second language.


For early adolescents, it feels more natural to draw deductions, to utilize context in order to decode the gist of language input, to elicit meaning relying on their inner mechanisms and patterns, it is easier to dissociate themselves from the present state and therefore  to engage in more abstract discussions such as “as if” discourse in their second language.


On the negative side, as Young Learners complete and leave behind their early childhood phases, they also abandon the several benefits that characterize those phases. As they mature cognitively, intellectually, socially and linguistically, they are less likely to be equally imaginative, spontaneous and enthusiastic towards the Second Language.


As they mature, it is more likely that their affective filter might increase, less likely to take initiative, resulting in less risk-taking and involvement in interlocution, as they are more self conscious and deliberate.  They have understanding of comparison –which, if neglected might nurture competition- a factor that might be counterproductive and in many cases limit them to silent participation or withdrawal.


They are able to communicate their thoughts and feelings, their concentration span is considerably expanded, they are able to self- examine the understanding of language input, they can pose sophisticated questions.


Self motivation might be witnessed during this mature stage of Young Learners.


 Learners have honed their social skills; they are deeply adjusted to the school mentality and have no need of explicit explanation of what is expected from them; the educative habits are now internalized.


The aforementioned acquisitions are conditional on the learners’ individual intellectual, cognitive, cultural and personality imprint.


There is always flexibility and difference amongst learners, independently of their age and level.




Expected Obstacles in Teaching Young Learners


With regard to official Second Language instruction, teachers hold an essential role.


During the premature age, students place major significance on the teacher in terms of setting the appropriate classroom environment, transferring knowledge, encouraging progress, stimulating interest in language activities, etc.


As for Young Learners’ instruction, teachers should practically compromise with the lack of cognizance on the part of the students.


This notion of compromise embodies eagerness, sharpened intuition, patience and flexibility of ESL/EFL approaches and methods.


The conventional problematic issues that arise with Young Learners discussed are not uniform into the EFL/ESL Greek environment.


As presented below, the emerging issues of teaching Young Learners in Private English Schools might not constitute an issue in purely English-speaking schools (as there is quite a number of English Speaking kindergarten and elementary schools) in Greece.


The following discussion touches upon the Greek students attempting their first contact with English as a Second Language in a Private School environment (frontistirio).


The first issue is the quality and quantity of language input to Young Learners. Limited input and variety seems to run through the EFL/ESL teaching approaches for Young Learners.


Instructors encounter the challenge of overusing native language in order to assist Young Learner’s understanding and responsiveness. Adding to this, whenever English Language is being employed for instructional purposes, it is over-adjusted winding up to an unnatural classroom code.


This awkward classroom code consists of fixated expressions, predictable and unimaginative interlocution, originally from the teacher towards the learners and consequently amongst learners.


This condition appears to be commonplace to learners of all ages, varying in qualitative or quantitative terms. The adjusted speech style, called child-directed speech (in first language acquisition), has been defined as foreign/teacher talk in certain contexts of second language acquisition.


This might feel to be a compulsory adaptation in order to obtain the desired result, but its long-run impact might conceal undesirable effects. Large- scale predictability and repetitiveness can numb the linguistic sense of the learners.


The suitable answer to the challenge of what quality of language should be implemented lies within the set of qualities of Young Learners. Young children are surprisingly skilled at interpreting meaning driven from paralinguistic features.


Lacking sufficient knowledge of formal means, they are talented in reading their teacher’s intonation, facial contractions and generally body expressions. During this early learning stage, focus is placed upon the meaning rather than the form, a fact that discloses that learning is predominantly implicit rather than explicit. Moreover, Young Learners are inherently good in establishing metaphorical connections.


To counter the automatization of communication that is bred by the teacher talk, the teacher can communicate authentically, in normal speech speed and employ paralinguistic features to ensure communication.


Gesturing, realia, representations and connections to the feelings of Young Learners are very influential techniques. It is important, at all learning stages, to activate the feeling of autonomy and independency of learning. The rewarding feeling that the learners reached for the knowledge by themselves, even laboriously, consolidates long-term memory, knowledge and their confidence.


A second issue that appears to be problematic is the co-development of linguistic and social adaptation skills. When managing a class full of young learners, it is prudent to know beforehand that there is never going to be prolonged, harmonious and collective focus. Distractions are a rule in Young Learners teaching.


Fortunately, witty provisions made by the teacher, can minimize the impact of the distractions in the classroom.


A case in point would be to keep a classroom corner with water supplies at the back of your classroom. Students fail to concentrate on account of physical factors. Tiredness, exhaustion, hunger and thirst prevent them from anything secondary (physical needs inadvertently are prioritized).


Familiarize your students (and keep on reminding them) - thus establishing an unwritten classroom law-that when needed, they can discreetly quench their thirst and return. Enforcing small, yet decisive changes in the classroom customs and regulations can favor the quality of the classroom time.


Equally important, teachers save themselves from the guilt felt over a wasted teaching hour. Errors during the early primary stage are a reliable indicator of knowledge and understanding of EFL/ESL. Errors are a natural part of language learning.  This applies to the same extent as it does with the development of the child’s first language.


Systematic errors can announce the progress from the previous learning stage to the next.


Consider for instance, the common confusion of an A junior class between the Present Simple and the Present Continuous. Bring into mind learners’ persistent tendency to drop the declination of the auxiliary verb in forming the Present Continuous.


Young Learners are introduced to a novel conception that of the two Presents, which is laborious for them to rationalize. Simultaneously, they strive to remember the sequence patterns of the Present Continuous, omitting at least one rule, as their intuition feels that the existence of two Presents makes no sense.


Furthermore, the phenomenon of “avoidance” may be a part of the learner’s systematic second language performance (Lightbown, Spada, 2011). Consequently, the uttering of the sentences might merely include the bare infinitive for a long time for Young Learners, rejecting both aspects of the Present Tense.


What remains to be done by a knowledgeable teacher is to insist reminding the grammatical formulae in differentiated fashion, ensuring that they reach every single student.


Make provisions for personalized instruction and flexibility.


Any negative experience on Young Learners can prove to be a significant setback in many aspects. Even if the outcome is not the intended, remember to praise the effort, the improved attitude, and any speck of progress. During this stage ESL/EFL teaching serves a dual purpose, both preparatory, and instructive.


Maybe Young Learners provide the most fertile ground for fostering favor towards second language learning and education holistically.




Andrea, Puskas, “The Challenges and Practices of Teaching Young Learners”, Komarno, 2016.


Lightbown, Patsy, Spada Nina “How Languages are Learned”, Third Edition, Oxford University Press, 2011.