Teaching Young Learners

Helping young learners to speak English in class


One of the challenges that teachers face when teaching young learners is to encourage them to speak English throughout the lesson and gradually establish L2 as the main means of communication in class. Challenging though it may be, once achieved, it is most rewarding for learners and teachers.

by Dimitris Primalis, Teacher, Teacher Trainer, Examiner

Below you can read some tips that you may find useful with your classes:

1 Set the example by speaking English

It is natural for students to follow their teacher and attempt to communicate in L2 if they listen to you speak English in class. The language you use must be carefully chosen so that it is close to the linguistic level of the learners and you may have to repeat several times accompanied by gestures. Even if they don’t understand immediately, you have already succeeded in passing the message that “in this class, we speak English, we don’t talk about English”

2 Choral repetition contests

Children need to rehearse pronouncing new words before they feel confident to use them. Give them the opportunity to do so through a choral repletion contest. Divide the class into two groups: boys versus girls. This will make reluctant boys to participate actively. Give them points after each repetition. I always make sure that it is a neck to neck battle so that everybody is motivated and actively engaged.

3 "Is this an English class?"

Raise students’ awareness by asking “Is this an English or a Greek/French/Chinese class?”  “ What language do we speak in an English class?” even if the answer is “Chinese” - obviously in a humorous mood- they know the answer and they respond in L2 quite soon.

4 "Excuse me? I prefer coffee to tea..."

Reply in English to your students and pretend you don’t understand them when they use L1. Especially when it comes to simple words and phrases. Humor can help whenever possible. My favorite responses are “No, thank you! I prefer coffee” when they ask me “τι” (“what” in Greek sounds like “tea”) and “I go by bus” when they say “εντάξει” (“alright” in Greek sounds like “an taxi”). At first, they are startled, then they laugh and finally, they reply in English.

5 Set of phrases to deal with everyday class reality.

“Equip” them with a set of phrases to deal with simple things they need in class e.g. “Excuse me! Can I go out, please?” If you start early on, by the end of the year your learners will have built a rich set of fixed phrases and functions, most of which will be useful in their everyday life.

6 Explain when and why you use L1

Once you establish that L2 is the language used in class, students will reprimand you if you use L1. Explain before speaking in L1 that you are going to use it to save time explaining
a grammar structure or any other reason you think is necessary.

7 Class rules

A golden opportunity to set the rules is at the beginning of the academic year. Discuss in class and write the rules on a poster that everybody can see. “I speak English in class”
is a sine qua non!!!

8 Take pride in speaking L2

Praise the class for speaking English. It builds their confidence and motivates them to keep up the effort.

9 Choose soft or delayed correction techniques

For activities that facilitate fluency, such as acting out dialogues, improvisations, pair work and group work avoid correction on the spot as shy students may feel intimidated. Recasting - repeating the error back to the learner in a corrected form –, which is also known as soft correction, is less obtrusive. Another technique, delayed correction in the form of feedback which addresses the whole class and does not single out certain students, helps create a non-threatening learning environment.

10 Let parents know

All parents are tempted to correct on the spot their children when they make a mistake in English. This can often be embarrassing and definitely does not help children build confidence. At the beginning of the year, it is worth spending some time to explain to parents that the aim is to help children start speaking the foreign language and that mistakes are inevitable and it is a part of the learning process. If they can’t help correcting their kids, at least they can do it in more gentle ways. It is worth pointing out that encouraging their children to speak and praising them for their effort, will help them be positive to learning.

Some final thoughts

Speaking is, by nature, a skill that cannot be developed overnight. It takes consistent work and lots of humor to divert the tendency to use L1 in class but it is worth every bit of the energy spent. •