Teaching Young Learners

Monumental Work: Teaching Young Learners

Learners for Life

The discussion on teaching English to Young Learners (YL) can be fragmentized according to different parameters, with age being the most prevalent in the Greek, English-teaching context.

Below the age of 8 years, preschool children are well-known for their focus on self, concrete ideas, exploratory interactions, and less complex thinking (Gerdes et al., 2022). Accordingly, teaching the foreign language is meaningful as long as it aligns with the principles of concrete thinking, simple language and tangible entities. The Movable Alphabet, material developed by Montessori following her observations on language acquisition, teaches us about brain-aligned language acquisition: The Movable Alphabet is a set of wooden, lowercase letters with blue vowels and red consonants.

Text by: Marina Siskou 

Perusing Montessori Materials, one realizes that they are designed as concrete, manipulable objects to teach abstract concepts. By using their hands, children absorb concrete knowledge. Hands-on learning per se. Montessori Materials are designed to promoting autonomy in learning and creativity; a pivotal element of language acquisition: [w]ithin traditional linguistic theory, […], it was clearly understood that, one of the qualities that all languages have in common, is their “creative” aspect. Thus, an essential property of language is that it provides the means for expressing indefinitely many thoughts and for reacting appropriately in an infinite range of new situations.

Wired for Language

Children acquire language as long as they are exposed to it. Speaking is the first skill they develop. This comes as an outcome of the fact that they are born with everything they need to pick up the language(s) spoken in their environment.

The Absorbent Mind

Language Acquisition is part of the Absorbent Mind, another axis of Maria Montessori’s pedagogy, which describes the unconscious learning that takes place during the first three years of life. Indeed, Dr. Montessori realized that before the age of six, children pick up things effortlessly.

As teachers, according to this observation, we have two powerful means to facilitate language acquisition for young learners: the design and/or choice of materials and our own use of language, which heavily influences children’s language acquisition. The preparation of a rich vocabulary engenders for young learners the possibility to autonomously pick up from a rich range of words. As facilitative language-specific preparation, the “prepared adult” can intentionally use words like “delicious”, instead of “yummy”, or “immaculate”, instead of “clean”: natural conversations, in other words, the exchange of daily experiences, are effective ways to model the practical use of language.

Teaching YL is monumental work

The above taken for granted, teaching YL entails a host of provisionary actions, extending beyond the limits of lesson delivery: namely, the preparation of the environment and the choice of appropriate to the sensitive-periods materials.

The child who learns a language has in some sense constructed the grammar for himself on the basis of his observation of sentences and non-sentences (i.e., corrections by the verbal community) (Arnove, 1969).

In the early formative years, children are ready for word formation, but they are not ready to write: their hands are not developmentally ready for the fine motor movements of the pen. Efforts to get grip of the pencil have often turned out to be traumatic, leading to repression or avoidance during adult life.

Cognitivism, or cognitive psychology, was pioneered in the mid-20th century by scientists including George Miller, Ulric Neisser and Noam Chomsky. […] Cognitive psychologists are interested in mental processes (Codington-Lacerte, C., 2018). [According to cognitivists], behavior and learning entail more than just response to environmental stimuli and require rational thought and active participation in the learning process (Clark, 2018). To cognitivists, learning can be described as “acquiring knowledge and skills and having them readily available from memory so that you can make sense of future problems and opportunities” (Brown et al., 2014).

Montessori ascribes importance to making connections. Montessori’s approach to language acquisition takes into consideration the developmental readiness, designing materials and activities attuned to those unique “windows of opportunity”.

For language acquisition, the early formative years offer valuable opportunities. Curricula should make provisions for ensuring the appropriate activation of the most fertile openings in language learning. Teachers of YL are to be reminded that those are mostly, formative years in all aspects – meaning that even if they fail to develop competence and production of the language, at least young learners should be granted the opportunity to know the language and start to want to learn it. In puberty the second window opportunity will be available, as long as they have a positive disposition, for the creation of which, teachers are significantly responsible.