Teaching Young Learners

Teaching Young Children: An overview by Aris Mazarakis

The debate of how we should teach Languages to young children has been raging for decades and despite the existing methods, every teacher seems to walk into the language classroom armed with their own personal views and theories of what they should teach and how it should be taught. Eventually, most of those who teach such classes seem to employ rather old fashioned and by enlarge personal methods, the value and the aims of which are ambiguous and the results rather questionable.

by Aris D Mazarakis - M.A. in Applied Linguistics

Is it a matter of Method or Pedagogy?

At this point someone might expect me to mention the name of an appropriate method and start accounting its merits and the way it should be best implemented in the classroom. However, the method we could apply as a whole is simply non-existent, and even if it did exist no one would be able to guarantee its results with a particular group of young learners. If we examine the paradigm of the most influential teaching methods of the last century, we will discover that a given method is never totally different from its predecessors and its successors make sure that they maintain its most positive aspects. This is because we are all unique individuals each following different routes on our way to acquiring knowledge. This diversity is exactly what makes the planning and the implementation of a single method difficult to achieve. Despite what many linguists have at times claimed, the experienced, well-informed teacher has always known that the only method that seems to work in the classroom is eclecticism.

Instead of talking about a successful method then, I believe it would be far more useful to speak of a new pedagogy which would take a different view of the teaching of a foreign language. In recent decades more and more people have turned to humanistic teaching and become aware of the value and the merits of communication and interaction, not as a teaching method but rather as a classroom pedagogy through which lessons can be accomplished. The implications of such a change of focus are indeed beneficial and far-reaching but in order to be achieved teachers will have to accept the simple fact that “no one can teach unless by consent” and instead of being the constant focus of the teaching process treat their students as partners rather than empty bottles to be filled with their own wisdom. Such pedagogy calls, of course, for teachers who are more aware of the contribution of young learners to the lesson. It calls for teachers with a totally different attitude and rationale, who will not view children as passive receivers but rather as unique individuals with learning needs. When they feel they will not be scorned, reprimanded or discouraged, young learners acquire self respect and attempt to prove their creativity and willingness to participate. They assume responsibility and they are ready to experiment, take chances and become equal partners in the learning – teaching process.

Can we get more practical?

By now, some might have started wondering whether all this has some sort of practical value, if this “new” pedagogy can afford them any realistic activities or techniques they could use in the classroom. Communicative activities for junior levels the teacher can choose from exist in abundance and we can use them as a whole or adapt them to suit our own needs. However, activities for junior classes should fulfill the following criteria:

A If we agree that we aim at a natural way of teaching/learning, similar to the one someone learns his mother tongue, then every activity which encourages communication will do the job. What matters is that the activities we use are interesting, up to their age, linguistic and pragmatic knowledge and provide them with sufficient comprehensible input.

B Children can easily respond to any activity that is fun and will motivate them. From the very basic, guided role-play which requires them to take on an English name, age, family background etc and stand up to introduce themselves to their peers, to the most complex questionnaires which involve interviewing people and then report the results orally or / and in writing.

C Junior learners are full of energy and consequently get bored easily as their attention span is short. James Asher’s Total Physical Response method involves activities which combine movement and speech. Such activities are suitable for children and keep them active and alert. Activities such as questionnaires, games, group or individual projects, role-plays etc, which demand students to move around the classroom are more productive than passive tasks.
Furthermore, problem solving tasks, listening to stories or to directions in order to rearrange or draw and paint pictures, or activities working on the “jigsaw” principle will keep children’s interest alive while they encourage extensive production of language and foster a feeling of self-achievement.

D It is vital that all the activities of the lesson plan are meaningful, carefully chosen and stringed together and their instructions are short and clear so as to avoid confusion and to serve the aims of the lesson.

E Finally, every lesson for young children should have “surrender value”. This means that at the end of the day, the children will need to know the practical value of what they have learnt. Therefore, each lesson should end with a real-life activity that will offer learners the chance to use what they have learnt in order to express their opinion, thoughts or simply solve communication problems. The most successful activities of this kind should involve not only the target language of the particular lesson but also a wider range of language. Classroom learning is a long, drawn-out process and for most children it tends to be so abstract and purposeless that they soon lose their original motivation.

Teaching Material for junior Classes

Admittedly, course books for junior levels are nowadays quite sophisticated and all of them are accompanied by numerous peripherals (T’s Book, CDs, Workbook, Interactive Board material, etc). With the constant updating to include new and relevant topics, ideas and methodology, teachers have a great set of resources at their fingertips. Most of them, however, remain little more than a comprehensive framework built around a number of repetitive activities, lacking variety and the teacher will need to put in a lot of personal work to supplement them with more context and carefully graded activities to enhance meaningful use of the target language, integration of skills and communication, but most importantly to break the routine. Alternatively, you might like to do what I did years ago. Using a topic-based syllabus as a framework, the natural order hypothesis and Krashen’s theory of language acquisition, I planned my own material which I taught to one of the four A’ Junior groups of the school. It was a bit daunting but it was fun for the children and it worked like clockwork. No video or DVD, no interactive board or the internet, armed with just my day-to-day lesson plans, charts, cards, recorded material and photocopied activities I had perhaps the most creative and productive year ever. The reward, or should I say consolation, for my hard work was the fact that my students enjoyed the course and developed an active interest for reading and dramatic activities, but also the looks of my colleagues that made me feel like an acrobat without a safety net