Young Learner Pedagogy: The next step

by Shay Coyne

The buzz word for 2013 is Demand High Teaching (DHT). However, in International House Sabadell, it is not just a trend; it is our teaching philosophy. What does it mean to demand high in the classroom? What implications does this have for learners, and most importantly for teachers? This article will explore these questions with regard to Young Learner (YL) pedagogy.

Foreign Language Teaching has changed over the past 10 years, not only in methodology but also in terms of student demographic profiles. It is recognised that the style and methods of language learning for YLs  is significantly different to adults, even though current research does not sufficiently explore these differences (Brown, 2007). With the increase of YL foreign language programs, teachers must have an intimate knowledge of how children learn languages and what activities foster language development. In the YL classroom, teachers choose relevant topics and select activities that require learners to be active participants, such as songs, TPR, task-based activities, and role plays. YL teachers need to provide children with activities that allow them to experience language, facilitating the construction of meaning (Moon, 2005). Unlike adults, who have developed strategies to clarify new language, children are cognitively unable to process new language independently, and therefore, rely on the teacher. This is where DHT is involved: teachers successfully identify their learners’ developmental stages and then scaffold lessons so that learners are able to build their linguistic knowledge in a controlled manner to maximise the learning process.

The Young Learner

Flowerdew and Miller (2005) reported that 40% of daily communication is spent listening. Therefore, it is essential that YLs are initially exposed to language through listening; guiding their understanding through gestures, demonstration and active engagement (Read, 2007). This can be done simply by instructing in the target language. As previously mentioned, this age group is limited in their ability to construct meaning. Through implementing specific listening strategies such as repetition, pausing and grading language, teachers can overcome this cognitive barrier and establish a link between form and meaning for their YLs. The learners will experience more examples of successful listening, which in turn results in more confident listeners (Field, 2002).

Speaking is a complex skill in language learning, regardless of age. It is important that teachers understand the essence behind communication: interaction is the key for developing communicative competence (Shumin, 2002). In class this involves group and pair work, to maximise speaking opportunities, in effect asking YLs to use their underdeveloped social skills. Understanding this paradox enables teachers to set up pair and group work more effectively. Learners also need topics that generate interest (Read, 2007). This is even more salient with YLs, because unlike adults who have learnt the social etiquette to politely engage in topics of little personal interest, children are still developing this skill. YLs will be active participants in class only when they have something they want to talk about (Vale & Feunteun, 2004). Teachers who fail to understand the reasons behind non-participation may label learners as unmotivated or weak.

When teaching children to read, there are further issues to consider. These include the literacy level of the learner’s first language, their interest in reading, and their language learning background (Read, 2007). Given that some children are still developing their literacy skills, it is imperative that YL teachers respect this learning burden. Reading material needs to be short, contain repetition, and include topics of personal interest. Students also need to be taught how to recognise words. Routines that familiarise students with both the script and letter-sound relationships are useful. Developmental aims such as training students to read by running their index finger along the text helps establish good reading habits because YLs do not necessarily know what to do with printed material.

Writing is considered the most difficult skill to master in another language. It is not only concerned with accuracy, but also fluency, content, organisation and style (Raimes, 2002). YL teachers must also consider fine motor skills and the effort needed to be able to write a single letter. Without understanding the basic principles involved in YL writing, the lesson itself is affected. Teachers underestimate the time students need for writing. Consequently, activities which may be essential for achieving lesson aims or establishing meaning are sacrificed. Furthermore, teachers cognitively overload students if the majority of the class activities require some form of writing (Moon, 2005).

The YL Teacher

For teachers in the YL field they find highly respected training programs such as CELTA/ DELTA/ TESOL focus on adults, with minimal input devoted to the unique context of YLs. Despite the fact that foreign language programs are being offered at an increasingly early age, there are “few publications [that] focus on what is available for children in different contexts and classrooms” (Nikolov, 2009, p.xiii). Consequently, many of our newly-qualified teachers do not have the skills needed to teach children. Therefore, current YL teaching practice is based on personal experience, very little of which is validated by research. To overcome this, more specialisation is needed: specialised research into YL profiles, and specific YL teacher training programs which can better equip our teachers with the knowledge and tools needed in YL pedagogy.

At IH Sabadell 56.74% of our students are YLs. Therefore, in their first year with us, new teachers undertake the IHCYLT course. The session on classroom management is held before the teachers teach their first class, this is done to provide teachers with the tools they need to effectively teach YLs from the first class. Throughout the course they are observed and provided with feedback to improve their YL teaching practice. In their second and third year, teachers who show an interest in YL pedagogy can attend teacher development sessions in IH Barcelona, specifically for YLs or Very YLs. We also encourage these teachers to become Speaking Examiners for the Cambridge YLE, KET and PET exams. However, after their fourth year, there is not much available in terms of YL teacher training. If YL pedagogy is to move forward, Continuous Professional Development is vital. This is something that needs to be addressed not only by teacher training organisations, for example providing teachers with YL courses and conferences, but also by individual teaching institutions in terms of inspiring a positive atmosphere where teachers are encouraged to take a vested interest in their field, through organisations such as IATEFL, SIGs, journal contributions and further reading. Foreign language teaching has seen a shift away from the backpacker profession, and it is time that YL pedagogy steps forward and demands more from its teachers and learners. Then DHT will cease to be a buzz word; it will just mean being a professional teacher.

Author’s Bio: Shay has been working in ELT as a teacher, teacher trainer, and ADOS for fourteen years. She has worked in Japan and the UK, and has been in Spain for the last ten years. Her areas of interest are testing and assessment, and materials and syllabus design, specifically for young learner teaching. She currently works as ADOS at IH Sabadell as well as tutoring for the IHCYLT and collaborating with IHWO for the new VYL course. She is also a member of the IATEFL YLT and TEA SIGs. She is currently studying for an MA in Applied Linguistics, and holds a BA in Psychology and the Trinity TESOL. Feel free to follow her @shaycoyne


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