Bringing Parental Objectives into the Young Learner Classroom
by Shay Coyne.
The most important people besides our YLs themselves are their parents, and this relationship is not always easy. Given the status English now has in a globalised world, many parents believe mastering English essential to have more opportunities in the future. However, some expectations may be unrealistic in terms of results, progress and the rate of learning (Brewster, Ellis & Girard, 2012). Good YL teaching practice incorporates sensorial classroom activities which allow children to experience the language in a natural and meaningful way allowing teachers to maximise linguistic development as well as providing YL with a positive experience in regards to English, something that is helpful as they continue on with their future schooling. These activities include crafts, action stories, storytelling, songs and chants, and projects. For some parents, such activities aren’t serious enough; they may not have experienced this type of learning themselves (Brewster et al., 2012). At the end of the day, these parents are our customers and a good working relationship is the key to success for our YL programs. The aim of this article to provide an example of how parental objectives can be incorporated into the YL classroom.
Goal Setting and YLs
At the heart of any course are goals. It is essential to understand why a course is being run and how the learners’ will benefit from it (Nation & Macalister, 2009). In an adult class we can conduct a needs analysis or ask them directly. However, in the YL classroom many students may not be aware of why they are in class, or what they want to achieve by the end of the course (Moon, 2005). We are reminded once again that teaching YLs means taking on a holistic approach to teaching children by, for example, incorporating other developmental aims such as social, physical, cognitive, and emotional needs. Parents are another aspect of this holistic approach, and one that can be a useful source of information. They are important stakeholders with a vested interest in the programs their children study. While YLs may not be aware of what they want from a course, their parents are aware of what they want their children to gain from enrolling them in an English course. Even if, as mentioned above, these expectations are unrealistic, parents at the most basic level know they are enrolling their children to learn a language. Ultimately it is the parents who decide if their child will continue with a course or not. By identifying parental needs and aligning them to the course curriculum, we can improve the overall quality of the classes we provide.
Action Research Project
With this objective, I designed an informal questionnaire identifying parental motivations for their children learning English and sent it out via Survey Monkey to 8 YL parents in their L1. My teaching context is a bilingual Catalan-Spanish speaking environment. I work with these parents to teach their children in English. I specifically used this group as I felt that our relationship would guarantee that the responses were honest and they had a genuine interest in helping me conduct this action research study. The questionnaire contained 10 questions, with a variety of responses. I translated these into the parents’ language and had my translation revised by my husband, who also shares these parents’ L1 to control for any potential misunderstandings that an English questionnaire may generate. 2 Key findings of the survey are:
- 100% of the parents want their children to study English in order to communicate
- 88% of the parents want a course that allows students to understand spoken English while having fun
From this analysis we can suggest ways to match these objectives to our YL programs.
Communication activities are essential to this group of parents. Therefore, the first recommendation we can make is to create an English-only environment and reinforce the idea that English is a means of communication and not a subject to be passively studied. Interaction is vital for communicative competence (Shumin, 2002). Brewster et al. (2012) suggest teaching YLs functional language such as greetings, social niceties (have a good weekend), routines, classroom language, and communication strategies (What does this word mean?). Speaking should be scaffolded to provide support, incorporating many opportunities to speak throughout the lesson, instead of building up to one big, final speaking activity at the end. Brewster et al. (2012) provide a list of communicative activities ranging from controlled to freer practice: look listen and repeat, listen and participate, reading aloud, games, dramatization, rhymes, songs, chants, storytelling, flashcard work, information gaps, questionnaires, dialogues and role play. One final suggestion is it may be useful to give the parents a brief handout, in L1, with the results of the survey and some examples of what has been incorporated in class (methodology and activities), which show them you are responding to their needs and aligning teaching practice to said needs.
While there may be specific reasons to use L1 in the class (such as a dangerous situation, or talking to a visibly upset child), if the teacher speaks only English this will address the parents’ expectations of their children understanding English. Exposing YLs to language through listening, supporting understanding through gestures, demonstrating and active engagement helps develop listening skills (Read, 2007). Teachers can further help students by insisting they talk to each other in English, using CDs, DVDs, YouTube/ online resources and other recordings to expose students to a variety of audio material. Institutions can change teachers after each course so students are able to listen to a variety of accents to help improve overall comprehension skills. Brewster et al., (2012) list the following activities as examples of improving listening in the class: listen and do, listen and discriminate, listen and repeat, listen and draw/ colour, listen and predict/ guess, listen and label, listen and match/ classify, listen and sequence, and listen and transfer information. Such activities provide learners with more opportunities for successful listening, resulting in confident listeners (Field, 2002).
The Element of Fun
Finally, fun needs to be an integral part of the YL classroom. Parents are less likely to continue sending their child to a course if they are not enjoying it, and YLs are able to learn more effectively if the class is memorable and enjoyable. Nikolov (1999) states that students like English if they like the teacher and the class activities. This idea is further supported by Moon (2005) who sees children as capable of having fun and being absorbed in activities that interest them, which is positive as this increases exposure to language input as well as providing language practice. This final point is noteworthy as it highlights the necessity to make sure that the activities we choose have a linguistic focus and are not just fun for fun’s sake.
By seeking out parental objectives, we are able to foster parental involvement. At times parental objectives may not meet with the teacher’s, for example parents wanting their child to cram study English to pass an important exam. In this example the communicative element of English is lost and teachers may not know how to best approach these situations; on the one hand the parent is a paying client and should receive the service they are paying for, but on the other hand most teaching practice today adopts a communicative approach. While it may not be possible or feasible to incorporate everyparental objective into our YL programs, we can identify key areas of interest. Teachers need support and training in order to select materials and activities that are YL appropriate to create a positive language learning environment. McConkey (1985) reports that most research highlights the benefits children receive when their parents take an active role in education and, moreover, evidence supports parents’ interest in becoming involved. A starting point is to ask them why they want their children to learn English and what expectations they have in an English course for their children. While needs analysis is common practice in adults’ classes, it is still yet to find its place in all YL course design. However, this article supports the idea that by identifying parental expectations in the YL classroom, it can help improve the overall quality of YL programs we provide for our students and their parents, which can only be a good thing for all involved.
Author’s Bio: Shay has worked in ELT as a teacher, trainer, and director of studies for 16 years. Her areas of interest are young learners, teacher training, and curriculum design. She is a member of the IATEFL YLT and TEA SIGs. She holds a BA in Psychology and the Trinity TESOL, and is currently studying for an MA in Applied Linguistics.
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Nikolov, M. (1999). “Why do you learn English? Because the teacher is short.” Language Teaching Resource Vol 3(1), 33-56.
Read, C. (2007). 500 activities for the primary classroom. Oxford, UK: Macmillan Education.
Shumin, K. (2002). Factors to consider: Developing adult efl students’ speaking abilities. In J. Richards & W.A. Renandya (Eds.), Methodology in language teaching (pp.204-211). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.