Six top tips for new younger learner teachers

By Amy Gowers

There are many things that I love about teaching young learners; not at the very least their enthusiasm, their amazement about (almost) everything, their willingness to participate and even the challenges all of these present but I can see why some teachers might not find the chaos of a YL classroom enjoyable. This article is only an overview and all of the ideas presented will be expanded on in future articles.

I’ve got lots of experience with teaching YLs, from playgroup aged children to teens, and I’ve used these experiences to compile my list of six top tips for new brand-new teachers of YLs to help them feel more comfortable and at ease in the classroom. I’ve started passing on my experience to colleagues at IH Bydgoszcz and wanted to also share it with a wider audience.

1) Establishing Routines

Establishing routines is the number one tool in the YL teacher’s tool kit. Establishing routines and sticking to them can help with almost every area in the classroom, most importantly classroom management. Many of the students in YL classrooms aren’t at the level where they can understand everything that happens or why, and they definitely don’t understand everything the teacher says. Having routines established early on gives the students a concrete framework in which to work and behave. They can understand and rely on routines to make them feel safe in what may be an unfamiliar situation. Routines help students become aware of teacher expectations and they also provide them with a way of following the lesson without having to understand the concept of time. Three routines I use are:

  1. Start of the lesson: the students put anything that can cause a distraction (coats, bags, phones, etc.) on pegs or at the back of the classroom and their books and pens stay under their chairs out of sight but close by. Keeping everything out of their hands keeps them focused on the teacher and the lesson.
  2. Giving instructions: the students sit back on their chairs and put their hands on their head. Getting the students to go back to a “neutral” space away from the excitement of an activity allows the teacher to ensure that all the students are paying attention. Asking them to put their hands on their heads stops them from distracting each other and touching any materials that may be out.
  3. End of the lesson: the students collect their bags and coats and sit back on their chairs. Ensure that the classroom is tidy and the students are calm before letting them leave.

2) Letting students make decisions

Children who are able to make their own decisions become more invested in the result of that decision and are more likely to follow through with a task due to their emotional and personal investment in it. This mentality can also be applied in the YL classroom. Giving students options and allowing them to make decisions which affect their learning leads to the students becoming more engaged in the lesson and in the activity.

This can be done in a few very simple ways such as allowing students to decide where they want to sit in a classroom: on the floor, on a chair or at a table. When the restriction of the traditional table and chair setting is removed, most students will feel more comfortable and therefore more open to learning. Of course, some students may choose to sit at a table and chair and that’s fine, the point is to give them the option.

Naming activities can also be useful. When it comes to the drilling and repetition sections of the lesson, for example, the students can decide which activity they want to play, e.g. the ‘ball game,’ the ‘fly swat’ game or ‘flashcard circle.’ This gives them the impression that even though it is the teacher who decides what they learn, it is the students as a unit who decide how.

3) Repetition

This might sound obvious but repeat, repeat, repeat. Practise makes perfect and repeating structures and language is incredibly important for language retention. New teachers may think that YLs become very bored very quickly and it’s true. Children do have a short attention span and often don’t like sitting in one place or concentrating on one thing for too long.

There are ways of getting the students to repeat language without losing them to a life of boredom. For example, keeping the target language or target structures the same but changing the drilling activity will make the students think that they are doing something completely different. Even small changes such as position in the classroom, from sitting to standing or changing partners, can revitalise their enthusiasm in an activity. Other ways, such as changing interaction patterns to pair work, small group or mingle activities, can also create a new dynamic.

Other small changes to repetitive activities can work too. For example, with drilling, the teacher can have the learners use different voices, change the volume (whisper, shout), or play with emotion (learners repeat the language while laughing or crying), all of which lets them play with the language. Another drilling idea is to add the learners names into a drill, making it more personalised and more engaging. For example, the students are learning emotion adjectives (sad, excited, scared, angry, etc.) and the teachers starts to drill them in a sentence, e.g. “Anna, are you sad?”, “Norbert, are you excited?”. The students always enjoy lessons when they are more personalised, with the focus on names being especially helpful at the beginning of a term or if you have new students and need to revise everyone’s name.

4) Be fair

Being fair means being consistent. Consistency is a word which always comes up when teaching YLs and teaching in general and being consistent can mean different things. Consistency, as far as behaviour management is concerned, means treating each student the same and applying the same rules to every student. However, it also means being a trusted judge.

Imagine this: you’re playing a competitive game with your students, you haven’t been paying attention and accidently award a point to the wrong team. It was an innocent mistake but now you have a mutiny on your hands. Regardless of language and level, unfairness is international and if the children think you’re treating them unfairly in a game or competition they will be the first ones to let you know. Being consistent and fair in the classroom improves rapport and helps build trust between the students and the teacher, as once the students trust in a teacher’s decisions they trust in the teacher themselves.

Paying attention when allocating points and rewards within games and competitions and not showing favouritism for a particular team (I was once accused of unfairly awarding a point to the girls’ team because I am also a girl) shows the students your decisions can be trusted. Being clear about rules, noticing when rules are broken and following through on consequences is also extremely important.

5) Don’t be afraid to lose control

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t mean losing control of the class completely; I mean knowing when periods of controlled chaos can benefit the classroom and the students’ learning. Being overly strict and micromanaging every aspect of the classroom leaves no room for linguistic freedom. The students aren’t able to use the language in a way which is important and meaningful to them. Loosening the reins, if you will, also affords opportunities for students to interact and engage with each other naturally, helping them develop their social skills and well as language skills. Letting the children run slightly wild, as long as you can regain control, is never a bad thing.

Here are some examples of activities that can help create controlled chaos in the classroom:

  • Running/shouting dictation: These activities are basically the same but with a small difference. Vocabulary or sentences are displayed around the room and students are in pairs or groups. One student writes while the other either shouts the phrase across the room (shouting dictation) or runs backwards and forwards between the sentences and their partner (running dictation).
  • Teacher-student swap: Students love taking on the role of the teacher and love feeling in control. Asking students to set up activities (once the rules of the activities have already been properly established) gives them a sense of control and allows them to use more English. Asking students to give instructions, e.g. touch the card / run to (vocabulary), is another way of releasing control.

6) Keep the pace up

You have a beginner class of 8-to-10 year olds who are learning farm animals. You’ve sat them in a circle and you’ve drilled from flashcards; you’ve said a word and they’ve touched the correct card. You’ve noticed that the students are getting restless and are starting to mess around but you still haven’t finished drilling all the vocabulary. What should you do? First of all, there’s no point labouring an activity. The students clearly need a change of pace so give them one: keeping pace up within a classroom is very important to keep distractions and behavioural problems to a minimum.

Activity changes and employing a variety of activity types keeps the students interested and curious about what’s going to happen next. Keeping the pace up doesn’t have to involve a never-ending flow of energy from the teacher. Setting time limits, 3-4 minutes is usually fine for most activities, helps stop the students from becoming disengaged or bored with an activity. Taking advantage of stirrers (activities which are usually physical and dynamic and get the students out of their seats) and settlers (activities designed to calm the students and provide some time to digest input and reflect) also provides a balance in the classroom and ensures that all students, introverted and extroverted alike, are catered for. Settler activities, which may take the form of pelmanism, a written record or individual book work, among other ideas, can be just as engaging as stirrers. Indeed, giving students a little “down time,” although that may sound counterproductive to keeping pace up, gives the lesson variety.

This list of six top tips is by no means exhaustive, but it may just be enough to give a brand new YL teacher the foundations they need to start to love the chaos. Good luck!

Author's Bio: My name’s Amy Gowers and I’m in my second year at IH Bydgoszcz and my fourth year teaching. I taught in Tokyo, Japan for a language school and in the UK for a charity. I completed the MA TESOL at University of Manchester two years ago and in my final thesis I focused on YLs in a mainstream UK educational setting. I conducted my research in two separate primary schools and spent time observing students in both schools. I am very interested in teaching young learners and have over nine years’ experience working with children (from ages 3 – 17) both in educational and non-educational settings.