Ten things I wish I had known when I started teaching VYLs

By Claire Elliot

When I first started teaching children under 6, I found them to be enormously challenging, probably because I spent no time with young children outside of work. Here are some of the tips and tricks I’ve picked up from colleagues and experience.

1. Don’t panic!

VYLs often spend most of their time with a family member or carer. Some VYLs find the classroom exciting, some go quiet, some cry at first. If any of them are really distressed, consider inviting whoever brought them to come in with them for the first few minutes. Remember that they take their cue from you, so if you look worried, they’ll be worried. Use a steady, positive sounding voice, smile and give them time.

When you’re teaching VYLs, accidents aren’t out of the question either. Make sure you know who to go to for help and don’t worry about them not instantly producing the language you wanted them to, because…

2. They are learning so much more than English

Their parents have signed them up for English classes but they’re learning much more. Social skills like turn-taking and sharing are developing, as are motor skills. All these abilities are important and we can work them into our classes; for example, games like Simon Says or musical statues help them develop self-control and gross motor skills. An easy way to develop empathy is to ask how characters are feeling at different points in a story. Tracing, puzzles and circling are all beneficial to fine motor skills.

3. You don’t need a puppet

I have seen colleagues using puppets to squeals of delight from VYLs. I tried but I always felt self-conscious, so I work a bit of silliness and surprise in with other methods. Pretend to mix up the colours or other vocabulary, make silly faces when they use L1, or surprise them by gradually revealing a flashcard and letting them guess what’s in the picture. Surprise and laughter help engage your VYLs and make English fun.

4. Change the pace

Settle and stir is the mantra for VYL and YL classes. Basically, what it means is that students need a variety of activities to keep them engaged and avoid boredom. Their age will dictate how long they can concentrate for but as a starting point I’d say around 5 minutes for VYLs. This doesn’t mean you have to make lots of materials: VYL books generally come with a variety of materials and you can recycle games/songs/activities from one class to the next. Alternate between activities that require movement (songs with actions, games, matching) and quieter activities like listening to a story, doing something on paper or watching a video. If you can see them getting restless, change the pace to keep them interested. Playing a song or even classical music while they do individual tasks can help them focus and reduce L1 chit-chat.

The layout of your classroom also has a big impact. A change of location can signify a change of pace, e.g. songs standing in a circle, book work in their chairs, pairwork on the floor, etc. If zones are not an option, something as simple as moving the chairs into a small semi-circle will make a big difference because it will make monitoring easier while leaving space in the centre for group activities or pair work.

5. Exploit materials through repetition

Anyone who spends time with young children will know that they love to repeat their favourite things - songs, stories, TV programmes. They learn their first language through copying so their brains respond to repetition. I drill vocabulary five or six times before we move on to the next item. Once you’ve done that, holding a flashcard and letting your VYLs guess which card you are looking at allows for lots of repetition and doubles up as a handy filler or fast finisher activity.

There are great ideas online about exploiting stories but one easy follow up to reading a story is to miss out words (say, the vocabulary of your current topic) and get them to fill the gaps orally.

6. Balance change and routine

Although VYLs love repetition, we have to notice when something they are repeating is no longer challenging. For example, text books often have a start of class song. At first this is a useful part of the routine; however, once you see that they are fairly confident with the song, it’s time to add something: a new verse, different actions or muting the recording at regular intervals so they sing without help. The same goes for a starting routine, keep stretching them. I start by asking “Can you jump/run/swim, etc.?”, adding in new actions through the year, and ultimately allow the VYLs to ask the questions.

7. Be flexible

VYLs find it difficult to manage their emotions and as such we need to be willing to accept that sometimes they can’t or don’t want to do what we have planned. If one day a student doesn’t want to join in a song or an activity, as long as they are safe and not disruptive, let them. Generally they participate more as their confidence grows and you might be surprised by how much they pick up when quietly observing their classmates.

They’ll produce language at different rates too so you should be willing to accept “ball”, from weaker students, even if your long term goal is “It’s a green ball.” With regular repetition, they’ll get there in a few classes.

8. Putting your coat on is difficult when you’re 4

I thought I was establishing routines by getting my students to line up outside the classroom before they came in, asking them questions, etc. But still chaos reigned and I felt stressed. It took me a while to realise that because VYLs are still developing motor skills, you need to build time in for things that, as adults, we don’t think about: putting their coats on, finding the right page in books, tidying up, etc. These are important skills that require time and patience so factor it into your planning.

9. Make things easy for yourself

When I first taught VYLs, I would come up with a craft project, demonstrate it, and then try to help each individual work through the steps. It was stressful. Often it would go awry and I’d end up running around the room. Instead, break it down into stages. If you can, get them sitting in a circle with you, so they can watch step one, then do it. When they’ve finished, they put their materials down and then do step two, and so on.

10. Focus on the positive

Behaviour is a key part of classroom management with VYLs. Most teachers use a behaviour chart, often with some kind of reward for good behaviour (I give them a sticker or a stamp on their hand). Make sure your behaviour chart is visible and the consequences of their actions (good or bad) are instant – they won’t remember by the end of the class. Use your voice and facial expression to reinforce or discourage behaviour as VYLs are used to reading these cues in L1.

Once you have established the rules, stick to them but try not to react emotionally. I don’t give instructions or start an activity until everyone is quiet, with nothing in their hands. However, I don’t get annoyed either. I sit calmly, praising those students who are ready and with an even voice ask others to cross legs/put pencils on the floor etc. This takes a lot of time at the start of the year but is a worthwhile investment because VYLs are easily distracted. It can be discouraging to have one child in the class who isn’t doing what you asked, but if you focus on that behaviour, you risk others misbehaving to get your attention. Praise the behaviour you want, and others will soon join in. This goes a long way to making English classes a positive experience.

Author's Bio: Claire is a teacher at International House and has taught in the UK, France, Spain and Switzerland. She has been at IH Cordoba for seven years, teaching all ages and levels. In her free time, she enjoys cooking, learning languages and travelling.