CASPAR – a toolkit for teaching young learners

CASPAR – a toolkit for teaching young learners

by James Savery

When planning content for our younger learner lessons, it's useful to keep in mind a few key classroom processes that will ensure interest and engagement. The six elements that I will be discussing in this article can easily be remembered through the acrostic CASPAR. I’ve found that incorporating as many of these elements into my teaching as possible makes for successful lessons, and I hope that you find that too.

C – Creativity

We need to help our young learners think creatively and this can be supported through the inclusion of tasks like the following:

Projects, arts and craft, drawing: These activities are a common feature of young learner lessons, but to make the best use of them it is important that we include a lesson segment covering the key expressions that allow learners to talk about their project before, during, and after they do their work.

Creative writing: Focus on useful language and provide a model text to help your learners write their own story. A good way of scaffolding this kind of task is to allow the substitution of a comic strip, as this reduces the amount of language the students need to write without taking much away from the communicative potential of the task.

Stories stimulate the imagination. Asking the students questions during and after the learners have heard or read the story can encourage this: What happened next? How will it end? And then, Does this story have a message? What is it?

A – Achieve

A feeling of achievement underpins the idea of progress and is a critical motivating factor.

Encourage children to talk about their finished work and refer back to it whenever possible and appropriate. This is one good reason to display work on the classroom wall, but if the students take their work home, remember to ask them in the next lesson what their parents thought of it

Activities can also give students the sense of ongoing achievement when they are intrinsically motivated, have a goal, and receive immediate feedback on their work. This last point is particularly important as it not only keeps students on-task, but also reassures them that they are doing the right thing. Playing games, doing a word puzzle or designing a poster could all have these features. It’s also important that the activity should not be too easy as to become boring, or likewise so difficult that the students give up before their work is completed. The sweet spot is in between, when students can feel ‘in the zone’ and the activity is said to ‘flow’. See the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced chicks sent me highly) for an elaboration of ‘Flow’ psychology.

S – Say

It seems a truism, but it is worth underlining: the majority of language students want to be able to say things in the language they are studying. It enables them to communicate and gives them a feeling of empowerment because the word ‘say’ implies that someone is listening. Each student should do a bit of ‘saying’ in every lesson.

Scaffolding increases our students' chances of being able to communicate successfully - it moves success to within their grasp. We can help by providing common language - especially high frequency classroom phrases - and it is not unusual to see this language posted on the walls of classrooms that are used predominantly by younger learners. It’s also worthwhile pre-teaching common set expressions, or chunks of language, that the students can use when they want to communicate with each other or with the teacher. Younger learners will take on this sort of language most readily through chants and songs.

Puppets are a great way to introduce our younger students to dialogues. The teacher can model a dialogue by talking to the puppet (you’ll soon overcome your embarrassment!), and students can be encouraged to say things to the puppet. A friendly and fun atmosphere in class will help our learners feel comfortable about having a go at saying something in English.

P – Personalise

We should try to give our younger learners their own personal connection with our lesson by recognizing and responding to their own interests, desires, and goals.

Learners have a sense of personal worth when they help the lesson progress, and handing over some classroom responsibilities, such as distributing handouts and drawing on the board, encourages a sense of ownership. However, it is important to employ a system for tracking who has done what - younger learners have a very advanced system of their own for gauging how fair and equitable the teacher has been. If you don’t believe me, give one student two pieces of responsibility in a row and see how the other students react!

With the right approach, it is even possible to hand over the role of the teacher to your students - they will respond positively to this enhanced sense of responsibility, though making their role clear is an essential precondition. Personalising the classroom would not be complete without learning - and using - the students’ names. This might seem obvious, but there will be teachers reading this that find themselves teaching upwards of fifty young learners each term. It can be difficult to master unfamiliar names if you are new to a country, and you tend to be less likely to learn - and thus remember - a quiet student’s name compared to one who contributes often. Doing your homework is vital here, and will pay dividends in both the short and long term. As will learning more about the students’ own culture: every country has its special days, and integrating these into your lessons, even if it means making wholesale changes to the material presented by the coursebook, will create special memories for your students.

A – Act

Lessons with younger learners tend to require much more physical movement than any lessons with teenagers and beyond. You will have noticed by now the tendency of young learners to fidget; such students want to move, and if they cannot, their bodies will anyway, often to the detriment of their behaviour.

Integrate actions wherever possible, whether through drama or games or by getting your students to mime new items of vocabulary. This last idea has the benefit of demonstrating to you how well the students have understood the new lexis, and offers an opportunity to the teacher to repair misunderstandings.

This idea leads us neatly to Total Physical response (TPR), where learners act out instructions to show understanding. TPR stages can be used with action verbs and lexical sets (get up, eat breakfast), stories, and classroom language (read, put in order, remember), to name but a few. You can turn this around sometimes by performing the action silently yourself and challenging students to remember and say the words that go with it.

Whole books have been written on the topic of games for younger learners, and no lesson should be without at least one activity that is physical in nature, such as Simon Says or Charades. Dialogues should not be considered as radio plays involving static speakers - turn them into miniature dramas, complete with an audience. Even getting your students to stand by their desks for a few seconds between tasks, stretching their arms up or touching their toes, will help to prevent the emergence of behavioural issues.

R - React

When you are talking to the whole class, it helps when they give a simple reaction to what you say. Establishing a routine that allows for this will ensure that you have everyone’s attention when you need your students to listen and understand - and will prevent you having to delay the start of the task while you repeat the instructions. Keeping those instructions short and simple helps further, as will modeling and then checking those instructions - simple yes/no questions are most effective here.

Encourage students to react to new language before you expect them to use that language. For example, when you introduce new lexis, use a set of flashcards; place these in a grid or circle on the ground, say one of the words out loud, and then slowly move your hand around the flashcards. The students should say ‘Stop’ when you pass your hand over the relevant card. This is a great way to check understanding, as it only requires the students to recognise the word; from here you can move on to saying the word out loud and asking the students to point at the card, and then you point at the card and the students say the word. This simple progression will help to solidify understanding, as it means that your students will hear the word several times before being required to produce it themselves.

Grammar is much more difficult to teach to younger learners than vocabulary, and there are some who believe that it should not even be attempted. However, most of us are pragmatic - if our institution expects us to teach grammar, we ought to meet that expectation. Using the idea of ‘react’ can help to smooth the way for our learners. Using one-word reactions when presenting grammar (I played tennis – present or past?) or when demonstrating key concepts (Teacher says a word e.g. table and students call out noun, verb or adjective) will help to make grammar more approachable.

Do you think any of these six words could be a watchword for your teaching? Which do you currently use, and which would you look to adopt in your own lessons? Do you feel there’s anything missing - does Caspar need a friend to join him?

Author Biography

I started my teaching career in 1989, with International House Turin, Italy. My teaching powers grew as I moved around the network. I worked for IH in Portugal, Spain, and Poland, later assuming roles such as Director of Studies, and CELTA and DELTA trainer; and especially training teachers to teach younger learners. I write and edit for ELT publishers, teach, and train in Kraków, Poland.