Review: Teaching and Learning English in the Early Years by Carol Read

Review: Teaching and Learning English in the Early Years by Carol Read

Reviewed by Christopher Walker

If you want to learn more about teaching younger learners, there are worse people that you could turn to than Carol Read. Read has three decades of experience in the world of education, and has become something approaching a household name in EFL. However, she is not one to rest on her laurels, quite clearly, because Teaching and Learning English in the Early Years is a big book full of information and activities, the likes of which you would expect to find being produced by an up-and-comer desirous of establishing a reputation for themselves.

I imagine many teachers, famously short on time as we are, might be tempted to skip the introduction, but that would be an error here as the first pages of this volume serve multiple purposes. Sure, they set out the plan for the book and let you know what to expect - that the activities will be fit for use with younger students, and that there will be an organisational scheme to help you find what you need across the 400-plus pages of the resource - but besides that, they also provide a theoretical framework for the activities that will itself teach you much about the fundamental ingredients of working with this age group, not to mention that the energy and vigour of these pages will have you looking forward to your next young learner class. And speaking as a teacher who tends not to enjoy this age range as much as others, that’s something that I can readily appreciate and see the value of!

Beyond that Introduction, the book works chapter by chapter through twenty-six topics related to early years education, beginning with A for Agency and Autonomy and concluding with Z for Zzzz and Zest - so, yes, as with many books in the activity-resource genre, there is a little bit of shoehorning of ideas to fit into a scheme that, I suppose, makes for an easier sales proposition. Not that I would be turned off the book if it didn’t have twenty-six chapters, or if a letter or two of the alphabet had been skipped - but these are minor quibbles.

That first chapter is a strong one, especially given the minefield that agency and autonomy represent in early education. I have tried to give my younger learners some sense of autonomy, but this has often led to almost insurmountable classroom management issues, not to mention drifting rather far from where we were supposed to be in the syllabus - both of which issues Read discusses and offers remedies for. One of my problems was that I failed to communicate what I wanted or expected from the students. As Read says, “By establishing clearly defined parameters for learning, you create a safe environment in which children feel secure and are able to take risks, experiment, make decisions and choices, and act autonomously” (p11). Already I feel on firmer ground. The activities that Read describes over the next dozen pages will help provide the necessary parameters to help my students realise that much-sought-for autonomy.

I found C for Class puppet and communication to offer an expansion of ideas I had already been exposed to, most notably through the advice and guidance of James Savery, who wrote about his Caspar acronym for young learners in Issue 50 of the IH Journal. I must admit to finding it a challenge to use puppets in class - I’m into my forties, and it seems unbecoming to attach a recycled sock to my hand and treat the thing with the seriousness and sincerity required to win over a young audience - but reading Read’s advice here (such as on designating a home for the puppet when it isn’t being used, and making sure that the puppet interacts equally and fairly with all of the members of the class) has made me feel a touch more keen. The activities are simple yet likely to be much more effective through the use of a puppet - Mind Reader, which recycles vocabulary by having the students guess which of several objects the puppet is thinking about, simply couldn’t work at all if I were to play the role myself: the students would think I was cheating them if I did. Sometimes you can forgive a puppet for things you would never forgive a teacher for.

I shall limit myself to one more example before I draw this review to a close - I could easily find myself wanting to describe every great activity, which is a pointless task when the book is there waiting to be read and put to use. The chapter O is for Outdoor activities and projects is a welcome inclusion even for a teacher like me who works in Poland, where the school’s garden is necessarily off-limits for 90% of the school year because of the weather. But that’s no reason not to enjoy this foray into what the world around us can do for our teaching, and I am all in favour of getting our younger students out of the classroom whenever possible. I know that there are more and more primary schools that teach using the communicative methodology of EFL - there’s even a primary school loosely connected to the language school that I work for - so the projects here, along with the approach Read lays out for making a success of the work, will definitely provide support and guidance to my colleagues who are lucky enough to teach STEM classes. While there are resources that benefit the STEM community, it’s good to see that a more classically-oriented EFL resource also looks to its pedagogical neighbours.

And that brings to a close my review of this book. You will have gathered by now that I liked it, and I find no difficulty in recommending Carol Read’s work here as much as I would recommend anything else she has produced over the years.