Andrea Littlewood Speaks for IH at APPI

37th Annual Conference 10 to 12 May: The Future of Education, EFL Challenges

Andrea Littlewood, IH Madrid

Keeping them curious: Ideas to help us engage our young learners

We're often told that children are innately curious but what are they curious about? Can their curiosity make them better language learners? How can we stimulate their curiosity and channel it to engage them in class and allow them to take a more active role in their learning? Can curiosity be a life skill they will continue to develop?

With an invitation to the 37th Annual APPI conference, 10 to 12 May, I set off to Braga, curious to see if my abstract and workshop would interest the Portuguese Association of Teachers of English.

So, what is curiosity?

According to cognitive scientist Elizabeth Bonawitz, curiosity is innate in all humans — a sensation much like hunger or thirst. “Curiosity acts as a kind of filter you put over the world to help the mind decide what information to attend to,” she says. “It’s a physiological response that helps drive action and decision-making to support learning.”

That’s quite an inspiring quote but how do we make sure we keep curiosity in mind when lesson planning?

Our course books help with an increased focus on promoting curiosity. They encourage our learners to reflect and ask questions and provide language support for them to express their curiosity. However, it’s also worth creating our own selection of ideas to suit our groups and teaching context.

  • Curiosity about each other

Try giving your young learners questions to complete with information they are happy to share. Did you know I like/don’t like __? Did you know I can _? Did you know I’ve been to___? Did you know I’d like to visit__? They then share their questions with their class. Encourage positive reactions which will help them to continue speaking Really! I didn’t know that! That’s interesting! Why? Take note of the information and create a memory task. Who doesn’t like chocolate? Who’s been to Stockholm? Who can speak Chinese? Ask the class what they found interesting about the activity.

Every year Time Magazine chooses a Person of The Year. Ask your students to imagine that they have been chosen for a year in the future. Give them time to think of their future selves. Add some guidance. Where do you live? How long have you lived there? What have you done to be chosen? I’ve enjoyed reading the choices the children have made from a famous businessman and a violinist to an archaeologist and Formula 1 driver.

  • Curiosity about famous people

Ask your learners which famous person they would like to invite to class. They give reasons for their choice. They then write questions to ask their person. These could be about their family, their last holiday, their future, their daily routine. You can also display the names of the famous people around the room and encourage the rest of the class to write down further questions. Does the original student have the answers or will they need to investigate? This can lead to a role play with the children becoming the person they would like to meet and giving real answers or creating answers to the questions. Can they decide what information was made up?

It’s useful to include a K _ W _ L chart to engage our children further, whether they want to find out about a famous person or a topic. What do I know? What do I want to know? (I wonder!) What I have learned?

Ask your young learners how they are going to find their information. I’m going to ask my family at home. I’m going to look on the internet/I’m going to look at my history textbook. Get feedback on their success. Was it easy to find? Why/Why not?

Get your learners to prepare interviews for their families. It could be an aunt, uncle, parent or grandparent, (They can always help the person with their English!)

E.g. When you were (age) what TV programmes did you watch? What did you do at the weekend?

Sharing curiosity in reading texts.

A reader response code might encourage our learners to share their thoughts and opinions about what they read.

  • ! This is interesting.
  • :) This makes me feel happy (or an emoji for sad, angry)
  • ? I don’t understand this.
  • X I don’t agree with this.
  • Generating curiosity to write a story.

Choose a basic sentence with very little information. E.g. A boy walked down a street. Divide the class into groups to create questions e.g. How old was the boy? Where was he going? The groups exchange papers and can build up more questions. They then choose the questions they think would help them write the first paragraph.

  • Being curious about learning.

Speak to your groups about a language you have learned or are learning. Explain what you find curious about it compared to your first language. Share anecdotes to about misunderstandings you have had due to the meaning of an expression you’ve used incorrectly or a word you’ve found difficult to pronounce.

At the end of each class try and give time for informal feedback. What did you enjoy most /least about today’s class? What did you find most useful? What are your favourite new words from today? Why?

  • Minimum preparation

E.g. Take three piles of flashcards (Family/animals/places) Turn over one flashcard at a time: sister, pig, supermarket. Focus on your language point.

What did your sister do when she saw a pig in the supermarket? The class answers the question. How many different answers can you get?

  • Can you ever be too curious?

Curiosity killed the cat, is a warning about asking too many questions. Sometimes our learners need to accept that English can be different. At times we simply need to get them back on task too e.g. Let them see the plane fly over the school, which is distracting them and get them to sit down again afterwards or ask briefly to think Where is the plane going? Who is on the plane?

What’s next?

I’m sure we all want to see our young learners come back year after year. We can encourage them to think ahead, with a look at their future course book, topics, activities and projects. We could invite the higher level children to come and speak to them or write to them about their level and what they have enjoyed most They may have advice to share about learning to learn when the content becomes more complex.

On a final note, the APPI conference has given me the opportunity to stop and think too. It was a wonderful opportunity to speak to so many speakers (many from IH Portugal) to enjoy the enthusiasm of all the teachers. I’m now curious as to what to add to my workshop and what other talks I can focus on to ensure our young learners can be engaged with classes that are meaningful in a world that is complex but also full of wonder..