The idea of teaching a language to a child who has yet to master their own can seem daunting to say the least. However, in many ways it is a wonderful time to both learn and teach. Here are a few pointers to anyone who is taking their first steps into the world of Very Young Learner (VYL) teaching.
It’s all about routines
Children need routines. They make them feel safe, secure and confident about what is happening. This is true of their daily lives but even more so in the language classroom where they may understand little of the language being used, certainly at the start of the course anyway. Lesson plans should have the same structure each week so for example, each lesson always start by sitting in a circle and singing a hello song. In an ideal world your classroom could have marked zones for different activities, say a carpet and a selection of stories for the reading zone and little tables and chairs with crafts equipment for making things. However, if this is not the case you can always make do with what you have as long as the space is safe. Aside from tables, an area for circle time is really key. You can use anything to mark out a circle: coloured mats, flashcards or even a ring of masking tape where you can present and practice language with the children’s full attention.
As well as routines for different parts of the lesson you can also think about transitions, so moving from one area or task to the next or tidying up.
Routines also keep children occupied and occupied children are less likely to get up to mischief! When it comes to rules, VYL just don’t have the language to follow explicit instructions. The best way to transmit your expectations is by overtly praising the children who are doing what you want, the rest will then follow suit. The most important thing is to be consistent and fair, then they’ll soon get the hang it. Remember, for many VYL this could be their first ever time in the classroom, it’s a brand new experience.
Silence is OK!
No one expects a baby to be born and then start having a chat with their parents, right? A silly example but by the same token why should we expect a VYL to start producing English in their early English lessons? Krashen spoke of the silent, or pre-production period and we should be aware that this doesn’t mean nothing is going on – in fact quite the opposite. Cogs are whirring behind the scenes as the children are processing the language. We can assess their understanding through using receptive activities, those that require understanding and not production. An example of which could be a treasure hunt. After teaching colours, the teacher hides coloured flashcards around the room. The teacher then asks students to ‘find the red flashcards’. Provide plenty of exposure to the language and with time, and in their own time, children will also start producing it too.
Keep it moving
3 – 6 year olds are not renowned for keeping still – and neither should they! Including lots of movement and kinaesthetic activities in your classes will keep children engaged and can also help with meaning – think about Total Physical Response activities, such as stand up, sit down, jump. What better way to learn than by doing? Make use of children’s vivid imaginations and get them to mime animals and play ‘let’s pretend’. As well as physically moving, lessons should have a good pace too. Attention spans are short and we should plan for this, creating lessons with a series of short activities and a balance of calming activities with more active ones, often referred to as settlers and stirrers.
What’s the linguistic aim?
A common mistake with teaching VYL is teachers can get so wrapped up in preparing wonderful crafts, games and activities to keep the children engaged and entertained that the linguistic aim behind the task is lost. Keep your aim in mind, what is the vocabulary or language point you are introducing or practising? How will the craft or game provide opportunities for the children to produce or demonstrate understanding of the language? If it doesn’t, consider whether it’s the best use of your valuable class time.
It’s a real honour to work with VYL and be part of the first steps they take on their language learning journey. It certainly takes a great deal of energy as well as plenty of time for good planning and preparations, however, the rewards are infinite.
Kate Knight is a freelance Teacher Trainer based in the UK. She started her ELT career in 2007 first as a teacher, then Senior Teacher, Young Learner Coordinator, and Director of Studies. In her various academic management roles she has served as a mentor for hundreds of teachers. She is most passionate about teaching children and teenagers and is the main course tutor on both the IH VYL and IH CYLT. She is both CELTA and DELTA-qualified.