Questions about teaching Very Young Learners (aged 2-5) (useful links!)

(All links working as of 26/10/2021)

It’s actually ended up as three blogposts, divided into:

The age brackets may seem a little arbitrary – I selected them as they reflected to some extent the age ranges at schools I’ve previously worked for. The posts themselves are mostly a selection of links to answer the questions, rather than my own answers. Please feel free to add extra links in the comments, and let me know if any of the links are broken.

A row of shoes – photo by Vicky Loras from ELTpics, shared under a Creative Commons 2.0 licence

Do you think it is a good idea to start learning English at a very young age (e.g. 2)?

This is an area which has generated quite a lot of research over the years, and as with anything so context-based, the answer seems to be ‘it depends’. Here are some answers to the question that have been shared in the media:

It’s also important to be aware of what such young children are likely to be able to do in their own language at this age. Here’s an example for English-speaking children from an Australian website, but it’s worth looking up for the first language of the children you’re teaching too.

My thoughts are that it depends on what you’re aiming to achieve by sending your child to English classes so young, or by exposing them to the language in other ways such as through English-language TV. If it’s efficiency, then starting to learn when they’re a little older can get them where you want them to be in less time as they can be analytical about the process, and pay attention to rules as well as what they learn from exposure. But starting to learn when they’re younger, enjoying the process and building up a love for the language can increase their motivation and make them want to continue learning.

Are there any specific techniques for teaching very young learners?

First up, it’s important to know what Very Young Learners actually means. Kylie Malinowska can help. She also tells us how they learn and what the practical implications of that are.

Here are some useful tips from Shelly Ann Vernon (with a little advertising of her products in there too)

Lesson planning for very young learners for the everyday and when you find you have to change everything at the last minute, both from Anka Zapart (whose blog features heavily in this post!)

Ten things I wish I had known when I started teaching VYLs by Claire Elliot, a similar article with a slightly different set of tips from London School of Languages, and one more from Andrew Tiffany for National Geographic.

Circle Time by Micaela Carey

Using a puppet – Anka Zapart’s Angelina (including links to extra reading) and Carol Read’s ideas

Using songs – why you should use them and activities you can do with them from Anka, and Kylie tells us what to do if you’re a bit scared of singing with your students

Using jazz chants – Carol Read’s intro/overview, Jane Harding da Rosa on creating chants, with a vocabulary example, and what is and isn’t an example of a chant.

Using storybooks

Using flashcards – Alex Case

Games to play with very young learners

Guessing games

The importance of free play

Sit-down activities, to mix with activities getting them moving

Ideas and activities for VYLs by Dorka Brozik:

Teaching VYLs in a digital classroom by Justyna Mikulak:

How do I make lessons more interactive? How do I keep them busy and interested for more time?

Hand over to the children as much as you can, once you’ve clearly demonstrated an activity. Children learn the word ‘teacher’ very quickly, so you can say ‘Maria, you’re the teacher’ They might not understand at first, but very soon they can take control and be in charge of activities. Here’s one example.

Presenting vocabulary in an engaging way

Ideas for using flashcards in online lessons, all of which are interactive

Listening and speaking activities for online lessons (though they’d work offline too!)

Which tools can I use?

I’m going to interpret this question as ‘What can I use other than a coursebook/worksheet to teach VYLs?’ There are lots of ideas in the techniques above, but here are a few more.

Top 10 favourite EFL tools by Anka Zapart

Super Simple Songs

Project learning to help parents see progress

How much information should I give at once?

Not much! Typical VYL coursebooks introduce 3-4 new items of lexis, or one structure, in a single 45-minute lesson. They also include lots of recycling as children of this age forget quickly.

How do I control discipline? What do I do if they don’t pay attention?

25 strategies to help pre-empt problem behaviour from Carol Read

Routines in the VYL classroom by Lisa Wilson:

Another idea for routines: 15 ways to finish a preschool English lesson, by Alex Case.

The 12 days of managing VYL classes by Kylie

Make the most of classroom management, says Jane Harding da Rosa and add body language to help them understand

Micaela Carey’s ideas for classroom management

Build relationships with the children

What to do when the world begins to fall apart

Things kids bring to class, and what to do about it

15 techniques for calming down a pre-school class

15 variations for large pre-school classes

How do I make them participate?

Think about how old the children are, what kind of activities might appeal to them and what they are able to do developmentally. Make sure you’re choosing activities which are achievable, but which also provide a little challenge, pushing them to learn more.

Remember that they might be going through a silent period – there are still plenty of activities they can do.

Here’s some advice on what to do if children join the class mid-year – they may be reluctant to participate, but there’s a lot you can do to help them.

How do I teach them grammar and phonology?

Most of the teaching you do in the VYL classroom will be based on vocabulary and building chunks of language. Grammar is learnt intrinsically, rather than studied as a separate thing. Here’s some information from Carol Read about how young children learn grammar, and from Michelle Worgan about teaching chunks of language to VYLs.

Phonology is learnt through imitation. The use of songs and jazz chants (see the first question above) can be useful for creating the motivation to imitate the teacher/the materials you use. These are probably the best way to drill new sounds, though you can also play around with the differences between sounds the children are producing and the target sounds. For example, use contrastive drills where you move from one sound to the other and back again, and really emphasise the mouth shape in each position.

Homework: how much and what kind should I give?

A-Z of homework for Very Young Learners, including the answer to the question ‘Should we even think of setting homework for preschoolers?’

Listening homework tasks you can create yourself

Drawing lessons

This page from the British Council has advice for things parents can do at home to support their child’s English learning.

Is it possible to teach them avoiding L1 in class?

Anka Zapart’s beliefs about using L1 in class and some conversations she’s overheard about attitudes to using L1

Micaela Carey’s experience of using L1 with young learners

What do I do if young learners protest against using English?

(in case they already speak and at some point want to use only L1)

To some extent this is answered in the previous question, but I think it’s also worth considering why they are protesting against using English, and whether it’s a one-off or something more regular. Are they bored? Are they uncomfortable in the lesson/group? Are they looking for attention? The answer to this question will help you decide what to do.

If they’re bored, you need to find ways to change your activities, for example by getting them moving around for a few minutes rather than sitting down.

If they’re uncomfortable in the lesson, what can you do to help them relax? Sometimes a time-out, or a chance to sit apart from the group can be useful to allow children time to de-stress. At other times, moving onto a new activity could help.

If they’re uncomfortable in the group, building in activities to help them share with other members of the group and learn a little about their classmates can help, for example, bringing their favourite toy to class.

If they’re looking for attention, follow Anka’s advice.

How do I stay calm? 🙂

Breathe 🙂

Prepare to deal with some common classroom problems

And here’s a first lesson survival kit for working with VYLs.

What blogs can I read?

I added this question 🙂 You’ll notice that a lot of the links come from a limited range of sources, because they’re the blogs I follow which deal with this age group. Please let me know about others!

  • Funky Socks and Dragons – Anka Zapart – very active as I write this (and most of the links here come from Anka’s amazing blog!)
  • Klokanomil – Kylie Malinowska – not currently active, but a great archive
  • Carol Read’s ABC of Teaching Children – not currently active, but a great archive

A super simple flashcard activity

Thank you very much to Anka Zapart, who made planning for my first (cover) lesson with 5-6 year olds today very easy. She recommended working with flashcards of animals, introducing the words and a range of different structures if the kids could cope with it. We ended up sticking to just the basic words, as 3 of the 4 of them were very reluctant to speak at first. There were tears for a few minutes from one of them who told me she wanted her mum, but after sitting away from the group for a bit to calm down she joined back in with us when she was ready.

When trying to use some of the energy, I wanted them to run to the flashcards around the room. This is a pretty standard activity in a physical classroom, but I did it with a twist. The kids stood with their backs against the wall, with both hands flat on the wall. They had to run to the flashcard, touch it, and run back to the same position. This worked really well as a way of stopping them from just standing next to a flashcard to be able to be the first person to touch it.

I was also pleased that I could hand over to them quickly – after only a couple of examples of me running the activity, I made each student the teacher in turn and they decided what flashcard the others would run to it.

All in all, it was a successful lesson (of which this activity was just a small part!), and 45 minutes flew by. Thanks Anka 🙂