Teaching Children

Children Learning Languages

Psychologists have often marvelled as to how children from literally all over the world are all able to effectively learn to speak their language (known as first language or L1). Based on a theory by Noam Chomsky, a popular idea is that learning, and therefore language learning, is innate. This means we are born with the ability to learn a language.

Trying to understand how this is possible, Chomsky came up with a concept called Universal Grammar. This theory suggests that we are born with some grammar rules already programmed into our brain. For example with English we are never taught this is a verb and this is a noun, when we are children and we ask what something is we remember it as a noun and we automatically know where to put it in a sentence.

The importance of teaching children languages

We all say that children are like sponges; that they take in all kinds of information without question. This can specifically be tested when talking about second language acquisition (learning a language that is not native). There have been studies that show that a child’s ability to learn a language dramatically decreases after the age of 11. This means that all over the world a lot of emphasis is being placed on teaching children English.

What to teach children?

Even with our native language children are taught 2 types of language. They are Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills (BICS) and Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP). As the first (BICS) suggests, it is the language we use everyday; it helps us interact with other people and our environment. It is the most important for TEFL teachers,and it is what we concentrate on in our TEFL classroom: everyday life.

As the children get older, we can start to incorporate CALP, but only for basic subjects in English. The situation may differ if you are in an international school where other subjects are delivered in English or if they are preparing to take an English exam. So, unless there is a good reason not to, focus your effort on normal, everyday English.

Understanding Young Learners in a TEFL classroom.

TEFL teachers will rarely be asked to teach children younger than the age of 4. Also, teaching children younger than 10/11 is considered a skill and usually those classes will be given to teachers experienced in teaching that age or teachers keen to teach that age. First, we are going to take a look at some of the issues facing each age group.

4 – 6-Year-Old Children

  • Little understanding of correct behaviour in the classroom. Not sure what is expected of them and need to be taught classroom routines.
  • Motor skills are still being developed, so the children will be clumsy when using a pen or scissors. Copying something or colouring something are still challenging activities.
  • Like to learn holistically. Children this age need the whole body to be stimulated. Playing, touching, moving and singing are good activities to base exercises around.
  • Cannot analyse language or break it down into nouns, verbs etc. so should be taught whole phrases, sentences.
  • Children have very limited writing and reading skills in their own language, so those skills really should be avoided in English. Stick to listening and speaking.
  • No motivation to learn a language. At this age, children don’t see a reason to speak English when people understand them when they speak their first language. Teachers should try to make the reason for speaking English a game or a fun activity. Children should come to English lessons and speak English because it’s great fun!
  • Limited interest. At this age, children will only concentrate on something that interests them; they just don’t have the ability to try and focus on something that doesn’t. For this reason you have to make everything fun or find a way of wrapping what you are trying to teach into a story, game, or something that requires imagination.

7 – 9-Year-Old Children

  • Children start to be logical and analytical. They are able to see patterns in the language and will want to know why something doesn’t fit into the pattern. Once they can see a pattern they then have a desire to experiment. This means the teacher can start to give the children activities where they start to create something using the language taught.
  • At this age, children will start to want to know why. They will ask a lot of questions, and the teacher should be aware that they are going to need the answers.
  • Although their ability to read and write in their own language has developed, they still need support as they may not be comfortable with it just yet.
  • Children will start to have opinions on subjects and also on what they want to talk about. Start to include exercises where they are invited to express their opinion.

10 – 12-Year-Old Children

  • Now children really start to show a longer attention span, which means there doesn’t need to be so many exercises planned per lesson and it also opens up many more exercise ideas.
  • At this age, a child’s knowledge of the world is growing; this means we are now able to include many ideas into our lessons as the children will understand the concepts.
  • Children this age start to understand the seriousness of studying. It doesn’t always need to be fun and you can start to give children responsibility.
  • Children this age start to become less egocentric and consequently we can start to incorporate more group activities.
  • Children will start to develop their own learning style, so you will start to find that children react differently to each topic or exercise. This means you really have to start incorporating differing learning styles into lesson planning.