Considerations for Teaching Young Learners

Considerations for Teaching and Assessing Young Learners
Learning English as a Foreign Language

Yael Bejarano – The Open University of Israel
Claire Gordon - The Open University of Israel

World globalization has sparked a growing interest in the teaching of English as a Foreign Language (EFL) to young learners all over the world. In the last few years there has been an explosion of English classes for young learners both in state systems- as part of the school curriculum- and in private language schools all over the world. This surge of interest in the area has led to the publication of methodology books and theoretical research as well as teaching programs. Many of these programs emphasize the importance of using authentic, experiential, motivating and cognitively appropriate language activities.

According to Wright (2002), using storybooks are the most appropriate content for young learner language teaching programs in that stories are motivating to young learners and are appropriate to their cognitive level. Stories serve as an authentic contextual framework through which children are introduced to vocabulary and language structures and through stories children develop literacy skills which help them later in reading and writing.

Since assessment is an integral part of teaching, this paper will focus on both dimensions of teaching and assessing young learners. It will emphasize that the initial foreign language learning experience as well as assessment experience have a strong impact on children’s future learning – therefore assessment as well as learning should be enjoyable, confidence building and successful experiences for the learner.

The paper also suggests that since programs for teaching a foreign language to young learners are relatively new, it is important to design an evaluation plan to accompany program implementation and evaluate effectiveness.

The surge of interest in the teaching of English to young learners has led to growing research in the area from day to day. The debate of "how young is young?" is still on.

I. The Age Debate: How Young is Young?

In this presentation, Young Learners will refer to children of four to ten years of age. Increasingly, though, children as young as three are being formally introduced to English as a foreign language and it seems to us that in many countries the trend to 'go younger' is very much here to stay.
Dr. Susan Curtiss, Professor of Linguistics at UCLA, who studies the way children learn languages, notes that the four- or five-year old learning a second language is a "perfect model for the idea of the critical period." According to Dr. Curtiss:
...the power to learn language is so great in the young child that it doesn't seem to matter how many languages you seem to throw their way...Children can learn as many spoken languages as you can allow them to hear systematically and regularly at the same time. Children just have this capacity. Their brain is just ripe to do this...there doesn't seem to be any detriment to...develop(ing) several languages at the same time. ("Learning Languages,1"(2), 17., 1996 ).
However, as any children's teachers will know, it is not only the children's age that counts in the classroom, but also how mature they are and what kind of practices they experience in the classroom.

II. Conditions Programs should fulfill for Successful Language Learning

The growing interest in the area of Teaching English to Young Learners has led to the publication of methodology books and theoretical research as well as teaching programs. Many of these programs emphasize the importance of using authentic, experiential, motivating and cognitively appropriate language activities, yet the question still remains:

What makes a good instructional program for young learners? We argue that a good EFL program for young learners needs to fulfill several conditions in order for successful language learning to take place.
Tucker (2001) claims that “the validity of the adage `earlier is better’ (in language instruction) would seem to depend… on the optimization of a number of factors. These include… a framework that specifies, fairly explicitly, a set of language, content, cognitive, and affective objectives that are then tied to, or illustrated by exemplary techniques and supported by written materials.

I will therefore suggest a model for EFL program design for young learners, based on the essential conditions mentioned by Tucker and on the importance of the appropriate connection between the "WHAT" goes in the language teaching program and the "HOW" it should be taught (Bejarano 1994), taking into account the young learners' cognitive and affective needs.

Figure 1: A Model for EFL Program Design for Young Learners


IV. Designing an EFL Program for Young Learners

A. Objectives
I will now refer to 2 sets of related objectives:
1. Objectives in the realm of Linguistic Competence

2. Objectives in the realm of the Affective Domain

Since the initial foreign language learning experiences have a strong impact on children's future learning, it is crucial that these experiences should be enjoyable, confidence building and successful for the learner.

1. Linguistic Competence
With regards to the objectives in the realm of the Linguistic Competence, it is our contention that since a child's ability to communicate orally in first language takes place prior to learning how to read and write, an effective EFL program for young learners, should also go through the natural stages of learning a language; namely from basic oral/aural competence development along with emergent literacy skills to reading and writing using those emergent literacy skills that he gained at the aural/oral stage. At the Reading and Writing Stage the learner will make the connection between the emergent Literacy skill that were gained at the Aural Oral Stage and the letters, words and sentences at the Reading and Writing Stage. Aural/Oral competencies will serve a firm basis upon which beginning reading and writing will be developed,
Thus, the first stage in FL instruction for young learners should be developing lexical knowledge and oral communication skills along with oral/aural phonemic awareness and basic Emergent Literacy Skills through story books.
Based on the above theoretical basis, following are the stages that should be reflected in the design of an EFL program for young learners:

Stage 1: The Oral /Aural Stage
- Exposing pupils to the language through natural discourse for authentic purposes
- Developing a broad lexical and linguistic base
- Familiarizing pupils with the sound system of the language (without letters and written words at this stage, just basing on what they hear and say)
- Providing multiple means of language input and use (stories, songs, drama, arts and crafts etc.)
- Providing opportunities for oral interaction in the foreign language to understand and convey meaning.

Emergent Literacy Skills and Phonemic Awareness

- (Adams, M.1995), to be developed along with oral/aural skills(Pre- reading and writing), building on the content through which instruction takes place (e.g. story books), and to be applied at the Beginning Reading and Writing Stage.
- Understanding the conventions of print and the alphabetic principle.
- Understanding the concept of “What is a book?”
- Understanding directionality (left to right)
- Understanding the Story Genre
- Predicting and confirming predictions
- Constructing meaning based on oral and visual clues
- Fostering the ‘Joy of Reading’

Stage 2: The Beginning Reading and Writing Stage

- Sound/Letter correspondences and Phonemic Awareness; Familiarizing pupils with the sound system of the language and making the connection between sounds the learner is familiar with from the oral/aural stage and the written letters.
- Segmenting sounds
- Blending sounds
- Manipulating sounds
- Rhyming sounds
- Decoding
- Reading and writing short CVC words
- Identifying site words
- Reading and constructing meaning of simple sentences
- Reading and constructing meaning of short texts
- Reading a story and understanding its message.

2. Affective Domain

- Positive initial experience with the foreign language
- Creating a supportive classroom environment
- Building pupils’ confidence in their knowledge and ability to understand and use the language
- Promoting self esteem by providing “successful experiences” in learning EFL.
- Allowing pupils to use the language in a non-threatening environment
- Providing motivation for language learning by incorporating colorful, interesting and attractive materials and visuals.

B. Content

1. Authentic Children’s Literature

The literature on early childhood language instruction supports the use of children’s literature for child language development and learning. Using a story based approach in foreign language instruction for young learners is advantageous in that it develops the young learner's communicative, cognitive and social skills while taking into account young learners’ interests and affective needs.

Ghosn (2002) lays out four good reasons for using authentic literature with young learners:

a. Stories provide motivating, meaningful context for language learning since children are naturally drawn to stories.
• Stories deal with universal themes of literature: Children everywhere can identify with fear, courage, hope, love, belonging and the need to achieve. Children have a constant need for stories and are always willing to listen to them. Stories are motivating, engaging and capture the imagination
• Children want to find meaning in a story and are motivated to develop comprehension skills such as predicting, searching for meaning and guessing in context. (Andrew Wright, 2002).
• Literature can promote development of understanding of self and the world. (Bettleheim, 1976)

b. Stories can contribute to language learning.
• Stories provide a rich source of contextualized language for language enrichment and vocabulary acquisition and reinforcement.
• Stories support oral language development by providing an authentic context for verbal interaction; dialogue, discussion and role play. They encourage natural communication through listening and responding to questions through exchange of ideas and natural expression of likes and dislikes (Wright, 1995, 2002).

c. Literature can promote literacy and thinking skills
• Literature develops higher order thinking skills through question and answer interactions, personal responses and reflection
• Literature familiarizes pupils with the storybook genre which facilitates the acquisition of reading and comprehension.

d. Literature can function as a change agent:
• Good literature deals with aspects for the human condition and thus can contribute to the emotional development of the child and foster positive interpersonal and intercultural attitudes.
• Goleman (1995) Literature… demonstrates that there is always hope and that one can overcome obstacles. It can foster empathy and tolerance.

2. Familiarity of Content

The vocabulary, language structures and topics which form the basis of the program should be taken from the child’s world of daily experiences (such as home and family, school, animals etc). By choosing familiar topics the pupils can relate more easily to the language learning experience. The stories provide a natural context for understanding and using the language.

C. Teaching Techniques

In order to accommodate different learning styles and maintain young learner’s interest, the teaching techniques and activities must be varied. In addition the techniques and activities should be appropriate to the learners’ cognitive level as well as take into account the learners’ affective needs. The techniques used should allow students to work at the class level –chorale response; read aloud together with teacher etc; small group level – for negotiating, sharing ideas and creating group products; pair work – for enabling pupils to engage in dialogues and oral interactions and individual level – which allow pupils to think about, internalize, practice and apply what they have been learning.

D. Activities

The activities should provide multiple sources of language input and opportunities for reinforcement, internalizing and using the language. The activities must be multi-sensory which cater to the needs of pupils with different learning preferences – singing; arts and crafts; listening to stories; acting out; solving puzzles; playing games etc.

V. Assessing Young Learners’ EFL Learning

Assessment has various purposes – formative, for assessing progress and summative for assessing whether instructional goals have been achieved. It has been noted in the literature that young learners may not perform to the best of their ability on formal standardized tests due to the time and pressure constraints and general lack of experience with this mode of assessment. In addition, the use of tests has a strong impact on the self esteem of young learners particularly on whether they perceive themselves as ‘successful’ or not which will then affect their attitudes toward learning the language and future achievements (Wortham, 2000, 2005).

In order to allow pupils to demonstrate what they know and can do, assessment in the foreign language should be a natural outcome of what they do in the classroom setting.
When assessing young learners, the following considerations should be kept in mind:
• Assessments should be an integral part of the teaching / learning process – each lesson is an opportunity for assessment.
• Methods of assessment should recognize that young children need familiar contexts and familiar activities which ‘mirror’ the things they do regularly in class, in order to be able to demonstrate their abilities.
• Information on all dimensions of learning should be monitored: affective and social as well as linguistic and cognitive.
• The emphasis of assessment should be on “Can Do” – finding out what the pupils can do and what they still need help with.
• Assessments should be appropriate to age level in terms of content and cognitive demands.
• The teacher should find time to sit with each pupil individually to reflect on learning and allow the pupil to express his/her feelings about his/her learning.

In the young learner classroom, the teacher should focus on formative assessment activities - to provide information which will benefit the pupils’ learning as well as inform instruction. To this end, assessment should be viewed as an ongoing process of collecting information on the pupils’ abilities, difficulties and progress. The most effective means of collecting this information is by observing pupils in the classroom setting, recording their performance as they are engaged in activities and reviewing samples of their work over time. In addition to on-going informal assessments, periodic summative assessment procedures can be used to measure achievements and indicate what goals have been achieved after an extended period of instruction.

Following are some techniques for assessing young learners progress and achievements:
• Checklists: these are easy to use and can be done regularly
• Self Assessment Activities: these allow pupils to reflect on their learning and express their feelings about their learning.
• Short Questionnaires which can indicate what pupils like and don’t like; what is easy and what they find difficult
• Short Assessment Activities which focus on core elements which everyone should have mastered.
• Anecdotal Observation sheets
• Review of pupils’ workbooks and tasks that they have completed provide ongoing evidence of learning and achievement.
• Pictures and storybooks that are used in the classroom can serve as stimuli for questions, answers and communication.
• Formal assessments: individually administered or class tests

VI. Evaluation of Programs for Young Learners

Since programs for teaching a foreign language to young learners are relatively new, it is important to design an evaluation plan to accompany program implementation and evaluate effectiveness. Information should be collected from a number of sources, including school principals, teachers, pupils and parents. The evaluation data will provide information which will help improve the program and understand how young learners learn.

VII Summary

In light of the model for EFL program design presented in this paper, it is clear that when teaching young learners, in addition to the linguistic objectives of the program, attention should also be paid to the social, affective and cognitive domains of learning. These should be taken into account when deciding upon the content of the program, the instructional activities and teaching techniques as well as when assessing the young learner. Remember! Children’s initial foreign language learning experience as well as assessment experiences have a strong impact on their future learning – therefore they should be enjoyable; confidence building and “successful” experiences for the learner.
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