Teaching English for young learners and teens can be seen as an exhausting and even frustrating experience by some teachers. In language institutes it is sometimes possible for the teachers to choose the age group they want to work with. More often than not, I have seen colleagues fearing or, at times, even refusing to teach groups of young learners for a whole semester. This has always called my attention, as kids are my favorite age group to teach. So, I felt curious and tried to understand why.
Whenever I asked a colleague in the teachers’ room about the reasons why they were so reluctant about teaching young learners, the answers were mostly related to disruptive behavior and tiredness: “kids demand too much energy”, “they transform our lives in a nightmare”, “they refuse to behave”, and so on.
Well, it is true that teaching young learners might take some extra energy from the teacher. But is it really because “they refuse to behave?” Do they refuse to behave or do we forget that certain attitudes are natural in children?
Before making assumptions and generalizations, it is important that we have a clear understanding of what is, in fact, disruptive behavior and what is just part of the expected attitude and characteristics of each age group. Basically, we should know who we are teaching, how their learning process takes place according to their age and profile, what is a favorable learning environment for a specific age group, what students’ cognitive abilities are and so on and so forth. Did you know, for example, that having routines is extremely important for young learners and it helps them to feel less anxious? According to Carol Read, “The introduction of classroom routines is instrumental in setting up working parameters which function effectively.” (Read, 2005, Managing Children Positively). Try having a routine chart in the classroom and begin every lesson by informing learners about what activities and in which sequence they will happen throughout the day. As each activity is concluded, remove it from the chart or, even better, invite a student to do so. This will provide them with a sense of accomplishment and the desire to move on to the next task and get it done.
Research show that children have shorter attention spans and can easily get distracted. But Joan K. Shin and Joann Crandall say that if involved in activities that are meaningful and fun for them, young learners can concentrate for longer periods of time. Furthermore, they say that “Teachers should try to engage children with fun activities that arouse their curiosity and imagination.” (Shin and Crandall, 2013, Teaching Young Learners English: From Theory to Practice). Talking to peer teachers who work with similar age groups about their practices and sharing yours is a great way of getting new ideas of fun activities to try with your learners. Also, there are lots of blogs and websites focused on practical ideas to teach children where you will probably find interesting and fun activities that suit your groups. The more different things you try in the classroom, the more your repertoire will grow.
Another crucial point to be observed and carefully analyzed is related to our own expectations as teachers. Aren’t we, at times, expecting kids to behave like they are not kids? Are we aware of our students’ emotional, social, physical and cognitive needs? What are we, as teachers, doing so our interactions with our students work out all right? Do we look at them as human beings who are at a different development stage from ours (and consequently have different necessities and behaviors) or do we see our learners as the characters of the perfect, silent and absolutely neat classroom that only exists in our sweetest dreams? Based on research and on my own teaching experience, I strongly believe that stepping into a room full of 7-year-old kids expecting that they will act like adults is definitely not the best strategy and this is probably one of the main causes of frustration, not the students.
You have probably noticed that this post brought more questions than answers, right? My aim here was to provoke important reflections about the reasons why some teachers avoid teaching young learners and the importance of knowing each age group and their characteristics.
In this sense, if you have been struggling with your young learners, I invite you to take a step back and reflect upon your relationship with them and your current teaching practices. Ask yourself some questions about what you have been expecting of children and what you have been doing to improve both yours and their experience in the classroom. Dig deeper and learn more about who they are, how their brain works and the messages their behavior might be sending you, if you want to relate to young learners in a smoother way. At the end of the day, it’s a lot about understanding what they are trying to tell us and finding the right ways to get our message across. The more we know about our students, the easier it will get to communicate effectively with them.
Larissa Azevedo is a teacher, teacher trainer and material editor. She has been involved in ELT and bilingual education for over 13 years, throughout which she has worked with students of all ages and levels. Currently she works as an Academic Consultant at Troika.