Teaching Young Learners

Never lose contact with your inner child!

Teaching junior classes! Some of us love it, others dread it. In the latter case, kindly abstain from ever getting involved with it, lest you discover that it is not the nightmare you feared it would be! No, dear colleagues, I am pulling your leg. Whether you find it is worth your energy or you prefer to teach older students, it is entirely up to you to do so as long as you enjoy the process. But let’s break it down to bits and try to put things in perspective.

Text by: Despoina Aristeidou

First of all, how a person comes in contact with the language for the first time is of vital importance to how their future attitude towards it will be shaped. Therefore, more than simply delivering the vocabulary and grammar expected at that level, our job, in the first years of language education, is to ensure that students enjoy themselves. We need to have enthusiastic, curious, and eager learners. To some students, learning the language may come easy; others might struggle at first. No matter the case, they must all enjoy the class we offer. There are several ways to accomplish this goal.

First things first: it is of paramount importance to personally connect with our students. This might seem hard to do in a large class and nobody expects teachers to do so within their first encounters with the students. Still, slowly and steadily we must learn about them, their personalities, their likes and dislikes to establish the basis for true communication. I cannot forget the video of the primary teacher who had spent time to personally greet each student every morning before entering the classroom with a personal high five/handshake the kids had created! And yes, he remembered all of them! What an inspired educator! Allow me to quote Dr Justin Tarte here, who so elegantly put it: “As educators, the more we know about who we teach, the more effective we will be with what we teach. Taking time to know our students isn’t fluff time, it’s academic time.”

Once a personal touch to communication is established, everybody agrees that we should kick our junior classes off with phonetics. There are sounds that differ from one language to the other. This is what we should familiarise kids with at first and we should do it in a fun and educational manner.

An example of such an activity is to have them hold a small piece of paper in front of their mouths while they try to pronounce their “Ps” and “Ts” for example. If they get the piece of paper to move with the air coming out of their mouths, they know they are on the right track. If they cannot try it out in class because of masks or restrictions, they might try it on their own at home, either alone or with a sibling or a parent as part of a game. Another idea is to have them tell the difference among the several –s sounds by sticking papers on all four walls of the classroom. Here’s how this works: you get 4 pieces of stick-it and write –s on the first, -sh on the second, -ch on the third and maybe –sks or –sts on the last. You stick one to each wall and read out words for them. Whenever they identify a sound, they should run towards the equivalent wall. This is huge fun!

Anything we turn from cognitive to physical will work for the kids. They love using their physicality as much as their brains in the process of learning so we should try to make it so with games, songs, rhymes, storytelling, drama. Should you decide to use tools, make sure to engage some form of bodily movement in it.

And of course, there are fabulous tongue twisters you can use in class, which are great fun! Here’s probably the most well-known: “She sells seashells by the seashore” or “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers” and “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream”! These are but a few ideas. Luckily, we have the wonderful multi-potent technology on our side and through the internet we can find a gazillion ideas to put in good use with the little ones.

Wonderful as these ideas may be, there are also other things to consider while preparing for our junior classes; these have to do with our mentality and work on a deeper level. My advice is to relax, let yourself go, and try to sincerely enjoy the time with the kids by bringing your inner child to the surface. It’s still in there, waiting to be called outside to play. Just let it, it’ll all be fine. Yes, your role must be clear. Yes, you will keep the educator-learner distance. You will do all these things in the years to follow. While you play with the kids, while you’re at it, simply try to enjoy the moment. More than knowledge acquired, what sticks to the memory of the students is the good time you had together and the connection, love, and respect you shared. And this is how the love for the language is sowed so you can reap the results when the time is due. According to a quote presumably attributed to Dalai Lama, “It is vital that when educating children’s brains, we do not neglect to educate their hearts.”