Are you a first-time Young Learner teacher?

Over the last few years I’ve found it increasingly difficult to find teachers who are keen to teach Young Learners or who are indeed ready to teach this age group. I put it down to the fact that our University courses in Languages generally prepare teachers to work with an older age-group (due to the manner in which our school curriculum is distributed). In addition, when student teachers do TP, it’s hardly ever with younger learners.

The irony of this all is that I often see graduates who’ve just started teaching being assigned a class of Young Learners. I think there often is a grave misconception which goes something like this: if you’re young, you’ll be a great YL teacher because you’ve just come out of college brimming with energy and enthusiasm.

Hmm, that might be the case, but being an energetic teacher is not even half of what you need in order to be able to teach YLs effectively. There’s so much more to it!

This is how it was with me, about twenty odd years ago! I unashamedly confess to being completely lost with my group of 10- year-olds! (I started off with a class of Young Learners, an Upper-Intermediate group and a CPE class! What variety!)

I had absolutely no idea how to teach these YLE kids. Maybe it was a cultural factor (I had in fact trained as a primary teacher in the UK, but my seven-year-olds we a far cry from the Brazilian 10-year-olds); or maybe I was simply unsure how to teach a foreign language to kids.

Whatever it was, I am indebted to my life-saving mentor: Ingrid, a specialist in teaching young learners. She was my teacher/mentor with this group of kids and I can only imagine her horror as she observed an entire lesson being taught by yours truly on items of clothing without using a single piece of realia!!!! Yes, I confess to having inflicted this punishment on those poor kids who just looked at me, imploringly, as if to say: what on earth are you on about! (I think their looks will haunt me for ever and ever….).

As I finished teaching the lesson, I knew something was seriously wrong. But I didn’t know what it was. I did feel tears welling up (gosh, some of us are so emotive when we’re young), but held back and looked at Ingrid feebly. Looking back, this was indeed a make or break moment for me as a teacher. The only thing was that I wasn’t really aware of this then. With great skill Ingrid helped me see where I went wrong and I understood the importance of modelling, the use of repetition and, most of all, the use of realia to bring things to life in a YL classroom.

What did she make me do? She made me teach the same lesson again the following week and she said she would observe me again! Wow! Lucky I listened to her! It changed my understanding of how to teach young learners.

Not quite sure how much better the second lesson was, but she must have felt it went fine. Well, I at least I got some really good feedback from one of my little 10 year-olds: “Valéria, agora eu entendi tudo!” (Valéria, I’ve now understood everything!”) Phew! What a relief!

So, today when I observe teachers teaching young learners I can’t help but remember my own initiation into this very specific area of teaching EFL. I still think it requires a teacher who is able to deal with so many different skills and abilities in terms of classroom management (but these we can, of course, learn as we gain more experience). But above all, it requires teachers who enjoy letting themselves go a bit, either when they are singing a song or telling a story; it requires someone who enjoys being hugged (here in Brazil we don’t have many hang-ups yet about kids touching us or vice-versa for that matter, although things are changing gradually); it requires someone who can deal with the children’s parents (and that’s quite a skill); it requires teachers who are willing to get their hands and clothes dirty with paint; teachers who let kids sharpen their pencils for the umpteenth time; who wipe clean children’s noses, who patiently listen to and sing the same songs probably over 100 times in the same term; who laugh at the oldest jokes ever and pretend they’ve never heard it before; who put on funny voices when using puppets; who successfully break up any fight about lending and borrowing the red felt tip pen and who in these wonderful but challenging days of inclusive education, are also able to embrace children with SEN into their classes.

Yes, quite a demanding challenge isn’t it? And we still ask graduates to have a go, quite often with very little guidance or training!  How wrong!

So, if you have ever been in a situation similar to the one I experienced or are actually going through this now, how did you cope / are coping with it? Who has helped you? How have you been able to develop your teaching skills in this field of EFL?

I would love to read your comments.

14 Comments

  1. Hi Valeria!
    I have to say you are so right about how difficult it is to teach young learners. Although it seems fun from the outside, it takes a lot of energy to deal with very young learners, but above all, you need lots of imagination and patience because they get bored very easily. But if you love kids, I think this will come easier after a while.

  2. Hi Valéria!

    Thank you for the very sincere sharing of your experience. I could picture you teaching the second class and how rewarding it must have been to have received such positive feedback from your young student.

    I had the great luck of being trained to teach children by Debora Schisler at Seven. I remember studying David Vale\’s book and having supervised training classes before actually starting to teach young learners. At first, I didn\’t have a clue of where to start and these sheltered sessions really helped me to reach students properly, specially because I had lots of modelling and I could see that other trainees were also struggling.

    I believe that one main aspect is that children learn most by playing games, listening to stories, making puppet plays and moving around in English. The challenge is for still insecure novice teachers to let go of some control to be truly together with their students, giving them time to express themselves and to listen to their words and silences. And once the connection is made the magic happens, there\’s friendship, laughter, learning, and many lovely memories!

    Allowing young teachers to start teaching young learners without former training and continuous support is very inadequate to me, as this practice sets teachers for failure in the beginning of their careers and it provides young learners a confusing, stressing and demotivating environment at the beginning of their English learning. This sad and recurring situation might happening be due to the fact that many school owners and coordinators are still unaware of the complexities of teaching children and patronize both teachers and young learners. More than inadequate, it\’s extremely disrespectful.

    Good that we are here Valéria connected together to many other dedicated teachers of YLs to share, give support, and develop this precious field!

    Send you a big hug,

    Juan
    @jaluribe

  3. Hi Valeria,

    Enjoyed this post! I think it’s funny how with CELTA, you get maybe half a session on YL but then when you arrive at your new language school, they “start you off” with YL classes and then you have to “graduate” to the older learners you were trained to teach. Luckily for me, prior to getting my CELTA (Several years prior in fact) I spent a year in France as part of my degree, doing a British Council language assistanceship, basically teaching 8-10 year olds English at a couple of primary schools in Poitiers. But again, training wasn’t forthcoming. So, even more luckily for me, my mum was an EFL teacher who taught primary school kids, in a special unit of her own creation at the school, so I’ve been exposed to it for as long as I can remember. So at least I wasn’t starting with a blank slate, which must be pretty daunting!!

    I plan to do the CELTYL bolt-on to my CELTA in the next year, hopefully, as I want to increase my skills in this aspect of teaching.

    Glad you found a good mentor to help you get to grips with it, that is so important…

    Cheers,
    Lizzie. 🙂

  4. Hi Valeria,

    I was just trawling the net for inspiration – I have three kids’ classes today – and I stumbled on your blog. (I’ve been teaching adults and adolescents for decades, but I started with children’s classes really this October, and though I haven’t had any disasters yet, it can still terrify me. I still feel as if I haven’t got an approach or a methodology or a bag of tricks yet. Hope you’ll post more on this in the future.

    PS Am I being stupid? – I can’t find the subscribe button.

    1. Hi Alan,

      Glad you enjoyed the post. I can understand the feeling terrified bit – it is quite daunting to face those keen little faces!!! I have actually started a site/blog where I hope teachers share their experiences and thoughts. You mightlike to ahve a look: http://teachingyounglearnersthechalleng.weebly.com

      There is a subscribe button – below the post dates – it says sign up via e-mail.
      Let me know if this isn´t working.

      Thanks for commenting and sharing your experience with me.
      Hope your classes continue going well.

      Valéria

  5. Hi Valeria,

    So very true! I also have the impression that newbies are assigned a class of YL because there’s often this belief that a teacher of young learners doesn’t need to be very experienced or a very proficient user of English since the content to be taught is “easy”.

    However, teaching children does require a lot more skills (people + teaching) as you accurately mention. As I see it, it requires the most experienced teachers, especially when teaching very young learners!

    Having started teaching children “professionally” at the age of 14 (who was the “crazy” school owner who hired me?), I think I was really lucky to have succeeded. (Or maybe lucky to have teaching skills in my blood. Literally!)

    Regards,

    Marcia

    1. Hi Marcia,

      I would agree with you 100% It´s a mistake to think that teaching young learners is easy. There are so many factors involved!
      But glad you have a “success story” to share with all of us.

      Take care,
      Valéria

  6. Teaching young kids is very similar to motherhood. It can be incredibly exhilarating, frustrating, exhausting and envigorating. As you mentioned, a teacher (just like a mother) needs to be able to ‘let go’ – make silly voices, sit on the floor and see things through childrens’ eyes. At the same time, the educator needs to keep face and maintain a delicate balance between being friendly and being firm. I think that every teacher training session should include what I’d call ‘In their shoes’ session. We need to be able to visualize the learner’s world – in this case know which cartoon charaters/popstars/actors are in and which are past their sell-by date. It’s also worth rememebering what it’s like to be to be the youngest/shortest/the one who wears braces etc.

    I’m coming back to teaching children after a few years of ‘specializing’ in teens/adults and it’s too early to say if I’ve improved or not. The fact is that now, as a mother of two, I can understand children better and I know what they are capable of. I’m aware of how short their attention span is, how they enjoy music and games and how much they need an adult who provides them with suitable challenge and a clear set of rules.

    What I find most motivationg is the sharing that goes on in the teachers’ room – I think that colleagues are the most valuable resource when it comes to dealing with children. It’s vital that teachers don’t give up on any learners, that they keep looking for solutions and have no fear to ask for help. The smartest teachers also know that they can learn a lot by sharing and helping their peers.

    1. Hi Mila,

      You make a very important point which is based on being able to see things from the learners´ point of view. For those of us who are mums or dads etc. we necessarily are immersed in this “infantile” world. So, one of the things I actually suggest novice YLE teachers do is spend a Sunday morning watching a couple of hours of Discovery Kids; I ask them to go to the local bookshop and sit a couple of hours in the children´s books section looking through the books and actually observing children as they choose books and look through them.
      This can be quite revealing.

      And I would agree with you, sharing with colleagues is fundamental – we learn so much from them.

      Thanks for your ideas and for sharing here,
      Valéria

  7. Wow Valéria!

    Thank you for sharing your experiences as a teacher of young learners. I will agree with you at the point where you mention that university does not prepare teachers entirely to teach young learners – I believe that this focus is missing from some academic programs. It was not fully present in my studies at university either and I felt so bad about it; in the beginning I was terrified of the idea that one day I had to teach children and I did not know how.

    The presence of mentors is also pivotal – I have to say that mine was and is my eldest sister! She has such a gift for teaching young learners and she has taught me so many things.

    Thank you so much for this post – it was a very moving one, as I remembered how I started off 11 years ago…lovely of you to share your experiences with us too!

    Kindest regards,
    Vicky

    1. Hi Vicky,

      Thanks ever so much for your very kind comments. It is very conforting to have a mentor to help us out – I actually think this is one of the very best ways for us to engage in the learning teaching bit of our profession.
      I suppose it is up to us to begin ensuring novice teachers don´t have to go through the difficulties we faced when we began teaching YLEs – why is this pattern repeated over and over again?
      Take care,
      Valéria

  8. These days I don’t teach kids, but it isn’t something intentional. I had more opportunities to work with teenagers and mainly adults.

    To tell you the truth, the little experience I had with children was somewhat terrifying. I worked in a course, the one I had studied English for during my childhood and teenager years, and everybody had an “English-oriented” name – ‘Flávia’ would be ‘Fanny’ and ‘Mariana’ would be ‘Maryan’, that sort of thing – and children had more games in English and saw movies, sang songs, no grammar subjects and no writing.

    I was asked to be an assistant to a teacher who didn’t want to teach that group of 7-year-old children anymore and I was supposed to sub for her when she couldn’t be in class. I felt like a ‘filler-teacher’, since they told me never to create my own stuff, I could only work with the material I was given. I was a newbie and agreed to it. I was very, very shy and that was a big problem at the time, plus I didn’t know any good classroom management strategies and, well, one day one student entered crying, I knelt to talk to her, it was a 5 seconds thing and the class was in the most complete mess. I thought ‘Ok. Let me handle the crying one and then settle the rest’. Boy, was I wrong! While I was trying to say something nice to the crying student, another one just climbed my back and stood over my head.

    I was able to control the situation afterwards, but it was hard and, in fact, a little traumatizing. To this day, whenever I have a group of kids I always think that maybe it will all become a hurricane-like situation and one of them will step all over me.

    I hope one day I’ll be able to teach young learners again, but before that I know I have to seek for specific training in the field, because classroom management with youngsters is still a problem for me. I know the theory, I guess everybody knows it, but the real deal is very, very different from the books, since kids are very unpredictable!

    1. Hi Mariana,

      Thanks very much for sharing your experience with us here. I am fully aware that it’s because of difficult situations such as the one you described that many teachers feel frustrated and decide to steer away from teaching YLEs. Yes, it can be a traumatic situation and then, like anything that scars us, we tend to shy away from it.

      I would also agree with you that dealing with young learners is something which we can´t learn from books. We actually have to find our way around the classroom with each and every group of YLEs we teach.
      But I hope one day you decide to have a go again – perhaps start off with slightly older YLEs – late Juniors – or even perhaps peer teach with an expert YLE teacher. That´s actually a really good way to learn how to tach YLE´s.
      Thanks again,
      Valéria

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