Socialisation and Young Learners

by Sophia McMillan
(Shane Training Centre, Japan)

Teaching very young learners (i.e. under 5s) can be particularly daunting for many teachers. For most it is the first time they have had to cope with children this young, and many are concerned or worried about how best to approach the class. However, it is important to remember that while this age does present a set of unique challenges it is a lot of fun and very rewarding.

On the whole very young learners are focussed on having fun, playing games and being entertained; they are naturally curious and want to know about the world around them. Everything is new and interesting and worthy of exploration, using all five senses.

Most very young learners are, initially, very shy of their new teacher; especially as to them the new teacher is a strange scary looking foreigner. It is not uncommon for them to become fixed to their mothers, barely acknowledging your presence. The main thing that works in your favour is their innate curiosity, so with the aid of funny faces, silly noises etc getting them to smile or laugh means winning half the battle. Perseverance will pay off and before long the little ones will be using you as a human climbing frame, fighting over who gets to hold your hand etc and learning English all at the same time.

Children pass through a series of social stages. Initially, children are happy to play alone, babbling to themselves and only occasionally sharing with another. This is succeeded by being able to play with one other child and will involve sharing, turn taking and a certain amount of negotiation from an adult. Eventually the group size grows and by the time the child enters kindergarten they are able to join and enjoy group activities and experiences.

Socialisation is an important aspect to teaching very young learners. In part it is a process of learning and of being taught, but it should also actively involve the children who through socialisation can make sense of their world and allow them to construct their own ways of being part of the social group. Children want to engage and interact with those around them and the earlier the teacher can incorporate this desire and interest in the classroom the easier the children are to manage and control.

With very young learners it is important that the lessons are fun and engaging, as if they are enjoying themselves they are more likely to participate in the activities and follow instructions. Generally children love to draw, colour, sing, dance, and play games – they are looking to be entertained. To maintain their interest it is important that they enjoy it and laugh.

Very young learners have a very short attention span and so classes should be fast, fun and energetic. Using a combination of activities, e.g. songs, movement, actions and games is an effective way of maintaining their attention. However, it is vital to be aware of what is happening around you because as soon as the learners start becoming distracted it is imperative to stop the current activity and move on to something else. While you should go into the class with a clear lesson plan it is important to remain flexible and respond to the learners.

Play can be more than a mere diversion or simple entertainment. It can be an opportunity for children to develop their relationships and skills with other children and adults. Playing together allows the usual pattern of an adult-child relationship to be reversed, the child can take charge of the experience and ‘teach’ the adult – something most very young learners find highly entertaining. The involvement of adults in the play of very young learners can build a child’s self-confidence and self-value.

When talking to children adults change both the manner and content of their speech. Content is simplified, using a special vocabulary of ‘baby’ words, using names instead of pronouns, exaggerating the intonation and utilising more repetition. All of which help children understand the language they hear and make their own attempts at constructing their first verbal communication. However, it is important to remember that children develop at different rates and some may take longer to produce than others. Reception always comes before production, and it can be weeks before a young learner is ready to vocalise.

When teaching very young learners it is important to consider the rationale behind the activities used. For example, lessons will go smoother if children are taught the value of turn taking and co-operative play. Creative activities provide an opportunity for a wide range of language use, as well as developing a number of skills in the learner. It is more important for the child to take part than to do everything perfectly. It is important to ask the child questions throughout activities (e.g. what colour things are, counting etc.) while allowing an opportunity for them to talk to you. Puppets can be a useful teaching aid as learners often enjoy making the puppets talk and interact. They can be used to model language and encourage quieter students to speak, either to or through the puppet.

Overall, while teaching very young learners can be challenging, requiring a great deal of energy, an ability to forget your embarrassment, a degree of flexibility and lateral thinking this age group can also be great fun and very rewarding. Early socialisation ensures classes are easier to manage and reduces the overall potential for stress and tears.

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