YLT iatefl

Creating high-quality materials for early years and primary learners


Emily Hird

I’ll let you into a secret. Many people in the ELT profession think writing materials for early years and primary learners must be a doddle. There are so few words on the page – that makes it easier, right? Wrong! As anyone who teaches early years and primary learners knows, in many respects, the younger the age, the more factors there are to take into account. Don’t believe me? Put yourself in the students’ shoes. Imagine… You probably have an attention span of less than ten minutes. Your motor skills are perhaps still developing, so sitting still for long periods or doing lots of writing might not feel very comfortable. You might be hungry, tired or worried, and unable to identify or express those feelings very well. In any of these cases, this material is going to have to work very hard to keep you interested!

There can be little doubt that there are huge benefits to be had from creating bespoke materials for your classes, though, based around what you know about their interests, language capabilities and the cultural context in which you’re teaching. So how to tackle the challenges and avoid the pitfalls? To my mind, writing resources for early years and primary learners’ classes is all about creating materials which strike the right balance between, on the one hand, providing the necessary support to allow learners to succeed, and on the other, being engaging and demanding enough to keep them interested. Here’s a list – though not an exhaustive one! – of some of my top priorities when developing materials for early years and primary learners.

1. Think about BALANCE

Effective early years and primary learners’ lessons usually include a balance of stirring and settling activities to help harness the energy in the room and prevent restlessness from setting in. Stirring activities include TPR, songs, flashcard activities, drama, discussions, and competitive games. Settling activities include picture dictations, reading, and most other ‘heads down’ tasks.

Plan lessons that vary the types of interaction over the course of a lesson: teacher à students, students à students, students à teacher, open class, whole class mingles, pairwork, groupwork, individual work, and so on.  Make sure to have both ‘heads up’ and ‘heads down’ tasks, and expect to change tasks every five minutes or so.

Balance in content is also important. We should ensure, for example, that practice of each of the four skills (reading, writing, listening and speaking) is given attention the course of a unit of work. Aim for a logical progression so that productive tasks happen after students have done receptive tasks, and have built up confidence in understanding the language and concepts they are then going to use for themselves.

Variety in activity types also makes it onto the checklist. Your class may love doing true/false quizzes, for example, but they’ll probably tire of even the most exciting activities if they do them every week. Mix things up to keep it interesting.

2. Think about ACHIEVABILITY

We should create materials which are designed in a way that allows students to succeed. Even as adults, we don’t like to be set up to fail, and task completion is an important factor for motivation.

  • Activate prior knowledge by checking what students already know about a topic before you start. This might be as simple as brainstorming all the different wild animals students already know in English. By ‘waking up’ their memories of what they’ve already learnt about a given topic, whether in school or out of it, we give students a context or hook on which to hang new learning.
  • Keep it manageable. Don’t overburden students with language demands. We’re often guilty of not providing learners with the language supports they need to express ideas clearly (in speech or writing). Ask yourself – What is the task really trying to achieve? Sometimes students may get so bogged down in the difficulties of production that the task objective itself isn’t met. Using scaffolding techniques such as word pools, sentence starters, substitution tables and prompt cards can really help. Graphic organisers are great too, and help learners visualise, categorise and order concepts, while by-passing the need for difficult structures. (I’ve written further explanation about graphic organisers and their benefits here: http://wp.me/p8cLqo-oX.)
  • Share success criteria and model answers. Another trap we often fall into is failing to tell learners what we’re going to be assessing them on. Sharing success criteria with students gives them a much clearer brief. For writing tasks, for example, this can be built into the task design. Which of the following tasks will produce better writing, do you think?

Write a short paragraph about your weekend.

 Write a short paragraph about your weekend.

Remember! The best answers…

  • Use past simple
  • Use three adjectives
  • Use sequencers ‘then’ ‘next’ ‘after that’

 3. Think about CHALLENGE

Although we want to make sure tasks are doable, stretching students is important too. It’s useful to differentiate here between language skills and thinking skills. Some of the best materials manage to keep language demands low, while requiring high-order thinking skills (such as categorising, evaluating, ranking and summarising).

Also, we do well to remember that the employers of the future will value creativity, innovation and problem-solving skills over those which will become automated over the course of our lifetimes. Building this kind of thinking into our materials development will help equip learners for a rapidly changing world.

We can …

  • Incorporate inter-disciplinary, inquiry-based project work, which is often favoured as a way of promoting these skills.
  • Channel learners’ natural curiosity by asking them to identify what they want to find out about a topic (in L1 if necessary).
  • Ask open-ended questions. Allow learners thinking time or time to discuss with a partner before answering in open class.
  • For mixed ability classes, consider how to build in extension and reinforcement tasks around the core materials.

4. Think about the WHOLE CHILD

What are we really trying to teach, anyway? Language learning objectives are important, of course, but few teachers of children would consider themselves ‘only’ language teachers. (Other roles that come to mind are first aider, referee, cheerleader, counsellor, subject specialist, confidence coach, ICT expert… and I’m sure you can think of many more.) There’s a lot to learn before students leave primary education. The materials we develop for teaching English can help work on a diverse range of other aspects of education, citizenship and well-being.

  • Where appropriate, we should include material that promotes thinking about social values including self-awareness and self-management, interpersonal skills, empathy, tolerance, hygiene and environmental awareness. (More on that from me here: http://wp.me/p8cLqo-D and there’s also an interesting piece on teaching empathy here:  https://www.edutopia.org/blog/8-pathways-empathy-in-action-marilyn-price-mitchell?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=socialflow)
  • Cross-curricular topics allow us to engage learners who may, for example, love maths or be passionate about space exploration but hate learning English.
  • Songs and movement break up a lesson and make learning memorable. I mean, who among us hasn’t had a song from an ELT course book stuck in their head for days on end? We can use that to our advantage!
  • Evidence shows that personalising topics makes learners of all ages more motivated (See research by Zoltán Dörnyei https://www.zoltandornyei.co.uk) so we should give students the chance to make a topic real for them, by inviting them to share information about their lives, their opinions and their favourite things. We need to build in opportunities for self-expression like this.

5. Think about the LAYOUT and ARTWORK of materials

The old adage ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’ is, in my view, completely unrealistic. We subconsciously judge all the time, and material which is unattractive or badly designed can not only be off-putting but also detrimental to the learning experience.

Ask yourself …

  • Is there sufficient room for children to write their answers?
  • Is the font big enough for children to read easily? Is it a suitable choice of font?
  • Is there lots of white space or is the page cluttered?
  • Is artwork included in order to support understanding and assist decoding or is merely decorative?
  • Does artwork promote gender equality?
  • Does artwork reflect a picture of racial and ethnic diversity?
  • Is the artwork colourful, attractive and age-appropriate?
  • Do you have permission to use all the images, or are they free for use under a creative commons license?

I hope you and your classes thoroughly enjoy the materials you develop. We’d love to hear from you in the comments – perhaps you’ve ideas to share about other criteria for creating successful materials or lessons you’ve learnt while developing them.


Blogger's Bio

Emily - Emily Hird is a freelance ELT writer, editor and publishing consultant, specialising in young learners. Having been an ELT teacher at the Bell School and International House in Spain, she worked in the ELT department at Cambridge University Press for a decade, including four years as Publisher for Primary. She now divides her time between editorial and writing work. You can find her on twitter @eahird and on her blog:
https://emilyhirdblog.wordpress.com/blog/



  1. Emily – very much enjoyed your article – very interesting indeed. I would add a few thoughts to your text: 1) creating materials which engage children in producing craftwork, e.g. making a model volcano or a touchy feely collage of an Amazon river scene, can be motivating and make learning more memorable; 2) storytelling can be a magical tool with YLs, either using well-known stories from their own/world cultures and/or prompting them to create stories of their own (and therefore making use of a range of tenses and lexis); 3) it’s helpful for YL material producers to provide teachers with extra activities for fast-finishers in mixed-ability classes (and, let’s face it, most are) – because, while with adults, fast-finishers are not really an issue, in YL classes they can distract others and even prompt discipline challenges; 4) in writing activities,YLs can benefit from being provided with templates to complete, with some words in place to give them a bit of a framework/scaffolding to work from; 5) depending on the target audience, AW should be as meaningful and recognisable to children from as many cultures as possible – this is sometimes not the case, and, on a similar note, any celebrities in photos should ideally be known throughout the world, and not just in one region.

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