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.
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.
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.
Write a short paragraph about your weekend.
Write a short paragraph about your weekend.
Remember! The best answers…
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 …
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.
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 …
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.