Parents / caregivers increasingly seek to start their children on the road to learning English at a younger and younger age, and to meet the demand, providers are responding by offering Early Years courses for ever younger children. There is no doubt that children love learning, and I’ve seen Early Years classes which are captivating, magical, stimulating and extremely enjoyable. Many Early Years courses are clearly beneficial for all the standard reasons that providers give for starting young – namely a positive attitude to learning a language, an increased appreciation of different cultures, a greater understanding of the wider world and a solid foundation for future study. Whilst great teachers will always achieve those aims, not every teacher is a great teacher and accordingly I’ve also seen Early Years classes which are stressful, chaotic and potentially detrimental. I’m by no means an expert in the area of early childhood language learning and do not want to advocate for or against this trend. However, having worked as an academic manager in both Early Years and Primary contexts, I do think there are certain questions that providers should ensure they can answer before embarking on Early Years education, and that is what I want to address in this blog.
After all, we are the experts and we shouldn’t just provide courses because the customer is always right. English language lessons are expensive, and parents / caregivers who want the best for their children can expect to spend a great deal of money to ensure their children get the best possible start in their English language learning. Evidence to suggest that younger is better is actually very inconclusive (Murphy, 2014) and according to Robinson, Mourão and Kang,
“The research on the benefits of an early start in foreign language learning is not particularly encouraging as findings over a long period of time suggest that when the foreign language learning is restricted to the classroom there are few, if any, long term gains from starting foreign language learning at a very young age” (2015:5).
Language lessons don’t only deal with language but also with a whole range of learning strategies and skills (e.g. critical thinking, communication skills, team work, collaboration, ethics) and older children have a much higher potential to benefit from this. In fact, because young children are not necessarily the most effective language learners, students who start lessons older, after the age of 7 or 8 often tend to catch up with those who started early, so if attending Early Years courses just extends the length of time a child will study, do the benefits outweigh the financial outlay for families trying to do right by their children?
We know a lot about teaching English to adults communicatively. Much of this has been borrowed and repurposed for teaching young learners, and subsequently we know a lot about teaching teenagers, and even younger children. A lot of what works for Primary also works for Early Years, and again strategies and techniques are being repurposed for the age group. I feel there comes a point when we need to start afresh. Arguably, a graduate of early childhood education makes a more suitable Early Years language teacher than a CELTA holder. Alternatively, there are a number of courses about teaching Early Years learners to choose from. Either way, schools need to remember that the youngest students are as discerning and valuable as the oldest ones, and their lessons should be much more than glorified babysitting. For that to happen, teachers need continued quality professional development aimed at teaching the age group.
Young children learn through playing and much of this play is self-directed, which means it is self-organised and spontaneous. It is generally agreed that teacher led activities combined with self-directed play create the ideal conditions for Early Years learners to develop as young language learners. This means showing children meaningful games, and then providing them with the time, resources and space to repeat and practise these games. Often, English language lessons take place in multi-functional classrooms which are not set aside solely for young learner classes so there is a certain amount of rearranging and setting up to do before and after lessons. There is also a limit to the amount of equipment that can be left in, or transported to lessons. Resources can also be limited. If we want to give Early Years learners choice, there need to be things for them to choose from. If there is no budget to invest in storybooks, games and other resources, can we guarantee learning will take place?
Depending on the age of the learners, providers may or may not need a personal care policy (e.g. changing nappies/helping children use the toilet). Teaching in off-site locations is becoming increasingly popular which makes it essential to have systems in place for toilet breaks and/or children moving around the building. This is also the case for any large school. In terms of student teacher ratios, the general consensus is that for 3-5 year olds a ratio of 1:8 is appropriate, although this varies from country to country. I’d recommend having two adults in Early Years classes – typically a teacher and a teaching assistant, and the impact is ensuring clearly defined roles for each position to avoid problems arising from grey areas, including who deals with problematic behaviour, who communicates in L1 and who communicates with parents / caregivers to name but a few.
Much focus in recent years revolves around visible learning. If children are involved in the learning process, then the learning is more effective. One particular benefit is that it helps children to verbalise what and how they learn and are more able to pass this information on to their parents / caregivers who are generally very happy to practice at home with their children. For Early Years this information needs to come from the teacher. Parents / caregivers of very young children can also be very anxious about how much progress they should expect and often have unrealistic expectations when it comes to how quickly their child will start communicating in English. A silent, or preproduction period is common when it comes to Early Years learners and ambitious parents / caregivers who are investing a lot of money in their children expect results. All of this means that more teacher-home communication is required. How and when this should happen is up to the provider, however, it’s an additional task for which teachers really should be compensated.
Early Years learners are pre-literate, therefore it’s impossible to measure progress and achievement through paper and pencil tests. Many Early Years children remain at a pre-production stage for quite some time, so any assessment needs to look at receptive and/or productive skills. A whole range of behavioural and motor skills are also developed during this life stage, so language skills are not the only things at stake. Most importantly, assessment for this age group needs to take place over time, and each child needs to be considered independently. Many paper and pencil tasks can actually be transferred into tactile matching or sorting tasks, which can be carried out under teacher observation, and use of prefabricated classroom or teacher language should be taken into consideration. Whatever assessment strategies are adopted, teachers will likely need guidance and support in terms of continuous assessment as traditional testing methods will not suffice.
These are my essential questions for ELT providers to consider, but maybe I’ve missed something. Feel free to write below your key questions for valuable Early Years English language learning. I’d love to hear your ideas!
Murphy, V (2014) Second Language Learning in the Early School Years: Trends and Contexts. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Robinson, P, Mourão, S and Joon Kang, N (2015). English learning areas in pre-primary classrooms: an investigation of their effectiveness. British Council.