Shelagh Rixon, YLTSIG Special Pearl Anniversary Publication (2016)
The SIG filled a long-felt and also rather ironical gap in IATEFL affairs. Conferences were the main, almost the only, activity of the Association during its first 18 years. As President (called ‘Chair’ at the time), Bill Lee would continually lament in his Conference reports in the IATEFL Newsletter (the only publication of the time and the ancestor of Voices) that there had been little or no discussion of teaching children or teenagers. The irony was that in most other matters at that time Dr Lee had a major influence and that there were already members with distinguished reputations in young learners teaching. However, this was one ambition that he was not able to fulfil while Chair.
The second IATEFL President, Professor Peter Strevens, who took up office in 1984, was keen on the idea of setting up sub-groups within IATEFL to reflect the different concerns of members in a similar way to the specialist groups within TESOL. A number of long-standing members, including Opal Dunn, Leonora Fröhlich-Ward and Andrew Wright, remember talking with him in his early days as President about setting up a group for teachers of children and teenagers. Informal discussions at the 1984 Groningen Conference seem to have been the next step. Andrew Wright says that a key conversation took place when a number of like-minded people, including Edie Garvie, were thrown together on a rather long conference bus-ride!
Then, a notice appeared in the IATEFL Newsletter (no. 85 October 1984 p. 13) entitled ‘Specialist Interest Group in Young Learners’, saying the following:
A number of participants at the IATEFL conference in Groningen expressed particular interest in the teaching of English to young people. Everyone concerned agreed that it would be good to meet at Brighton during the next IATEFL conference and discuss the possible formation of a Specialist Interest Group in Young Learners.
The notice requested expressions of interest, and suggestions for what it should do, to be sent to Andrew Wright.
At the Brighton 1985 conference (Newsletter 87:3), a meeting was held to discuss what was then called a ‘Specialist Group’ for those with an interest in Young Learners. Founding figures were Leonora Fröhlich-Ward and Opal Dunn along with Andrew Wright who had started things going with the Newsletter announcement. Thirty-two people signed up in Brighton. Bill Lee, delighted that his ambition had at last been realised, was amongst them and took an active interest until his death in 1996. No formal committee was established but Andrew Wright agreed to act as ‘liaison person’.
Decade 1: 1986 – 1995
There seems to have been no further meeting until the 1986 Conference, where there was a discussion on reading, led by Edie Garvie, followed by a ‘discussion and decisions on what the Group is and what it intends doing during the following year’ (Newsletter 90:3).
The next event – on bilingualism and testing – was held in late 1987 in the UK, as were all of the early meetings. Around 40 people attended. From there things took off rapidly. It is probably true to say that one of its major contributions at that time was to the professional lives of those concerned with children in state primary schools. These were years in which many countries were deciding rather rapidly to lower the age of starting foreign languages which in most cases meant introducing them at primary school, with English the most popular choice. Many teachers were about to face new challenges.
YL at that time was such an under-researched area that the applications of core educational processes such as assessment needed exploring, as did issues like the role of literacy in language learning. Cooperation with others interested in testing, Learner Autonomy and literature proved particularly important and fruitful. One reason for the productivity of the SIG is that since the earliest times it has cooperated with others in ‘YL and …..’ events, many of which have led to publications. A ‘classic’ volume from that period (Allen 1995), still much sought after on MA and other YL teacher education courses, is from the Cambridge seminar of 1995, run jointly with the Testing SIG.
SIG ‘tracks’ in Conference programmes started in 1987, making it more apparent to delegates which sessions were likely to be of interest to them. The introduction of conference tracks not only stimulated more YL contributions but made them more visible to the wider membership. Young Learners were about to come out from behind the sofa.
In May 1993, the SIG held its first event outside the UK, with a meeting at The British School in the Netherlands. Wendy Superfine, later to be Events Coordinator (from 1995 to 2001) helped set this up. The next event was a joint symposium in 1995 held with the Testing SIG in Brno, Czech Republic.
Decade 2: 1996 – 2006
In this period SIG outreach events started to gain in frequency, with very active promotion by Coordinators like Annie Hughes and Wendy Superfine (who combined this role with that of Events Coordinator between 1994 and 1998). In each of the years 1997 and 1998 a major YL conference was held in Istanbul, Turkey. Examples of other events in this period are those in Spain (1998 Barcelona and Madrid); Malta (1999); Poland (Gdansk, 1999); Hungary (Budapest, 2000), Italy (Viterbo, 2000 and Florence, 2001).
Since 1999, starting with its first PCE on the training of teachers of Young Learners, held jointly with the Teacher Training SIG, the SIG has put on a series of Pre-Conference Events, sometimes working jointly with another SIG and varying between general methodological and specific fields. Topics have included Classroom Research (2005, Cardiff), CLILL, (2006, Harrogate), Literacy in the Language Classroom (2007, Aberdeen), and Drama (2013, Liverpool).
In 1998, the SIG got its first website, set up and managed, until 2009, by Christopher Etchells. This facilitated many new and important activities such as the moderated discussions, initiated by Sandie Mourão a year later. Each had an expert ‘fielder’. The discussions were later facilitated by Wendy Arnold and then Dennis Newson and continued until 2013. Records show the titles of over 60 topics, some fielded by stellar external figures as well as by SIG members (demonstrating the high levels of internal expertise achieved by then). A sample of topics and fielders from these early years shows the variety:
- Special Educational Needs, David Wilson, 1999
- Teenagers and Project Work, Diane Phillips, 2001
- English through Arts and Cultures: A Cross-Curricular English Course for Young Learners (6 – 12), Livia Farago, 2003
- Songs: valuable teaching resource or just time-fillers? Annie Hughes, 2004
- Bilingual Education, Stephen Krashen, 2004
Cooperation with other SIGs continued, one of the most distinguished and engaging results being a joint publication (Paran and Watts (eds.) 2003) with the Literature and Cultural Studies SIG on stories and storytelling. Shortly afterwards, there was a conference on story and storybook use held in Munich in 2004 which generated another widely-cited volume (Enever and Schmid-Schönbein 2006). Meanwhile, individual representatives of the SIG were increasingly presenting at overseas conferences. Existing members benefited and new members were attracted to join by these means.
Decade 3: 2007 – 2016
A few years into the 21st century, YL teaching was well-enough established in many contexts to allow reflection and research on aims and means. In January 2008, the SIG was a partner with the British Council in a very significant international conference on YL policy which took place in Bangalore, India. The conference attracted key figures from 26 countries and generated a publication (Enever, Moon and Raman (eds.) 2009) that is by now a recognised classic in educational policy studies. Coming of age or what?
The SIG was now in a position where it seemed to be time to think of sharing expertise further afield, geographically speaking. Outreach events proliferated and now extended way beyond Europe. One example was the enterprising idea of ‘exporting’ the 2007 PCE on ‘Literacy in the Language Classroom’. A version of this rolled out as a one-day seminar the following November, hosted by the British Council in Singapore and two days later in Hong Kong. There were other key events which took place in China in 2008.
In recent years, clarification of the age ranges the SIG’s members teach has taken place, embodied in the 2015 re-organisation of Newsletter content into sections of interest to teachers of Early Years, Primary, Lower Secondary and Upper Secondary levels. The recent increased focus worldwide on teaching English to Early Years children was recognised by this being the subject of the Pre-Conference Event at the 2012 Glasgow Conference.
Since 2013, the SIG has pioneered another field, that of Webinars. The first one, ‘Researching with Young Learners’ took place on 27 January 2013 in cooperation with the Research SIG. Since then, efforts have been made to set up a webinar at least every two months.
What has the SIG achieved to date?
The first and major achievement has been to give Young Learners and Teenagers teaching visibility within IATEFL itself. From a position of there being little or no discussion of the teaching of children or teenagers, within a year or two of its ‘real’ start in 1986 the SIG had set up a very substantial YLT presence within the Conference programmes and in a growing number of other high-profile events elsewhere.
Secondly, the SIG has played an honourable and effective role in the fight for YL teaching to be taken as seriously as it should be within the profession and the worlds of scholarship and public commentary and we have the reputation and the publications to prove it. Apart from the publications already referenced, mention should be made of the YLTSIG publication (Giannikas, McLaughlin, Fanning and Deutsch (eds.) 2015) which was launched to mark our Pearl Anniversary at the 50th IATEFL Conference in Birmingham, 2016.
“Back in the late 90s, as a young freelance teacher in Portugal the then IATEFL YLSIG was my lifeline. The yahoo-based discussion list, where I first encountered like-minded colleagues, was a place to go when I needed to share ideas or ask for help. Being actively involved as a volunteer in those earlier years was one of the best things I ever did, and it has contributed enormously to the professional I am today. The YLTSIG continues to be a hub of activity, supporting and nurturing YL professionals and ensuring this essential area of ELT is valued.”