Enthusiastic teachers everywhere will tell you how rewarding it is to teach young learners. While their interests are diverse, their strengths and weaknesses different, and the way they learn can vary a lot, they all have something in common – and that’s curiosity.
It’s a quality that helps children all over the world to learn and grow through exploration, play and lots and lots of questions.
We spoke to experienced teacher, trainer and former President of TESOL Spain, Annie Altamirano, about teaching young learners, improving our teaching practice, and developing young learner curiosity.
We also spoke to her about our forthcoming Primary series, Now I Know!, co-authored by Annie, which uses inquiry-based learning to motivate and excite curious young minds.
A little background
Annie’s TEFL career began in Argentina, where she taught across different levels for a range of ages. She took things to the next stage in 1992, when she became a teacher trainer in a university.
Her prolific writing career started in the year 2000 – soon after which she moved to Spain, where she joined TESOL Spain, eventually becoming the president until early 2018.
Annie has continued writing and has written for a number of international publishers and done teacher training for international organizations.
Hi Annie, thanks for taking the time to speak with us! Tell me, what should new teachers understand about teaching young learners?
And thank you for having me!
I think one of the most important things new teachers need to be aware of is that young learners are really curious – and they are always interested in learning about the world and the people in it.
Yet, at the same time, they get tired very easily. This is especially true when English teachers concentrate on things like form and language structures – things the students can’t really connect to emotionally. Unfortunately, children tend to quickly lose interest in these types of classes – or worse, in learning in general, if we don’t engage this curiosity and the language.
How can teachers hold their students’ interest in class?
When thinking about developing your classes, it’s key to first find out the things your students are interested in – and then using them in class and building on them. The language and structures that we teach should naturally arise from the materials and topics we are teaching.
We can hold their interest by making our classes really active and by offering lots of variety – always taking into account the age and level of the students, of course.
Thankfully, things have come a long way since I first started teaching. There have been some dramatic changes in technology and, today, kids have almost unlimited access to information online (limited perhaps only by their parents and teachers). This means they want us to be on the ball and know all about the latest cartoons, characters in films, and different types of visuals.
Curiosity leads to lots of questions. How should teachers manage this in the classroom?
In some cases, teachers think that they should give students the answers as soon as they get stuck – but that’s not very effective.
Why give them things that are pre-digested? When students don’t have to work for the answer they are less likely to remember it. Really, we should encourage them to find things out for themselves – and the activities we choose for our students should naturally provide answers to their questions.
I believe our job is to accompany learners through a journey of discovery, by scaffolding our activities as necessary.
This is also a way of developing their creative and critical thinking skills; skills that need to be developed early on. This will benefit the students when they get to their teenage years and, of course, later on in life.
How can we encourage our learners to stay motivated when things get difficult, or when they fail at something?
In my experience, teachers naturally (and understandably) tend to focus on less able students. But we also need to consider stronger students too, because they find everything too easy – and get bored quickly as a result.
Differentiation of activities is one of the most important solutions for this. But rather than just providing alternative activities, we should also allow students to arrive at the end result, at their own pace.
Scaffolding is also key to student motivation. If a learner is finding a task difficult, we can support them by giving extra questions, breaking tasks into chunks, so there are stages to the completion of task. On the other hand, if a student is more able, we should ask them extra questions or ask them to expand on their answers in order to challenge them further.
What’s more, we can also provide tasks that encourage multiple answers or multiple final outcomes, so students can work at their own pace and produce at their own level.
What would this differentiation look like in a large class of students?
If you have a large class, you can group students in pairs or small groups. It’s a good idea to mix stronger and weaker students together. Not only do the stronger students reinforce their own understanding through peer teaching, but the weaker students benefit from the extra help too.
What is the importance of self-reflection in young learner classes?
Although it sounds like a cliché – our classrooms need to be safe havens for our students. Failure is part of learning and it is not a bad thing if our students use it positively – reflecting and acting on mistakes or missteps.
They need to think about why they made a mistake, how they can improve – and then making an effort to do it.
Finally, we’re all excited about the new Now I Know! series. What can teachers look forward to and how is it different to other coursebooks out there?
Yes! I was lucky enough to help write part of the course. The whole series is full of variety, including poems, stories and fascinating ideas from all over the world.
What I like about the series most is that it’s not the typical young learner ELT course book, in which you have two or three characters living somewhere – probably in England – doing normal things. Instead, it touches on a whole range of different subjects and it’s very multicultural.