How young learners of English benefit from benchmarks

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In the world of teaching English, motivation and learning have always gone hand in hand – especially with young learners. However, only a few breakthroughs have influenced these co-existing concepts in such a tangible way – as has happened with the advent of the Global Scale of English (GSE) Learning Objectives for Young Learners.

It all started with the need to measure proficiency in young learners using an appropriate scale, not derived from an interpretation of one created for grown-ups. The phrase “one size fits all” is truly not applicable to this age group given the dimensions their learning process has. It must not just follow their language progression level, but simultaneously reflect their cognitive development. It is important to consider the balance there should be between abstractions and symbolism – with the concretion young learners are very good at – all of which should be taken into account when defining levels of achievement. Those of us who teach young learners know that this is not an easy task, and we can use all the help we can get.

Categorising skills into a few broad levels of proficiency does not match the motivation students have, nor does it reflect the results obtained by the every-day efforts they are making. Up to now, they have had to wait long periods of time to feel like they are progressing to the next stage, often covering the content of several books without any tangible promotion. This results in a drop in motivation as they feel like their work is getting them nowhere. Sometimes, students must start all over again because of how broad the levels are and the time it takes to achieve each one.

The Global Scale of English is based on research supported by many of those involved in language teaching, such as English teachers, ELT authors and linguists from around the world. It defines language learning progresses on all fronts – including all skills – and presents clear, measurable objectives that are attainable in short periods of time, and depict what learners can do at every stage of their learning process.

Identifying objectives

It is important that teachers can identify learning objectives based on which skills they affect and the level of difficulty. The following illustration shows a comic strip for 8-9 year-olds, where, at first glance, learning objectives could apply – but only one of them actually matches both the level of language and the correct cognitive process involved, and recommends the teaching process the teacher could follow.

Possible objectives:

A) Can recognise familiar words and basic phrases in short illustrated stories, if read out slowly and clearly.

B) Can follow the sequence of events in short, simple cartoon stories that use familiar keywords.

C) Can follow simple dialogues in short illustrated stories, if they can listen while reading.

All three objectives are part of the Global Scale of English, but objective ‘C’ is the one that matches this specific course level better. It defines the requirement of using simple dialogue in short illustrated stories, and describes the teaching process as students listening to the dialogues while they are reading them. It can’t get more specific – not only for identifying if the students succeed, but also on how it should be taught. It’s a win-win situation.

Let’s look at this other teaching scenario: 9-10 year-olds are singing a song to enrich their vocabulary and acquire fluency –while they have fun.

Possible objectives:

A) Can recognise familiar words and basic phrases in short illustrated stories, if read out slowly and clearly.

B) Can recognise familiar words and phrases in short, simple songs or chants.

C) Can sing a basic song from memory.

At this level, we are pursuing objective ‘B’ because our target is not memorising the song or telling it as a story, but focusing on the vocabulary and phrases the children are singing.

Scaffolding

A huge collateral benefit of teaching using the Global Scale of English is how it helps teachers – particularly those without much experience – clarify how their teaching interventions should work.

The GSE Learning Objectives are subject to scaffolding as a way of showing how students progress and gain independence throughout their learning. It’s designed to promote a deeper level of learning. It provides support during the learning process, which is tailored to the needs of the students with the intention of helping them achieve their learning goals.

Because the GSE is a scale, scaffolding is a great option for developing progression in learning objectives that can be graded in levels of achievement. This feature of GSE also helps improve our teaching skills. It brings forward an analysis and practice of different teaching strategies for young learners.

Let’s analyse a case where the two teaching objectives include scaffolding. Here 6 year-olds are learning about flags as part of a CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning) lesson.

Possible objectives:

Listening: Can follow short, basic classroom instructions, if supported by pictures or gestures. (GSE 13)

Listening: Can recognise isolated words related to familiar topics, if spoken slowly and clearly and supported by pictures and gestures. (GSE 16)

Notice how the second GSE Learning Objective increases in level of difficulty (GSE 16) by asking for a slightly more difficult task, yet both include the appropriate scaffolding support (underlined text) for the activity suggested.

Now let’s look at an activity for 11-12 year-olds, where one GSE Learning Objective includes scaffolding and the other doesn’t.

Possible objectives:

Listening: Can understand the main information in short, simple dialogues about someone’s daily routines, if spoken slowly and clearly and supported by pictures. (GSE 31)

Listening: Can understand some details in extended dialogues on a range of non-technical topics. (GSE 50)

The first objective is intended for students to grasp the main information, while the second one seeks the understanding of details. As the first one is at a lower level (GSE 31) and is somewhat demanding, it requires more support, therefore it includes scaffolding. The second objective is more generic and at a higher level (GSE 50), so it does not include scaffolding conditions.

Showing progression in levels

The following GSE Learning Objectives for Young Learners are all related to reading when dealing with opinions/points of view. They show how students progress as they move from lower to higher levels.

  • Can understand basic opinions related to familiar topics, expressed in simple language.
  • Can identify a point of view in a short, simple narrative text.
  • Can identify evidence that supports the writer’s point of view in extended texts on a familiar topic.
  • Can identify evidence from multiple texts that compare and contrast points of view on a familiar topic.

This is a key feature in the Global Scale of English that allows both teachers and students to keep their attention focused on proficiency, saving time and effort, and staying motivated along the way.

The Global Scale of English has brought a wonderful new perspective on how to teach English to young learners. We already knew it wasn’t just about keeping them busy and entertaining them, but rather about supporting them in learning solid foundations in English at an early age. Thanks to the resources created as part of the GSE project, we now know how to do this in a more attainable, measurable, successful and professional way.

Do you teach English to young learners? Have you found benchmarks to be useful? Let us know in the comments section below…

 

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