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Numer publikacji: 10199

Teaching children in their first years at school




Each foreign language teacher may notice that children’s skills and possibilities at the moment of the beginning of school and at the age of nine or ten are quite different. The teachers’ decisions and actions should be considered very carefully. It is important not to forget about children’s special needs in learning foreign language.

1. Children’s general characteristics
The attention is put on an average child because “some children develop early, some later. Some of them develop gradually, others in leaps and bounds” (Scott and Ytreberg 2004:1). However, it is possible to direct attention to certain characteristics of young learners and the teachers should be aware of them and take them into account in their teaching.
Halliwell (2004:3) remarks: “Young children do not come to the language classroom empty-handed. They bring with them an already well-established set of instincts, skills and characteristics which will help them to learn another language”.
At the start of school education
Children’s needs and possibilities at the moment of the beginning of school can be characterized as follows (Wieczorek and Skiba 1999:7-8):
- They learn and forget quickly, so they need a lot of repetitions (see also Brewster et al 2004:27; Szpotowicz, Szulc-Kurpaska 2000:4).
- They need to be active to learn effectively because the world of physical experiences is the most important for them (great importance of sight, hearing, voice, movement). Their understanding comes through hands, eyes and ears. The physical world is dominant at all times (see also Szpotowicz, Szulc-Kurpaska 2000:4; Scott and Ytreberg 2004:2).
- They have a very short attention and concentration span, so a 45-minute lesson seems to be too long for them. They are very lively and active (see also Scott and Ytreberg 2004:2, Szpotowicz, Szulc-Kurpaska 2000: 4, Brewster et al 2004:27).
- They get bored and feel discouraged quickly , so language exercises should be short, varied, interesting and relating to different situations (see also Brewster et al 2004:27).
- They are egocentric, they like to give their attention to something that is close to them, e.g. my toys, my family, my friends. What is more, they enjoy being the centre of attention and they love to talk about their own activities (see also Brewster at al 2004:27).
- They prefer to play and work individually but in the company of others, they sometimes work in pairs. They can also be very reluctant to share. It is said that children cannot see things from someone else’s point of view that is why it is hard for them to work together (see also Szpotowicz, Szulc-Kurpaska 2000:4; Scott and Ytreberg 2004:2-3).
- They know that the world is governed by rules so it is very good to define the rules of work in the classroom and adhere to them strictly. The rules help to nurture a feeling of security which is one of the most important things (see also Scott and Ytreberg 2004:2).
- They are quite sensitive to criticism, disapproval and compulsion – teachers should often praise them, not criticize and not show them up. It is especially important to keep their enthusiasm and positive attitude to learning foreign language (see also Scott and Ytreberg 2004:3; Brewster et al 2004:28; Szpotowicz, Szulc-Kurpaska 2000:4).
- They sometimes do not know what is fact and what is fiction. The dividing line between the real world and the imaginary world is not clear. They like to imitate other persons, fantasize and romanticize, so they are willing to take part in theatrical games – they like to act like characters of fairy tales (see also Szpotowicz, Szulc-Kurpaska 2000:4; Scott and Ytreberg 2004:2).
- Young children are enthusiastic and positive about learning but they cannot decide for themselves what to learn (see also Scott and Ytreberg 2004:3; Szpotowicz, Szulc-Kurpaska 2000:4).
- They love to play, and learn best when they have a lot of fun. They also take themselves seriously and like to think that what they are doing is “real” work (see also Scott and Ytreberg 2004: 3; Halliwell 2004:6-7).
- They often use their vivid imagination (see also Halliwell 2004:7; Scott and Ytreberg 2004:2).
At the age of 9 and 10
When the children are about nine or ten, they are relatively mature. The difference between ten-year olds and younger ones is noticeable in the following ways (Scott and Ytreberg 2004:3-4):
- They have very decided views of the world and their basic concepts are formed (see also Wieczorek and Skiba 1999:7).
- They know what they like and dislike (see also Wieczorek and Skiba 1999:8).
- They know that there is the difference between fact and fiction (see also Szpotowicz, Szulc-Kurpaska 2000:4).
- They are more conscious of the process of learning, so they often ask questions (see also Wieczorek and Skiba 1999:8).
- They rely on the spoken word as well as the physical world to convey and understand meaning.
- They understand the meaning of fairness in the classroom and begin to question the teacher’s decisions (see also Wieczorek and Skiba 1999:7; Szpotowicz, Szulc-Kurpaska 2000:4).
- They are ready to learn from others and work together (see also Szpotowicz, Szulc-Kurpaska 2000:4).
- They can concentrate for a surprisingly long time if they are interested (see also Szpotowicz, Szulc-Kurpaska 2000:4; Brewster et al 2004:28).
- Some of them are able to make decisions about their own learning.
2. Aims of early teaching
The general aim in early teaching at primary school is not to teach English as an isolated
subject, not to teach it as the end in itself. It is rather teaching a foreign language as a means of communication and developing young learners’ knowledge of different cultures. Effective communication is more important than its accuracy. The language should be therefore presented in a context. The teacher cannot forget about giving the pupils the opportunity to use English and the atmosphere in the classroom should be pleasant, supportive and motivating (Cant et al 2003:3).
The integrated teaching is very specific because all teachers who have lessons with the youngest students should team up with one another (the so called team-teaching). They must not forget that it is essential to allow the pupils to develop not only their ability to use the foreign language but also their self-esteem and general education. Another thing the teachers should not forget about is to make the children have the feeling that they can understand and do things in English (Cant et al 2003:3).
As pointed out by Brewster et al (2004:219): “If children have had very negative experiences with language learning, or feel they are not good at language learning, they may underachieve even if they actually enjoy it”.
3. Misunderstandings about teaching young learners
Cameron (2002:xii) remarks that there are two misunderstandings about teaching young learners: “teaching children is straightforward” and “children only need to learn simple language”. She comments (ibid.): “Children do have a less complicated view of the world than older children and adults, but this fact does not imply that teaching children is simple or straightforward. On the contrary, the teacher of children needs to be highly skilled to reach into children’s words and lead them to develop their understandings towards more formal, more extensive and differently organized concepts. [...] It is also misleading to think that children will only learn simple language, such as colours and numbers, rhymes and songs, and talking about themselves. [...] But children can always do more than we think they can; they have huge learning potential, and the foreign language classroom does them a disservice if we do not exploit that potential”.
4. The role of the teacher
It is very good when the teacher has a sense of humour, is open-minded, adaptable and, what is one of the most important features, patient. Young children have a very keen sense of fairness and it is advantageous when the teacher likes them. The feeling of security also plays a vital role in children’s early education. It is especially important because pupils should get the maximum out of the lessons.
5. Creating a secure class atmosphere
According to Scott and Ytreberg (2004:10-11) there are some things which may be helpful in creating a secure class atmosphere:
- Pupils need to know what is happening, and they need to feel that the teacher is in charge.
- Children want to be treated in a respectful way, they even want the teacher to be their friend.
- Pupils do not like constant, direct correction – it is not effective and it does not help to create a good atmosphere.
- Pupils have to be told that everyone makes mistakes when they are learning a new language, and that it is all right.
- Children like to know what to expect so that the teacher should establish some routines such as greetings, using a calendar (also a birthday calendar in order to know when everybody’s birthday is), a weather chart and so on. Routines of this type build up familiarity and security (see also Pamuła 2003:63).
- Children like to be given the responsibility for doing practical jobs in the classroom, e.g. giving out the library books or watering the plants. Such activities involve both taking responsibility for learning and helping others to learn.
- Language learning is a situation where everyone can win. The teacher should not organize competition because there is almost always a winner and a loser. It is better when the children compete naturally with each other.
- The teacher should avoid giving physical rewards or prizes – it is far better to tell the pupil that his or her work is good. The teacher should avoid giving pupils English names as well because children have to remember that they are Polish students.
Pleasant, supportive atmosphere in the classroom and children’s feeling of security are, as it was pointed out, two main matters teachers must think about and give their attention to. They are both strictly connected with classroom management. It can be defined as the teacher’s ability to cooperatively manage time, space, resources and student roles and behaviours to provide a climate that encourages learning (Brewster et al 2004:218).
6. The role of the physical surroundings
It is advisable to say that the physical surroundings play an important role in the classroom. Children, especially young ones, respond well to pleasant and familiar surroundings. They like such objects as nice plants, posters, postcards, calendars, and, of course, their own or their teachers’ drawings (Scott and Ytreberg 2004:11). Such physical objects help to create the suitable atmosphere, add the character to the room and thanks to them it is easier for teachers to establish routines. They are also essential in teaching culture to young learners.
It is a very good idea, for example, to encourage the children to collect English postcards and pictures. They should be taken to the class and shown to the rest of the pupils. Then children can hang them on the wall.
The very good idea is to have an English corner because both the teacher and their pupils need shelves, even a practical bookcase and a lot of nice, colourful boxes (Scott and Ytreberg ibid.). Such boxes are really useful to store the things.
Brewster et al (2004:148) write that “teachers can try to collect and use realia, such as typical food, toys or clothes. Other items might include real text, such as books, children’s comics, menus, football magazines, TV programme guides, food containers and labels, video or audio material, such as cartoons and films, or real objects such as T-shirts, football kit, and so on”.
7. Establishing routines in the classroom
Polish children enter school at the age of seven and the situation may be stressful for them. It is especially stressful when they do not know how to behave in a large class or what to expect. Teachers should introduce young learners to the demands of school, and familiarize them with the rules and conventions in a classroom.
The very good idea is to establish classroom routines (see Cameron 2002:10-11). Such daily routines as greetings or using a birthday calendar are both pleasant and practical because they help to make pupils feel confident. It is much easier for them to cope with the stress of being at school. Brewster et al (2004:219) are of the opinion: “it is a good idea to develop familiar patterns with young learners in their first year of schooling”.
8. Furniture arrangements
Another important question in the classroom is how to arrange the desks. Of course, they may be arranged in different ways because it depends on a kind of lesson. Traditional arrangement is very popular, but it is not attractive for pupils, so teachers should “invent” their own arrangement that would be the most suitable.
It seems to be very practical when the desks are arranged in the way the teacher could teach all the children easily, and do group work or pairwork for some activities. Scott and Ytreberg (2004:13) remark: ”It is good for pupils to sit in groups, even they are doing individual or class work, since it is then much more natural for them to talk to each other”. They also advise to arrange a space in the middle of the classroom for more general activities (see also Harmer 2004:18-20).
9. Starting points for teaching culture
Young children’s natural willingness, enthusiasm and curiosity about the world make foreign language teachers have a chance to plan successful lessons. Brewster et al (2004:148) say: “early foreign language learning has a good chance of encouraging children to take an interest and develop a positive attitude towards foreign countries and their culture”. They also claim (2004:148) that “primary pupils will often learn a range of details about the target culture, especially everyday life, traditional elements of children’s lore, such as songs, rhymes, games, stories, special festivals and celebrations”. Children are actually ready to learn a foreign language and culture at the beginning of primary level, and a wide variety of activities help to succeed in this.
According to Brewster et al (2004:149) there are some good starting points for teaching culture: songs and rhymes, drawings, artefacts, stories, making contact with real people (for older pupils), projects or topics.
10. Culture promoting activities
Teaching culture demands the selection of some suitable tasks and activities. They must be chosen carefully because another thing each teacher should not forget about is to avoid boredom during the lesson.
Songs, rhymes, chants and drawings are definitely the most enjoyable and favourite. Brewster et al (2004:162) write: “Children love songs, rhymes and chants and their repetitive nature and rhythm make them an ideal vehicle for language learning”. When we teach culture they are especially useful because “they are from authentic sources and can contribute to the cultural component of a language programme. Children can be encouraged to compare with those in their own language” (ibid.:163). Drawing is also very useful and children love it. This simple activity gives children the opportunity to show similarities and differences between Polish and English cultures (for example, when the teacher asks pupils to make drawings of Santa Claus and then their drawings may be compared with similar pictures made by English children). Children love to make Christmas cards, as they like handicrafts as well.
Brewster et al (2004:149) regard observing and comparing life in the pupils’ home country with life in English-speaking countries as a very popular activity in developing cross-cultural understanding. All kinds of skills – listening, speaking, reading and writing – should be taken into teacher’s consideration. Children in the primary classroom like matching pictures to spoken words (like in games such as Bingo), they are really interested in learning new vocabulary which is linked to the topic (for example, gathering words connected with Christmas). They like and want to be active participants of foreign language lessons, so the main role of the teacher is to take advantage of their eagerness and positive attitude towards learning.
Concluding remarks
Teaching young children in the primary classroom is both a satisfactory and demanding task. When children attend school, they come to the language classroom with some skills, instincts and characteristics which can help them to learn a foreign language. Teachers should know their students’ possibilities to work with them properly.
Children’s instinct for play and fun and also their ready imagination play a crucial role in the process of learning. The youngest students are very lively so they need activities which are short, varied and which occasionally allow them to burn off energy.
Teachers must not forget that young children in the primary classroom should develop a sense of confidence and self-esteem. Pleasant and familiar physical surroundings help teachers to provide a secure atmosphere that encourages learning.
It is very good when language learning is concerned with real life because children have a natural curiosity about the world. Teachers often make use of this curiosity in encouraging pupils to develop a positive attitude towards other countries and their cultures. A selection of suitable activities is essential in promoting cultural issues.


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