1st August 2017

English teachers beware: what are your kindergarteners really learning?

By Eve Conway

Are you a teacher who has started teaching toddlers and want to know what to expect from teaching them?

The current mantra surrounding toddlers and young children seems to be ‘the younger the better’, but is this always the case? And how can we aid the language acquisition process for the smallest amongst us?

Proponents of ‘the younger the better’ argument state that young children are capable of learning faster than adults, but actually there is very little scientific evidence to support these claims, in fact some evidence suggests that in a classroom setting, teens and adults are capable of learning faster.

Any teacher who has taught both young children and adults can tell you that from a structural point of view, adult learners are able to progress seemingly quickly through a structural syllabus from week to week, progressing from one grammatical structure to the next, while younger learners struggle grasping grammatical concepts and need more time practicing a language chunk before moving on to the next one. So what does a two year old actually get from a language class?

Many parents have the false expectation that sending tots and babies to language classes once a week will miraculously turn those children into native-like speakers within the space of a year or two. While that kind of time period may work for children who are actively living in an immersion-type environment, if children are only exposed to one or two hours of English per week, such progress is almost impossible over the course of only a couple of years. So why bother doing language classes for tots?

Language acquisition in many respects is a numbers game. Like getting good at anything, you need to put in the hours. Study after study has found that one of, if not the biggest factor in successful language acquisition is the amount of language exposure the learners receive, so while a child is not going to become fluent in two years, those language classes provide two years of valuable extra input, compared to a child who has never been exposed to English. It may not sound like much, but laying a foundation for learning now means that the child already has that base for when they need it later on in life.

But what do language classes for two and three year olds look like? And what should you expect from the two year old language student? Firstly, it is important to note that the language acquisition process is largely receptive at first. That means that children often go through long periods where they are not speaking very much but they are absorbing language from the environment around them. This is called the silent period and is common when children learn their first language too.

Dealing with anxious parents

Do you often hear parents asking "How is he doing? You say he is doing well but I am worried because he never speaks in English at home!" Just because a young child may not be saying much, it does not mean that they are not learning.

Children are constantly listening during early language classes; to their teacher, to their classmates or to songs and videos and they are processing that language so that they have it for when they feel confident enough to use it. As a teacher, it can feel demotivating or strange at first when you say "What colour is it?" and you have to answer your own question with "It’s blue", because the child is not producing anything, but it is important to remember that you are the language model for your students, so while talking to yourself does not make for the best conversation, you are providing that all important exposure for learners.

Another common comment you might experience is "She isn’t reading / writing / doing enough grammar'" etc. In response to this, it is a good idea to reassure parents that in general, literacy and grammatical awareness require a level of abstract reasoning which is not yet developed in toddlers and primary learners, and forcing them to complete worksheets before they are ready will demotivate them and is unlikely to contribute in any significant way to learning.

Besides this, young children are exploring their environment around them and need to move, play, make noise and touch things. If the child is playing in the sand box and pointing at things and saying their names in English, that is a much more memorable learning experience than completing a worksheet and will probably lead to better long term vocabulary retention.

What can you do to facilitate language acquisition in toddlers?

  • Focus on receptive skills tasks if the child is not yet speaking. That could be as simple as ‘’Can you point to the lion?’’ to more complex tasks where tots have to listen and follow instructions, i.e. ‘’Stand up! Ok, do a star jump!’’
  • Tell stories as often as possible as stories help to contextualize language and often contain repeated chunks of language that are easy to remember and provide a safe environment in which tots can produce their first language chunks. Ask questions to make the experience interactive, i.e. “What’s that? What colour is it? What’s going to happen next?
  • Make learning experiential. Let learners experience the world around them through English by making sure that children can explore the sights, sounds and smells of their environment by including real world objects such as sand and water and toys which children can use to act out imaginary situations.
  • When children are old enough to start thinking about writing, let them do this in a creative way. Before children can write, they often enjoy holding a pen or pencil and making marks with it, on paper or on a whiteboard. This helps them to tune their fine motor skills which will later help them when they are ready to form letters. Be creative with the materials that you give learners to experiment with, you could try paint, chalk and finger writing with interesting materials such as melted chocolate.

The most important tip for teachers is to make learning English fun. If children enjoy going to English classes and feel relaxed in the environment, they are much more likely to want to speak English and in turn will be more motivated about studying English in the future.

English for Asia offers a range of exciting, internationally-recognised Trinity ESOL exams for young learners, as well as regular training and information sessions for English language teachers in Hong Kong.

Eve Conway is our TYLEC and CertTESOL trainer. She has worked in Spain, Vietnam and Mexico as both a teacher and TYLEC trainer as well as having worked on shorter projects in the UK, Italy, Azerbaijan and Peru. She worked for over 6 years for the British Council, where she discovered a love for working with children, particularly Early Years learners.  Eve holds a bachelor’s degree in English language as well as an MA in Applied Linguistics and a Trinity DipTESOL. Having always loved languages, she is a fluent Spanish speaker and is keen to learn more languages.  Eve is a keen conference speaker and occasional writer for ELT magazines and publications.