When a variety of activities is played, it is important to connect them to each other in order to support the language learning process. Moving from one activity to others that are related in content and language helps to recycle the language and reinforce students’ understanding and use of it. However, moving from activity to activity when the activities are not related to each other can make it easy to lose the focus of the class. If students are presented with a larger context in which to use English to learn and communicate, then attainment of language objectives should come more naturally. Thematic units, which are a series of lessons revolving around the same topic or subject, can create a broader context and allow students to focus more on content and communication than on language structure.
It is a good idea to use thematic unit planning because it builds a larger context within which students can learn language. When teaching English to young learners this way, the teacher can incorporate many activities, songs, and stories that build on students’ knowledge and recycle language throughout the unit.
This gives students plenty of practice using the language learned and helps them scaffold their learning of new language. Common themes for very young learners are animals, friends, and family, or units revolving around a storybook which includes food and the days of the week. As children get older, units could be based on topics such as the environment, citizenship, and shopping, or based on a website or book relevant to them.
Haas supports the use of thematic unit planning for young foreign language learners by pointing out that “Foreign language instruction for children can be enriched when teachers use thematic units that focus on content-area information, engage students in activities in which they must think critically, and provide opportunities for students to use the target language in meaningful contexts and in new and complex ways” . A good way to plan a unit is to explore what content the students are learning in their other classes and develop English lessons using similar content.
Using stories and contexts familiar to students
When choosing materials or themes to use, it is important that the teacher finds ones that are appropriate for learners based on their language proficiency and what is of interest to them. Because young learners are just beginning to learn content and stories in their native language in school and are still developing cognitively, they may have limited knowledge and experience in the world. This means that the contexts that you use when teaching English, which may be a completely new and foreign language, should be contexts that are familiar to them. Use of stories and contexts that they have experience with in their first language could help these young learners connect a completely new language with the background knowledge they already have [2. P. 27].
Teachers could take a favorite story in the first language and translate it into English for students or even teach the language based on situations that are found in the native country, especially if the materials the teachers have depict English-speaking environments that are unfamiliar to students.
This is not to suggest that stories and contexts from the target culture should not be used. Certainly one goal of foreign language instruction is to expose students to new languages and new cultures in order to prepare them to become global citizens in the future.
However, teachers should not be afraid to use familiar contexts in students’ first language in the second language classroom. In fact, even when presenting material from the target, English-speaking cultures, it is always a good idea to relate the language and content to students’ home culture to personalize the lesson and allow students an opportunity to link the new content and language to their own lives and experience.
Establishing classroom routines in English
Young learners function well within a structured environment and enjoy repetition of certain routines and activities. Having basic routines in the classroom can help to manage young learners. For example, to get students’ attention before reading a story or to get them to quiet down before an activity, the teacher can clap short rhythms for students to repeat.Once the students are settled down, the teacher can start the lesson by singing a short song that students are familiar with, such as the alphabet song or a chant they particularly enjoy. Here is the example of a chant with that the teacher can get students ready to begin the class.
Reach up high! (Children reach their arms up in the air)
Reach down low! (Children bend over and touch their toes.)
Let’s sit down and start the show! (Children sit down.)
Look to the left! (Turn heads to the left.)
Look to the right! (Turn heads to the right.)
Let’s work hard and reach new heights [2. P. 27–29].
Using the target language as a resource when necessary
Because many interpretations of various communicative approaches try to enforce the “English only” rule, teachers sometimes feel bad when they use the first language. Teachers these days are mostly encouraged to teach English through English, especially at the younger ages. One reason is to give students the maximum exposure to the English language. Why not use the first language?
It is one quick, easy way to make a difficult expression such as “Once upon a time” comprehensible. After the teacher quickly explains a difficult expression like that in L1, students will recognize the expression in English every time it comes up in a story. Since the teachers usually have a limited amount of time with students in many classroom situations, that time is too precious to waste. If it is more efficient to use L1 for a difficult expression or word, it is normal just to use it. For words that students can figure out, the teacher can rely on visuals, realia, and gestures .
In addition, some students who have very low proficiency can easily become discouraged when all communication in the classroom must be in English. Sometimes these students can express comprehension of English in their native language, and this can be acceptable for lower level students. However, whenever possible, take the answers in L1 and recast them in English. In addition, directions for many activities can be quite complicated when explained in the L2, so consider using L1 when it is more important to spend time doing the activity rather than explaining it. In short, the teacher can use L1 in the classroom as a resource for forwarding the learning process without becoming too reliant on it . These are general principles that the teacher should take in account while teaching young learners.
- Haas, M. 2000. Thematic, communicative language teaching in the K–8 classroom. ERIC Digest EDO-FL-00- http://www.cal.org/ resources/digest/0004thematic.html
- Pinter, A. 2006. Teaching Young Language Learners. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 23–32.
- Rixon, S. 2005. Optimum age or optimum conditions? Issues related to the teaching of languages to primary age children. http://www.british council.org/english/eyl/article01/html.