The following article describes the main benefits of learning a second foreign language in preschool age. Some teaching methods are described and recommendations of the usage of these methods according to students’ age are provided.
Key words: foreign language, preschool education, English language, teaching methods.
Nowadays it becomes more and more common to have English classes in the not bilingual kindergartens all over the world. The appropriate age to start learning a foreign language remains controversial. However most scientists agree that the best time to start learning a foreign language is before the age of 6, therefore to achieve the native-like proficiency [1, p.220].
According to Ali Nouri, doctor of Education, while learning a foreign language between the age 1 and 3, grammar is processed by the left hemisphere; if starting the learning process between 4 and 6 years, the brain already processes grammatical information by both hemispheres [2, p. 41]. Thus, delaying the exposure to the language makes the brain to use different strategy for processing grammar. Brain processes phonology the most effectively before the age of 12.
Learning a foreign language in kindergartens is highly beneficial for children:
First of all, children have a potential in developing accurate pronunciation and accent as native speakers, as well as perfectly repeating and memorizing intonation and grammatical patterns. Second, due to the fact that children start learning a foreign language from the early age, they have more time for learning it. They do not need to hurry and memorize as much as possible in a short period of time. By the beginning of the school period children already have some proficiency in a foreign language. Third, according to some studies, foreign language learning enhances cognitive development, basic skills performance and metalinguistic skills [3, p. 192]. Forth, while learning a foreign language a young learner also learns about the world, foreign culture, nature etc.. Fifth, in the early age children are extremely motivated to explore the world and learn new things, and with a proper class organization, it can positively influence the learning process.
Teaching according to students’ age:
Age of children attending kindergartens varies from country to country, mostly ranging from 2 to 6 (rarely 7) years old. In this article I consider the class division in an average non-bilingual kindergarten in China. Mostly this kind of educational institutions has the following classes division:
- Nursery class(托班)，it addresses toddlers from 2 to 3 years old (hereinafter the y. o.);
- Low level class(小班)，it addresses children from 3 to 4 y.o.;
- Middle level class (中班)，it addresses children from 4 to 5 y.o.;
- High level class(大班)，it addresses children from 5 to 6 y.o..
It is common that each group has one English class a week with a Chinese teacher, and one class a week with a foreign teacher. Duration of each lesson varies across kindergartens. In some kindergartens it depends on the different students’ age, for example in nursery classes English lesson can last for 10–15 minutes, in low level and middle level classes for around 20 minutes, in high level classes for 30 minutes. However in some kindergartens duration of the lessons does not depend on the age, and it can last up to 45 minutes. The time of a child’s focus capability correlates with the age, and older children are capable of longer periods of attention than younger learners. According to some studies, an average attention span for children is: 7 minutes for 2 y.o.; 9 minutes for 3 y.o.; 12 minutes for 4 y.o.; and, 14 minutes for 5 y.o. [4, p.18]. The amount of concentration also depends on a child’s motivation, thus it is highly recommended for the teacher to change activities a few times during the lesson.
There are many different methods to teach foreign languages, and I would like to concentrate on some of them. The direct method is based on a concept that second language learning should be based on the example of the first language studying model. Therefore, all the classroom instructions are provided only in the target language (L2). In order to increase comprehensible input, teaching is conducted with lots of active oral interaction, spontaneous use of the language, no translation between first and second languages, and little or no analysis of grammatical rules. As this method does not use the students’ first language, the teacher must use concrete objects, pictures or demonstration as aids for teaching [5, p. 19].
The Audio-lingual Method has some similarities with the direct method. Typically, the lesson begins with a dialogue. A student is expected to mimic the dialogue and eventually memorize it. Structural patterns are taught using repetitive drills. Through repetitive drills students use pattern sentences automatically which is helpful for conversations. There is little or no grammatical explanation. Vocabulary is learned in the context. Because this method demand oral skills, it heavily depends on tapes, language labs and visual aids [5,p.54].
The Total Physical Response (TPR) method, developed by James Asher, comes from the idea that memory increases if it is stimulated through association with some activities. In TPR, instructors give commands to students in the target language with body movements, and students respond with whole-body actions. The method is aimed on quickly recognizing the meaning of language components, and helps students to passively learn the language structure. Grammar is not taught explicitly but can be learned from the language input. TPR is a valuable way to learn vocabulary, especially idiomatic terms, e.g., phrasal verbs. Asher developed three main hypothesis based on his research: first, that language is learned primarily by listening; second, that language learning must engage the right hemisphere of the brain; and third, that learning language should not involve any stress [5,p.73]. Grammar is not explicitly taught, but is learned by induction. Students are expected to subconsciously acquire the grammatical structure of the language through exposure to spoken language input, in addition to decoding the messages in the input to find their meaning.
The natural approach is aimed at basic personal communication skills, e.g. conversations, shopping and listening to the radio. For the natural approach, the class is used to provide comprehensible input, therefore the teacher speaks only the target language in the classroom. The natural approach uses TPR activities at the beginning level of language learning to provide students with comprehensible input [6, p. 70]. Young children learn quickly and also forget quickly, therefore a complete lesson should involve “the learning of something new, the revision of something well-known and a period of consolidation of items already learnt but needing more practice” [6, p. 72].
Mostly, due to the fact that all the teaching methods have their limitations, most teachers combine several teaching methods at the same time. The amount of time spent on each method varies from the age and the purpose. In older age children are already able to sit still for some time and listen to instructions, as well as being able to do exercises which require more concentration and brain activity. Teaching younger children (for example in the low level classes) requires more use of games and less time for instructions and studying part.
Teaching English in the environment where children don’t have an opportunity to practice the language nowhere except the English lesson creates some limitations, and makes it hard for the teacher to use some parts of these methods on practice. Mostly, in the reality, it might be complicated to explain new games or materials to the students without the use of the children’s first language. Thus, it can be effective at the early stages of learning the new language to use some translation, and then as students’ age rises, to reduce the amount of children’s native tongue used in the classroom.
For children under three the stages of their development in English as a second language are similar to those of their development in their first language. They first play with the language, make sounds, learn and use single words and do non-verbal actions. These single words convey meaning to the adult who responds, elaborates and extends what is being said. Activities to assist babies and toddlers learning English as a second language are no different from those that are provided from children with English as their first language. It is important to provide a range of interactions, particularly those that happen on a one to one basis, or in a small group. These regular interactions provide the best outcomes for learning and practicing language. In the non-bilingual kindergartens, teachers have to consider the time limit factor. At the beginning the most productive interactions might be: singing, running, introducing some vocabulary and playing games with the use of this vocabulary. Mostly in this age and low level of games’ difficulty no translation into the native tongue is required. While doing the explanation the teacher might use some pictures or videos as well as real objects.
For all the preschool age students arts and crafts explained in English can help students to extend their vocabulary, practice grammar and to increase motivation in learning the foreign language. For children from 2–3 it’s better just to show them some experiments and crafts. And older aged students can participate in the activities themselves.
Every language can be divided into several aspects: Grammar, Speaking (which includes pronunciation), Reading, Writing. Vocabulary is the basic part of speaking, reading and writing. At the early age each of these aspects are introduced to students gradually. At the age of 2 to 3 y.o. the main focus will be on the listening, a bit on speaking, and children are being introduced to some vocabulary. The main activities can be songs, charts and some easy games. Due to the fact, that most children have never heard a foreign language before, storytelling will require a big amount of pictures, active explanation, mimicking, as well as translation into the children’s native tongue.
In the low level class (3–4 y.o.) children mostly already know some easy songs like “abc” and a few words in English (numbers, some animals, colors). All sitting activities for more than 10 minutes may lead to the students’ loss of concentration, due to the attention span theory. On this level a big amount of the vocabulary, stories will require translation. It will be hard for the teacher to use only the target language while teaching, because children don’t have enough experience with the language yet. On this level some easy sentences will be introduced, such as: What is your name; How old are you; how are you etc.. It may require some translation, repetitive drills and the Audio-lingual method. More than half of the lesson’s time is better to be spent on developing and action games, along with the TPR method.
Children from 4 to 5 y.o. already know many words in English and some easy sentences. So the teacher might start introducing some language structures by showing how to change sentences, how to put different words in the sentence. The teacher can spend more time on the use of the direct and audio-lingual methods, meanwhile the time spent on games and activities remains not less than or half of the lesson’s time. At this age children already can be introduced to the written alphabet, so to prepare them for learning written words in a big level class. Children learn the written alphabet during the whole year, with the association with the words (for example c-cat). Only complicated sentences in the stories and new games’ instructions will need to be translated into the first language. Depending on a group’s level the natural approach can be used during the lesson by means of communication and usage of some authentic materials (like videos).
At the age of 5–6 y.o. 90 percent of the teacher’s speech and explanations already can be done in the target language. The teacher is working on developing communicative skills as well as reading and writing. Children already know a big amount of vocabulary, sentences, they can be encouraged to participate more in the dialogs. The teacher can start working on the children’s reading skills. More complicated games can be introduced. Time spent on the vocabulary introduction reduces, and the big amount of time is spent on the practice itself.
Learning a foreign language in the preschool age is extremely useful for a child’s development. Students’ progress in the foreign language highly correlates with the methods used during the lesson. That is why, it is important for the teacher to know the abilities and the current English level of the students. Knowing the fact that children’s abilities in a foreign language depend on their age can help the teacher to create an effective teaching plan and to make an interesting and developing lesson.
The division into the age -- abilities structure is approximate. Children’s level of English depends on a group and a child himself. However trying to use more complicated methods in teaching students with low level of English proficiency can lead to the lack of understanding within the group and, consequently, into the lack of motivation. It is highly important for the teacher to use a variety of teaching methods and to be able to make the studying plan flexible according to children’s age and their foreign language level.
- Vera Savić, 2016.Current issues in learning English as a foreign language at preschool: challenges and prospects. Nacionalni naučni skup sa međunarodnim učešćem, p. 219–229.
2. Ali Nouri, 2015. Cognitive Neuroscience of Foreign Language Education: Myths and Realities. IJRELT, p.40–45.
3. Pinter A., 2006. Teaching young language learners. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p.192.
- Schaefer C., Millman H.,1994. How to Help Children with Common Problems. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson Inc., p. 18.
- Richards J. C., Rodgers Theodore S., 2001. Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching (2nd ed.). Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, p. 10–80.
- Mei-Ling Chuang, 2001.Teaching and Learning English in Kindergartens in Kaohsiung. Dissertation. University of Bielefeld (Germany), p. 65–80.