The Young Learners Issue #1 – Annie

Changing Lanes and Marching 0nAnnie Tsai
(What I have learned from working with YLs)

In my opinion, there are two kinds of people that work like mirrors and oftentimes they unknowingly help us learn more about ourselves. Our partner can do that: he or she reacts to our thoughts and actions and in a way reflect our image. Our students can also do that: they are the great reminders of ideas and concepts we’ve taken for granted as time goes by. They help you realize what you are good at and areas you need to work on. Be it adults or children, what we teachers can learn from our students is usually the key for better teaching and learning.

I’m been undergoing a transitional phase in my career this semester after walking away from my comfort zone as an EFL teacher for 10 years and starting fresh as a homeroom teacher. It is no easy step. It’s a bazaar feeling to start learning to teach like a NQT after 10 years but the experience is truly amazing. I learned more about these ‘little people’ and in a way my students have taught me how to fit in the new role. I felt I’m seeing teaching from fresh perspectives and have learned quite a lot from my children. So to celebrate my halfway up to the first year as a homeroom teacher, I’d like to share some thoughts about teaching little devils young learners.

Annie 1

Remix teaching material
The textbook is usually the thing I have kids to get out at the end of the class. I believe that a textbook, regardless of its formality and quality, is supposed to be a guideline, a tangible object for students/teachers to fall back on; while real learning takes place in a more ‘intangible and messier’ way. I often remind myself to embed at least three different teaching media in a 40-minute session. The combinations can be various; they can be good-old-fashioned blackboard drills, interactive whiteboard games, or individual writing games. It’s the teachers’ interpretation of the language material that connects the textbook with real life. The ritual of opening the book at the end of the class serves the purpose of organizing/rephrasing prior ideas into clear concepts and logics. At the meantime, it’s also a good idea to do some individual quiet work so children have the time to reflect on learnt material.

Embed learning strategies in teaching
Have children organize teaching material with graphics and diagrams. You can always start from a simple T-chart then gradually progress to more complicated charts such as a Venn diagram. The practice not only reinforces vocabulary but also personalizes the language material. Moreover, learning strategies are embedded so children can start developing their own learning system. And it’s all part of the scheme of nurturing successful learners’ autonomy. Visual clues should be put out all year round and updated in an appropriate manner.

Having fun is always the best motivation
Little people learn from doing. They learn from enjoying the sense of achievement. For children, singing and dancing is always the best trick to get them involved in the class. However, it’s the ‘extra mile’ you lead them to afterwards which determines if the fun part compliments the learning. Even the roll-calling task at the beginning of the semester can lead to a meaningful and active learning process (Read a sample lesson plan here and here).

Step back and wait for it
For many Taiwanese EFL teachers, the challenge we face everyday is that true beginners sit side by side with advanced students, yet they share the same classroom, under the guidance of the same teacher in the same time frame. Our long tradition of cram school system, meaning after-school English education, makes sure public school teachers have a hard time setting reasonable goals and make effective lesson plans. After years of battling with the reality, I finally realized that teachers also need to step back and let the material sit in for a while. Not just for the students, but also for the teachers, to have time to do individualized learning activities. This is especially important if the routine learning hour does not meet the requirement of sufficient language exposure. Patience and keen observance can help you pick up the holes and patch them up before they got too big.

Helping them to take ownership of the language
Needless to say, this is where language learning started to make sense for learners. However, for YLs, especially in an EFL country, taking ownership of the language material may require a long time. In this case, try customizing the available material. I’ve had my kids grouped in teams make their own team songs AND draw matching posters (Read OUP project here). We end up creating 5 different lyrics and accompanying posters from 1 song. My children even claimed, ‘It’s MY song!’ Additionally, making alphabet books with local themes also encourages applying the language plus easier to do differentiated teaching (See alphabet books sample here).

Annie 2

Teachers need to experience the ‘FIRSTS’ as well
After years of teaching in the same context/position, we all need a break from fixed routine and maybe a couple of new thinking caps. If changing lanes is too dramatic for you, try to do experiments in your class. Try out the methods/projects you’ve long known exist but never get to put them into practice. Engage in local/international-wised projects so you can do your lesson planning from a new angle (See my International Exchange Project here). I’m especially fond of this interview of Jamie Lee Curtis where she said that we adults should have our share of ‘firsts’ to ‘celebrate the every day bravery’. So I’m embracing my journey as a NEW teacher starting from 2012. I was reborn again in that sense! Haha!


The Young Learners Issue #1 – Victoria

Becoming Teammates:  A Story of ChangeVictoria A. Ostankova

Although I’ve been teaching young learners quite happily and successfully since 1999, several years ago I had a particularly challenging group who caused me to feel at the end of my rope. Although I did not want to feel frustrated with their behavior, eventually the burnout effect that many teachers experience when working with challenging students began to have an effect on me.  One thing that really bothered me was the way a couple of the students always came walking into the classroom several minutes after the starting bell had rung. I tried everything to get them to change this behavior, but nothing seemed to work. One day I just could not take it anymore and I ended up telling them a story about how elephants can be trained to play football after just a couple of weeks, yet some students can not even manage to come to class on time. Being kids, they turned this into a joke and laughed as they said something like, “maybe elephants can be trained in two weeks, but we were in the school cafeteria enjoying our lunch and twenty minutes isn’t enough.”  Of course all of the other students enjoyed the joke and began laughing, too, and I thought, “I look like a buffoon.”  It was then that I realized that the only way to really change things around would be to change myself and the way I structure the class, and that’s what I started to do with this group of students.  I started to change myself.

Time For Change

Focusing on order and rules and paying too much attention to the things young learners (or learners of any age) do wrong just takes up a lot of time, causes frustration for everyone, and never has the effect one hopes for. One has to think about priorities and with young learners, always remember they are just little children. Why prioritize rules and order? Of course we want our students to act properly in our classrooms, but if the established way of ordering things and the class rules that have been set up are not working out, change them.

This is what I was telling myself, yet at the same time I felt it was important for my young learners to know how I felt. That’s why I later took the latecomers aside and gently told them that it makes me feel sad and frustrated when they come late for class because there’s so much we can do together in the short time we have together, yet when you come in late everyone starts talking and laughing or getting out of their seats. It’s so hard to get anything done. Wouldn’t it be better if we could start on time and really work together?” When I spoke to the students in this way, they listened, and the reason they listened is because I was speaking to them as individuals. I not only used these words, but as I spoke to them I let them know I cared about them and was aware of their interests and ideas. I needed to convince those students that I recognize them as individuals with their own interests and problems in order to let them know that I could trust them. I hoped next time they wouldn’t let me down. And they didn’t.


Also, I changed the sequence of activities in my lesson plan. At the beginning of the class, I always gave them something interesting to do like fun games or roleplay activities to recycle and consolidate what was studied in the previous lessons. Also, I tapped into their individual interests and the interests of the group to arrange competitive games where these latecomers were the group leaders. I divided the class into two small groups and these group leaders became responsible for leading their section. This had an incredible effect: the latecomers and troublemakers soon began to see themselves as class leaders.

The idea with changing the activities worked out just great. Instead of checking homework in a traditional and boring way, I engaged them into communicative and interactive activities that involved all of the students in the classroom. Thus, they felt some responsibility for the contribution they made to classroom activities and began to feel responsible for the success of their groups. Furthermore, because I understood that they like to talk and play, I gave them plenty of opportunities to participate actively and express them selves in this way.

It took time to move from strict and orderly instructions to whole group participation and understanding. I learned a lot from that situation and made several changes, such as making sure to always address them by name, listening carefully to what they had to say, giving them a chance to voice their concerns, and making sure I reacted to these things in a positive way. I tried hard to make sure I spoke to them with positive words rather than in other less productive ways, and I also allowed them to devise ways of their own for learning the material. Overtime they began to understand that I could trust them and did trust them. My actions and words demonstrated this. We became teammates, rather than opponents, and at this point, you’re probably wondering what really changed? That’s simple.

I changed.

The Young Learners Issue #1 – Vladka

What I learned from young learnersvladka-cokoladka

I have little experience with teaching young kids but I think this could be the reason why teaching them from time to time is such a joy for me — a time when I learn a lot more about learning than about teaching — a place where I learn about the nature of the learner inside everyone of us.  From working with children, I learn great lessons that I then bring to the teaching of teenagers and adults — who approach learning from almost the opposite end of the spectrum than kids do.

Here are three things I’ve learned from kids about learning —  things that also explain why kids learn more easily than adults do and why it is good to remember as adult learners, too.

Probably one of the most amazing things kids have taught me is the importance of mindfulness. It is something we adults, need to learn again. Watch a child in whatever activity he or she is doing. You will probably notice they do not believe in the concept of multitasking — a concept so popular (and damaging) among adults. When they build a sand castle, their minds wander from little towers, gates to water dams. When they draw, they can hardly focus on more than what they hold in their little hands, one colour at a time! When they listen to your story, they imagine every single word you say. And when they don’t, they go and do something else. They stop when they are not interested or attentive. As a teacher, you know that is why you need to change activities very often to keep kids active and interested. Engaged brains learn naturally!

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Teaching kids leaves me with a greater feeling of responsibility. Don’t get me wrong please. I am a responsible teacher with every student no matter what their age is but kids themselves can make you feel that way. They come, sit and wait for what you tell them and yes, they misbehave and do things you don’t ask them to do but they trust you as a teacher — as a person who cares about them  — and they accept you know a thing or two they don’t.  With adult learners it is not always easy when it comes to trust. It is not easy with teenagers either but they are in a bit different category – a category I love most of all by the way. The problem is that the minds of adult learners is that they are have been so influenced by all the books, methods, friends’ experiences and their own ideas that they wind up overwhelmed by their expectations and doubts about how you should teach them. They often think they know better than you do what they want and need, and they forget you may know better how to get where they want to go or at least trust enough that you will do your best to show them the door that will help them get there. Working with kids is very different because they are very different. If only adults could be more like this: more trusting.


You will probably agree with me when I say that every child is creative. However, I believe every person, child or adult, is creative! Kids’ lives are a manifestation of creativity. Adults chase creativity as if it was something they can only find somewhere outside themselves. It is our fear of what others may think or say that stops us from seeing that creative element we carry inside ourselves. You know you’ve found it when you do something with joy and are not thinking too much about the judgment of others. This is what I was writing about recently when I wrote in a recent iTDi blog post that there is an artist living inside every one of us. Look again at how kids draw, write or play. They observe the world; they try to express it as precisely as possible but still through their own eyes and other senses. Later on as they get older, we tell them to stay within the lines when they write, and not to go beyond the margins or do not draw dragons on the edge of their notebooks. Because they trust us, they follow such instructions. As a teacher of adults, don’t be afraid to go back and tell your adult students to draw the flower where there should be a word or paste a piece of paper in their notebook even though it may look messy. Encourage childlike creativity in everyone.

You can only hope they will do things again in their own way, learning in the way that suits them, learning as if it was not compulsory and separated from the rest of their lives — as kids do!

The Young Learners Issue #1 – Alexandra

What My Young Learners Have Taught MeAlexandraChistyakova150x150

I started teaching kids very early in my teaching career. At that time I wasn’t a certified English teacher yet but just a linguistics graduate. That’s why I had no idea how to teach and just copied the techniques my university teachers had used.  When it came to teaching kids, it was a completely unexplored domain for me too. At first, I tried to teach them as I taught adults but very soon I realized it was a mistake: it just didn’t work.  I still haven’t got any formal training on teaching languages to kids but thanks to my six-years of experience, I think I’m doing it much better than I did at the beginning: my young learners have taught me how to teach them right. Here are some lessons they taught me.

Lesson #1 – Every Kid Is Unique
The cornerstone idea of teaching English to young learners is that every kid is unique. This seemingly simple idea threads through everything and has several practical consequences.First of all, not every kid has learnt yet how to behave appropriately in a classroom:  they act naturally in the way they do at home. So sudden tantrums or burst of tears shouldn’t be a surprise: kids are just showing their true personalities and don’t know how to hold back.  Secondly, being natural and sincere, kids subconsciously expect the same from their teacher. So there is no point in pretending or trying to distance yourself from the kids – they will immediately feel it and will lose interest in your lessons and trust in you.  Thirdly, you can never be sure that what worked well with one kid will work with another. Kids have absolutely different characters and preferences in everything: games, fairytale characters, cartoons, animals, classroom activities and pastimes!  So it’s very important to learn about your learners as much as possible. Every piece of information is valuable as you can exploit it or, on the contrary, avoid using in your lessons. It will influence the choice of classroom activities and topics kids will be most engaged in and thus the choice of activities, which are most productive in terms of learning.

Lesson #2 – Active Participation
Another aspect of teaching young learners is their active participation in the lesson. Let kids be active and initiative, let them change an activity or a game in the way they want – if they do so, this is a good sign of kids’ genuine interest and true involvement in the activity. So even if your meticulously elaborated lesson plan is going down the drain because the kids want to do tasks their own way, don’t be upset too much: the most important thing here is that they WANT to do the activities and thus they learn!

Lesson #3 – Exploit The Surroundings
Another thing I’ve learnt from my young learners is that a teacher should exploit the surroundings as much as possible. If you teach kids at their home, there are lots of things such as favourite toys, pets, sometimes even parents that can be happily integrated into a lesson. For example, when I was teaching a 10-year-old girl who had a pet cat, I decided to involve it in our lessons to remove stress and boredom and bring in some relaxation and fun. Here is the photo of Tyoma the Cat helping my student Katya to do her school homework.

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If kids come to your classroom or house, ask them to bring their favourite toys, but make sure that these toys foster but not hinder the learning. Otherwise, toys might become a serious destruction.

Lesson #4 – There Aren’t Bad Kids
There is one more thing about teaching young learners: there aren’t bad kids, though there are probably some kids that might be experiencing some problems. If this is the case, never hesitate to contact parents about the issue because everything concerning a little kid is important. But before turning to parents for help, try to solve the problem directly with the kid – they will appreciate it and will definitely feel more valued and grown-up.

Still Learning
These are the main lessons I’ve learnt from my young learners. But my learning is still going on because every other lesson with my little students is a new lesson to me. I know I haven’t completely mastered the skill. And, to be honest, I don’t actually think there couldn’t be any limit to perfection. So, for those who have never taught kids and feel a bit scared about this, I could say, “Give it a go” and you will see how much fun it could be and how much you can learn about people skills and teaching in general. So, give it a go!


The Young Learners Issue #1 – Adam

Leveraging Young Learners’ Use of TechnologyADAMSimpson150x150

Young learners born between Generation Y and Z have grown up with technology that helps them engage with a constant flow of information and data. Yet the constant question from early 21st century teachers is, ‘How can we adopt technology in our classes in a meaningful way that facilitates learning?’ This is a good question we should ask whenever we use tech in our teaching, but it’s easily answered if we leverage the ways our learners are already interacting daily with technology. Here are five ideas that might help.

Don’t be afraid of technology
Although YLs are most commonly described as tech savvy, I have trouble with this term as I feel it poorly depicts their true interactions with technology. What I have come to understand is that our young learners are actually tech comfy, rather than tech savvy. Realizing this,we can overcome our own fears of technology and adopt the tools they already use to facilitate learning.

Adam Image1

Teach proper search skills

By 2006 about 90% of young Westerners used Internet search engines. It’s now virtually 100% with an ease-of-use mentality at the heart of this phenomenon. While Gen Y-ers still recognize the value of physical libraries, such facilities fail to live up to their expectations of speed and convenience. This high comfort level, however, fosters a false sense of ability: young learners often overestimate their skills in finding and – especially – in evaluating online information. So, one of the first things we must do as teachers is offer guidance in how to use search engines effectively. Fortunately, there are resources such as this infographic to help us achieve this.

Use visuals more effectively

In many cases, technology is enabling us to meet teaching aims in ways we could only imagine in the past. Whereas we used to search through our possessions for meaningful realia to elicit language in class, we can now use online visuals. Infographics like Nik Peachey’s Infographic Tools  (a great starting point) and YouTube video clips shouldn’t be considered as the new alternative to reading, though, as they are not an adequate replacement for the development of reading skills. However, they are a great way of stimulating interest and activating schemata.

Leverage technology to give feedback

Those few lines of red scribbled notes on a learner’s writing homework have never been adequate feedback; this is one aspect of teaching that has been greatly enhanced with tech tools. Gen Y-ers have grown up receiving instant feedback on their performance, so they can feel let down if we don’t give them the same level of response to their learning. Using audio recording tool Audacity or something like Class Dojo allows us to record thousands of words of feedback in the time it used to take to write two or three sentences.

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Handle multitasking with care

Recent research suggests that teenagers currently spend more than three hours a day connected to at least two tech gadgets — from a total of more than ten hours spent plugged into at least one. I’ve heard such statistics used to justify classroom multitasking, but I’m not convinced it’s a great thing to encourage. The problem is — and Carnegie Mellon University research backs this up — that a young brain working on two tasks has much less overall brain activity than if they were focused on one task.  It’s doing less trying to do more. I’d suggest exercising great care dealing with multitasking in class, especially when doing something creative – which it’s believed suffers the most from multitasking. If learners are looking up words in an online dictionary while doing another task, it’s probably Ok. However, if creativity is your aim, keep multitasking to a minimum.

I hope you now feel it’s a good thing to be using technology in class and that you don’t have to go over the top. Indeed, you can be successful simply exploiting the ways learners already use technology on a day-to-day basis in their lives.