BTR-TESOL Unit 5C - Very Young Language Learners
by Heidi Healy



objectives of this unit

the least you should know

who are very young learners

comprehensive questions

how very young people learn

effective teaching strategies

classroom management

comprehensive questions

video examples

reflection and responses

where to go to learn more

connections to other units in this program

online and other electronic resources

print and paper based resources

additional references



This unit and the one before it are about teaching young learners.  Teachers of adults and teachers of young learners do some things the same, but they also do things differently. In preparing to teach young learners it is important to be aware of these differences and how they change your teaching.  Most people think that children learn languages easily.  This is not always true.  You should know that in some ways teaching young learners can be more challenging than teaching adults, but it can also be very fun.  This unit is about teaching very young learners aged 3-7, while the previous unit (5B: Working Successfully with Young Learners) is about teaching young learners aged 7-12.

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John was an English major.  He had never been outside of the U.S. and wanted to travel and have an adventure. Following graduation he got a job teaching English to children at an English school in Taiwan. John didn’t speak Chinese, but he was excited about the opportunity. When he arrived, he found that the education system was very different.  The children in his class had already spent the morning in school and now he had to spend an additional two hours teaching them English.  He also felt a lot of pressure to keep the kids entertained and meet the parents’ expectations. The parents were very worried about their children learning English because English is required for higher education and many jobs in Taiwan. John taught a couple different age groups. One group had ten 4-5 year old learners who spoke very little English.  There were teaching assistants in the class that spoke Chinese to help with some classroom management, but John was completely responsible for keeping the students engaged and teaching English. The school had a basic curriculum, but didn’t have many additional resources.  John would be told what to teach – a topic or concept – but he wouldn’t be told how to teach it. Sometimes John felt like he was just a babysitter and that the children were not learning any English. 

  • What would you do in this situation? 
  • How would you teach English to very young language learners (kindergarteners)? 
  • What would you do to make it fun
  • What activities would you do?
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    Objectives of this unit

    After you work through this unit, you will be able to plan and teach fun, good lessons by…

    • Understanding how very young learners think and what you can expect from them
    • Understanding the challenges and the joys of teaching very young learners
    • Knowing how very young people learn
    • Knowing some activity ideas

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    The least you should know

    As mentioned before, there are differences between young learners and adults.  These differences change how children learn and how they should be taught.  These differences also change the way you manage your classroom. In this chapter we explore some of these differences, including…

    1. Who Are Very Young Learners
    2. How Very Young People Learn
    3. Effective Teaching Strategies
    4. Classroom Management

    1. Who Are Very Young Learners?

    Start by thinking of a very young learner you know; it could be a family member, or neighbor, someone aged 3-7.  Take a minute and think about this person.  As you read about the different characteristics think about how you have seen these characteristics in this young learner you know.

    Background knowledge

    Very young learners come with a limited amount of knowledge.  Your students are still learning a lot about their world, which includes learning their native language. Very young learners may have only recently begun to learn to read and write in their native language.  This leads to challenges.  At this age it is better to focus on speaking and listening skills.  You may want to introduce the alphabet and start teaching the written form of a few words.  One good way to do this is by labeling classroom objects.  For examples, putting the word chair on a chair. You will want to wait to teach reading skills because teaching reading is easier if children can read in their native language. (Teaching reading and writing to children was covered in 5B: Working Successfully with Young English Language Learners).  Use pictures and examples more than written words, especially if you are teaching in a country where they use a different writing system from English (e.g. China, Thailand, etc.).

    These children come from a different culture.  There may be differences in school expectations. By learning about and being respectful of your students’ culture you will be better able to develop a positive relationship with them. (see Unit,1D Culture) 
    Many of your students may have little to no exposure to English outside of school.  They may have family members who speak English or may watch TV or listen to music in English. Many of them may only hear English at school. The more you hear or see something the easier it is to learn.  If your students only hear and use English as school they will learn slowly and learning will be more difficult.

    How very young learners think

    Very young learners are still learning their first language.  They are learning the vocabulary and grammar rules of their first language.  They are learning other skills and ideas that adults already know. Many of these ideas seem easy to adults. Very young learners learn a second language more like the way they learned their first.  (See Unit 4A: Understanding Basic Principles or Second Language Acquisition for more information on the process of learning a language.) How does a two year old learn what an elephant is? An older person points at a picture of an elephant and says elephant many times. Learning language is about connecting meaning and a word. So, how does this impact your teaching?   Young learners have a harder time putting things into categories.  They can put red things together or sort by size, but they can’t sort when the category is more complex. They don’t know what a verb or a noun is. This means it won’t do you any good to teach rules or use grammatical categories with very young learners. It is best to give them lots of examples and then let them practice. Also, very young learners have limited memory.  This means you need to keep directions simple. Only give one or two directions at a time. They also like and need to hear many repetitions of things.  Do not expect them to learn something after hearing it once.  They need to hear it many times.  As a teacher this may become very repetitive for you, but the children enjoy it.  Be prepared to sing the same song or play the same game everyday or many times in one day.  Your students will have favorite activities that they will love to do everyday.


    Most children come to school excited and ready to learn.  The challenge is to keep them excited and motivated. Children are motivated by people that care about them and activities that are fun and interesting.   YOU play a huge role. If you smile and are happy, they will be happy.  If you sing loudly and do the actions, they will sing and do the actions.  If they know you care about them they will try hard because they want to make you happy.  Make sure things are at a “just right” level. Don’t teach them things that are too hard. Grammar is too hard. Reading is also too hard. At this age learning a language should be about having fun and learning words. Doing activities at the “just right” level keeps young learners happy and wanting to learn.  Don’t expect perfection. Help them feel successful.

    Curiosity and imagination

    Children are naturally curious; they want to know what things are. They like to touch, smell, see and even taste everything they can.  They are also creative and imaginative.  Make learning fun and exciting by allowing these natural abilities to shine through. Plan lessons and activities that allow children to be creative.  Use their curiousity to keep them motivated. Watch your students to see teaching moments.  Teaching moments are when things happen that make it very easy to teach about a certain topic.  A rainy day is a perfect time to teach about rain or weather.  Maybe you can see a rainbow out your classroom window.  You could talk about colors in the rainbow and sing a song about rainbows.

    Attention span

    Children generally have short attention spans; they can’t focus too long on one thing.  To help them, you should make your lessons active and exciting. Also, you should plan to change activities often.  If something is working well stick with it, if after two minutes you can tell your class is getting bored, it’s time for a change.  This can be a very simple change.  For example, you start by teaching your class the names of different articles of clothing and having them repeat the names. Then, you have them practice by saying what they are wearing, Then you play a game where they have to point to the clothes on a picture. When you say shirt, they point to the shirt. As children get older they are better able to stay focused for longer.  If children are tired, or sick they will have a more difficult time staying focused.


    Most young language learners go through a period of silence when they first begin learning a language.  It can last from a short amount of time to months.  Do not be surprised or concerned if your students don’t say a lot at first.  They are still learning as long as they are hearing language they can understand.  (See Unit 3B: Adjusting Your Spoken English) Most of them will start talking eventually, just be patient with them and keep encouraging them.  Also, provide them with opportunities to participate without requiring them to speak.  Later in this unit you will learn ways to help students participate without speaking.


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    Comprehension (and reflection) questions

    1. What are two ways that young learners think differently from adults?
    2. Without looking back, name three characteristics of very young children and explain how they affect your teaching.
    3. What are the challenges? What are the joys?
    4. Have you seen any of these characteristics in the behavior of the child you were thinking about?

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    2. How Very Young People Learn

    Let’s talk about how very young children learn. One of the most important parts of learning for young learners is making meaning.  Very young learners, unlike adults, will not always tell you when they don’t understand; they will mouth words or nod their heads even if they don’t understand. It is important to be aware of the ways in which young children learn so you can make sure they understand and are not just pleasing the teacher.  It is important to adjust your speech so that it is understandable. (see Unit 3B: Adjusting your English)   


    Children learn best by being actively involved.  They learn through experience with the environment.  Actively participating in language learning also allows children to explore language and keeps them motivated and having fun. If you were teaching a lesson on colors you might start by teaching the words using a poster or objects in the classroom.  Then, you might tell the children a color and have them find the color.  For example, you tell them the word ‘white’ and have them touch something that is white, or you might give them colored pieces of paper and have them hold up the color when you say it.


    Young learners have a limited amount of knowledge.  It is important to teach them words that are part of their lives.  It is also important to help them make connections between topics. For example, if you are teaching vocabulary to students, use items that they see often.  If you are teaching in a tropical country, it is better to teach them ‘mango’ than to teach them ‘pear’.  They have seen many mangoes but may have never seen a pear. It is important to be aware of the place in which you and your students live and the things that they see and do.


    Young learners learn best by using real materials.  If they can touch, smell, see, hear, or taste it they will remember it better and have a better understanding of the meaning of a word.  If real examples are not possible pictures work well also. If you are teaching words about houses – you will want to use pictures of houses and things that are found inside houses.  Also remember the idea of being connected and use examples the children see in everyday life.  For example a house in the U.S. may look very different from the houses your students live in.


    Children learn by interacting and talking with each other and adults.  This can include playing games, singing songs and doing other activities. Very young learners have a hard time working in pairs or small groups and so it is better to do activities together as a class.  Try to do things where each student can participate.  For example, you could sing a song and do some actions to go with the song.


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    3. Effective Teaching Strategies

    This section is about specific strategies that can be used when planning and teaching lessons. We will discuss ways to make your classes engaging and effective by using play, TPR, and stories.


    Playing allows young learners to explore, create and figure out how the world works. They learn by playing with language, making up new words, and trying out different ways to say things.  They learn by singing songs and playing games. As a teacher of young learners you also must learn to play.  You ‘play’ by doing the actions that go along with the song and singing enthusiastically.  You have to be excited by showing them how to play the games and do the activities.  There are lots of simple songs and fingerplays that you can use with very young learners. Finger-plays are chants or songs that have simple actions done with the hands of fingers.  One very popular one is Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed. (For more information on using songs and games see units 8B:Using Songs and Chants to Increase Participation, Recall and Enjoyment and 8C:Using Games and Other Fun Yet Effective Activities for English Language Teaching.  The end of this unit also has some websites that have fingerplays and songs.)

    Total Physical Response

    Total Physical Response (TPR) involves using actions to teach language. Instead of having the children sit at their desks and listen, TPR allows the students to be physically involved.  TPR is very effective with beginners and with very young learners. It works well with older children as well.  TPR also provides a way for students to respond without talking. Some examples of TPR are

    • singing Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes while the students touch their various body parts
    • the teacher gives simple directions like stand up, turn around, and sit down, while the students do the actions
    • having students point to or hold up things or pictures while the teacher say the words (the teacher says white, the students touch something that is white)


    Teaching with stories can be a great way to involve your learners and give them context for using and learning language.  Picture books are valuable for teaching vocabulary and reading skills to young learners. (For more information about teaching reading to young learners see unit 5B: Working Successfully with Young English Language Learners.) Stories help young learners in many ways. They are enjoyable and most students are familiar with storytelling. You can tell young learners common American stories like fables, fairy tales, and tall tales or look for stories from their culture that have been translated into English.  It has been shown that children understand stories better when you use repetition, actions and ask simple  questions while telling the story.

    Using Students’ Native Language

    It can be very helpful to know at least a little about your students’ native language.  Being able to ask a question like “What is this?” or being able to give a translation makes language learning easier.  If you don’t know your students’ language try to learn at least a few words.  If you do know their language use it to help your students learn, but remember that hearing English helps their language skills grow.


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    4. Class Management

    Lastly, we will discuss some ideas to help you manage classes of very young learners.  Remember the characteristics we discussed earlier of motivation and attention span. (See also, Unit 3C: Managing Classes of English Language Learners.)

    You – The teacher

    Always remember that when teaching children it is the teacher that makes a big difference.  If you are happy and excited to be teaching English, the students will be happy and excited to be learning English.  Children will pick up on your mood.  If you are upset or nervous they will know and it will make them feel unsure.  Be confident, be happy, and have fun!


    The unknown causes stress. It is important to have routines – things we do the same everyday. If the students know what is going to happen and how to do something they will behave better. You may also divide your day up into a routine of smaller activities. For example, the students greet you, you review information from another lesson, you learn new information, and the students practice the new information.
    Different cultures have different expectations for what happens in school.  You may be teaching in a culture where students are used to working alone, not in groups or where students are used to being called upon, not raising their hands to answer questions.  Being aware of the cultural expectations of both teachers and students can help you be more successful.

    Use praise and names

    Another helpful hint for managing classes of young learners is to use praise.  If children are behaving well, praise them.  Tell them ‘good job’, or pick them to be first in a game.  If some children are following directions and others are not, praise the children that are doing what you asked. The other children will usually change their behavior – then praise them.  Try to be positive and tell children what they can do. Also, use their names or nicknames, have them make name-tags so you can use and learn their names.  When we use people’s names it shows we care about them.

    Set them up to succeed

    Earlier we talked about the importance of having activities that were neither too challenging, nor too easy.  As you plan and carry out your lessons remember to help children succeed.  When they experience success they want to keep trying, which helps them to be well behaved.  Be willing to change an activity to meet the needs of your students.  Also, help them to save face.  Young learners have very sensitive egos so it is important to create a safe environment so they can make mistakes. Do not spend too much time correcting their mistakes.


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    Comprehension (and reflection) questions

    1. What are three of the ways very young children learn and an example of each?
    2. What do you need to consider when planning lessons for very young children?
    3. What are two things you can do about classroom management?

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    Video examples

    There are two examples in the video clip. This first is of a 1st grade class learning about clothing. The second is of a 1st - 2nd grade class in Peru reviewing vocabulary and answering the question "How many?" using a song.

    Click here

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    Reflection and Responses

    As you view this video clip of an EFL class of young learners, think about each of the following questions.

    • What was especially good about this class?  (What did the teachers and students do right?)
    • What teaching principles/techniques discussed earlier in this unit did you notice in this clip?
    • What changes could you make for the situation you are (will be) teaching in?
    • What other things might you do to make your lessons even better? 

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    Where to go to learn more

    Connections to other units in this program

    Here are some other units in this program that relate to this unit:

    • Unit 1D: “Dealing with cultural differences and culture shock”
    • Unit 3B: “Adjusting your Spoken English”
    • Unit 3C: “Managing classes of English language learners.”
    • Unit 4A: “Understanding basic principles of second language acquisition”   
    • Unit 4F: “Developing an awareness of teaching styles and cross-cultural style differences”
    • Unit 5B: “Working Successfully with Young English Language Learners”
    • Unit 8B: “Using songs to increase participation, recall and enjoyment”
    • Unit 8C: “Using games and other fun yet effective activities for English language teaching”

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    Online and other electronic resources
    “The EFL Playhouse For teachers of young English Language Learners (ELLS)”
    A website with ideas for teaching, teaching tips, and finding teaching resources with specific information for teaching abroad.  Includes printouts of activities. Use the drop-down menu at the top of the screen to navigate through the site.
    Starfall is an early literacy site with activities for teaching beginning reading skills. It has online books for beginning readers and phonics activities.  There are also activities for common American holidays.

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    Print and paper-based resources

    Lynne Cameron. Teaching Languages to Young Learners. Cambridge University Press, 2001. Offers theory and practical suggestions on teaching foreign languages to children.  It includes theory as well as practical ideas for teaching vocabulary, listening skills, literacy skills, etc. It also offers guidelines on using stories to teach.  Uses examples from classrooms in Europe and Asia. ISBN 0-521-77434-9

    Linda Schinke-Llano and Rebecca Rauff, Editors. New Ways in Teaching Young Children. New Ways in TESOL Series II: Innovative Classroom Techniques. Jack C. Richards, Editor. Alexandria, VA: Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, 1996. Presents 14 sections containing various classroom activities.  Sections include Social Interaction, Real Life Situations, Learning Through Actions, Music, Drama, Storytelling, Content Areas, and others.  A very practical, easy to use resource for teachers of young learners. ISBN 0-939791-63-3

    Lynne Cameron and Penny McKay. Bringing Creative Teaching into the Young Learner Classroom. Oxford University Press, 2010.  Includes ideas various activities for teaching children, including information on why the activities work and how to adjust the activities for older or younger children.  It also contains information on assessment, using technology and involving parents. ISBN 978-0-19-442248-2

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    Additional References

    Cabrera, M. P., & Martinez, P. B. (2001) The effects of repetition, comprehension checks and gestures, on primary school children in an EFL situation. ELT Journal. 55, 281-288
    Cameron, A. (2001). Teaching Languages to Young Learners. London, Cambridge University
    Cameron, A. (2003). Challenges for ELT from the expansion in teaching children. ELT Journal. 57 105-112.
    Brown, H. D. (2007). Teaching by Principles: An Interactive Approach to Language Pedagogy. New York, Pearson Education
    Hird, B. Thwaite, A., Breen, M. Milton, M. Oliver, R. (2000) Teaching English as a second language to children and adults: variations in practices. Language Teaching Research 4, 3-32. Retrieved from
    Pinter, Anamaria. (2011) Children Learning Second Languages. Palgrave Macmillan: New York

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