Number one for English language teachers

Challenges in ELT: Let's talk about the young learner teacher

Type: Article

Claire Venables, young learner teacher and teacher trainer, presents us with a list of six things we can do to work on our professional development as teachers of children. 

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Let’s talk about the young learner teacher

There are so many things that make teaching young learners (YLs) so wonderful. Working with children gives you the chance to get in touch with your creative side and your sense of fun and play. It is so rewarding when you can see the difference you are making to their lives as language learners. At the same time, it is a huge responsibility that requires a very special set of skills. As the author Lynn Cameron puts it, a YL teacher is required to have not only a knowledge of the language and of language teaching and learning, but in addition be able to manage and engage children in much the same way as a good primary teacher. Beyond the role of teaching English is the added responsibility of instilling positive attitudes towards the language and learning itself, teaching critical thinking skills and preparing our students to become global citizens. It may be very different to teaching adults, but it is in no way a less challenging or less complex task. Unfortunately, the role of a YL teacher is still undervalued. Many people seem to view teaching children as merely an extension of ‘mothering’. This misconception has led to oversimplified views about working with children and may account for the fact that YL teachers are often given less training, status and pay in comparison to teachers of older learners (Lynn Cameron).

Schools need effective young learner teachers

Despite the fact that ‘the earlier the better’ is not always the case when it comes to learning a foreign language (Jan Vanhove, 2013), the starting age for English has dropped in most countries around the world (Dr Joan Kang Shin; Dr JoAnn (Jodi) Crandall, 2014) . As more and more schools and pre-schools introduce English into the curriculum, the demand for YL teachers is increasing all the time and, consequently, so is the need for additional training for teachers wishing to work with children. A failure to provide this could have negative repercussions for the teacher, the school and, most importantly, for the learners themselves. And yet, there are very few teacher training courses on offer for this specialized area of ELT. In fact, I wonder how many of you reading this feel like you were given sufficient training or support when you were first getting started?

Due to these challenges, many teachers are having to find ways of developing their classroom practice that are both practical and cost-effective. I think it’s time to start talking about the importance of continuing professional development (CPD) for the young learner teacher. In this article, I am going to present accessible ideas that will allow you to take your professional development into your own hands and become the best version of your professional self.

Teacher-led CPD

I am a strong advocate of formal training for anyone wanting to work in ELT, but after talking to some experienced and successful YL teachers I realised that many of us started out having to find other ways of developing professionally. Here is a summary of some of the things you can do to take your teaching practice to the next level, on your own terms.

1. Build up your teacher toolkit
The ‘teacher toolkit’ refers to the repertoire of games and activities that you know you can use at the drop of a hat to enliven your lesson. It contains a selection of reusable and multi-purposed materials, games, activities, songs or lesson ideas that are easily adaptable for students of different ages and levels. To put together a teacher toolkit you will need a special box, bag or cupboard to store your materials in. These materials don’t have to be expensive and can include things like bits of cloth, a ball, a magic wand, a deck of cards, a bell, some puppets and a few of your favourite stories. Having these things on hand can help save a lesson because, as you know, things don’t always go as planned in the YL classroom. Your toolkit is your Plan B and every good YL teacher has one.

2. Put together a teaching portfolio
A portfolio is essentially a collection of examples that reflect a teacher’s practice and ongoing development. You can use a portfolio as a way to examine, adapt and improve what you do. It is even more effective when there is collaboration between colleagues and the portfolios are shared and given feedback. Portfolios can be physical or online documents. Decide early on what your objectives are with the portfolio and use this to define what you will include. Typically, a teaching portfolio has information about your teaching philosophy, guiding principles and objectives, lesson plans and reflections, examples of children’s work and assessment, videos and photos of lessons, and goals for continuing development. Make sure that you also consider how much extra time you have to work on your portfolio each week. The project needs to be manageable and realistic. Remember that a lot can be learned from just a few carefully selected examples of your teaching practice and thoughtfully written reflections.

3. Observe teachers and children in pre-schools or primary classrooms
Classroom observation for developmental purposes usually involves a novice or less experienced teacher entering the classroom of a colleague to watch and learn from what takes place. When it comes to the YL teacher, I would highly recommend finding a way to visit and observe teachers of subjects other than English. There are so many incredible insights, skills, techniques and ideas to be gained from observing pre-school and primary school teachers in action. Watching the children interact and play in their first language is also invaluable for understanding more about their cognitive, social and emotional development. Arranging a classroom visit is usually quite easy if you are teaching at a pre-school or primary school and have made friends with the other teachers there. It may be more difficult to find someone willing to have you visit if you don’t already have some kind of pre-established relationship with the school or the teacher. Don’t let that put you off, though. Reach out to people that you know who are teachers or work at a school and let them know what you are trying to organise. You are sure to find someone who will let you observe them. Be sure to arrange it formally with the school director beforehand.

4. Teacher diary
Reflecting on your lessons is not only one of the easiest things we can do to develop, but it is also free and extremely beneficial if it becomes a regular habit. There are many ways to conduct reflective practice, but if you are new to the idea, a teacher diary is a good place to start. It is as simple as writing about what goes on in your lessons, as well as observations about the group’s response to particular activities, any specific things you felt went right and what you think you could improve.

5. Write an article
If you have something that you are particularly passionate about, writing an article on the topic is a great way to both deepen your knowledge and share your ideas with the wider ELT community. There are lots of websites out there that are always looking for new contributions. If this feels like a daunting task, why not find a colleague to collaborate with? Don’t forget, the most important advice about writing is that the more you do it the better you get. 

6. Join an online teaching community
Teaching can be a lonely job, especially if you work at a school with a small number of staff or in a city without a thriving or supportive ELT community. Online groups can be a great place to get advice, share lessons and resources, network and collaborate. You can find great groups through social media such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Look for ones that are associated with IATEFL or your local teaching association. Talking to and sharing with colleagues is fundamental to our development, so get online and find or start a community of like-minded teachers. 

Final thoughts

I was motivated to write this article because in my teaching context this is a conversation that is long overdue. If children are going to start learning English from the age of three and four, we need to ensure that these experiences are affective and effective for both teachers and learners. We need to insist on continuing professional development for the YL teacher but, in the meantime, we can’t wait for the training to come to us. We have to start taking steps on our own to find ways of developing our teaching practice that are flexible, inexpensive and appropriate for our context.

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