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Teaching English to Young Learners

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            Young learners in the present generation may be considered to be more sophisticated in their ways of thinking and in receiving learning instructions, not because previous generations’ young learners were less intelligent or receptive, but rather, today’s young learners are exposed to more learning stimuli and are the beneficiaries of more advanced research studies. This may also be attributed to the more advanced technologies that surround children at such an early age, and from this, unconscious learning acquisition occurs. Hence, because of technological advances that lead to globalisation, more and more importance is given to the learning of English language since it has always been considered as one of, if not the most, globally accepted language. English as a Foreign Language (EFL) is then taught to children as early as five to six years (primary level). As a result, more specialised skills are demanded from teachers being the frontrunner in providing young learners the necessary skills to be proficient in their first or second languages.

According to Alan Maley (Phillips, 1993), “Teachers of young learners need special skills, many of which have little to do with the language, which becomes a by product of learning activities rather than a centrepiece.” True enough, teachers now bear greater responsibilities in a way that skills have ceased to be the sole basis of teacher effectiveness. Having to teach young children, who are generally not yet fully equipped with all the necessary skills to facilitate learning, teachers, in addition to their teaching skills, need to have the requisite patience and determination to ensure that young learners learn and reach the bottom line goal, language proficiency. As an implication, teachers need to have a greater range of soft skills that include patience, maturity determination and good judgment. Therefore, this essay aims to integrate the different aspects that take part in how young learners acquire language skills, with special focus on English as a Foreign Language, different learning styles and classroom management, and their implications to effective teaching and the roles teachers play in learning acquisition.

Different aspects influencing teaching young learners

            One of the main considerations and points of debate in academic circles concerning learners is the issue of age. Children naturally learn to understand and speak their native language because they are surrounded and influenced by speakers at home. The naturally acquired language is polished, in terms of correctness in grammar, in school where formal schooling takes place. But this is not so in learning a second language. Many believe that learning a second language at an early age could only bring about advantages to the child, but the other group in the equation think otherwise. It used to be that educators strongly believed that bringing in a second language into a child at an early age would be detrimental. In fact, teaching second language usually happened during secondary education and this practice has been established in many countries for many years.

It is generally believed that there is a greater chance that a child would lose proficiency of his/her native language once the young child was exposed and immersed in the second language at a very young age, it is due to the fact that the child has had no chance to nurture and fully develop his/her first language. However, this is not so nowadays because many believe that the earlier a second language is introduced to a child, the better. In fact, in many countries in Asia and Africa, children generally grow up to be bilingual. Others are of opinion that teaching language should be included during the primary school years to prepare the student so that whatever teaching will be received during the secondary education would be fully maximized (Brewster, Ellis & Girard, 1992).

Searching for the most appropriate approach to teaching has been around for many years, but there are two good methodological models that are being considered to be effective in bringing about learning, these are the primary and classical methodological models which give focus to language and syllabus design, language acquisition and classroom practice (Brewster, 1994). For primary approach, syllabus design is focused more on concept as opposed to classical’s linguistic.

The primary model approach makes language acquisition by having the teacher create a learning environment that promotes enquiry which generates teacher-pupil interaction, while the classical method makes use of a combination of repetition and communication. Lastly, the primary method approach for classroom practice encourages problem-solving and research tasks, while the classical approach is oriented towards language or communication practice. According to Cameron (2003), more challenges face educators in teaching English to young learners, this includes, teaching English at the secondary level where there is a presence of students with different levels of language skills, and whose knowledge depend on the amount and quality of teaching and methodologies they received during their primary education.

Learning theories and styles

There are so many approaches and theories which educators may apply or consider in teaching young learners, none of them is perfect but there are as much studies and opinions, against or for, particular theories as there are learning theories. For the purpose of this essay, theories on behaviourism, nativist, gestalt, cognitive development, social constructivism, zone of proximal development (ZPD) and information processing theory shall be discussed. Probably one of the most popular learning theories is behaviourism and its most popular proponent is B.F. Skinner. This theory believes in the connection between stimulus and response (in every stimulus, there is a response) and focuses on observable behaviours which can be measured.  He believed that an organism, including humans, may be shaped to behave in a particular manner by means of conditioning through rewards. This method of learning style is normally present in the classroom in one way or another. For instance, while the teacher is speaking in front of the class, a child becomes unruly and disruptive, the teacher then calls the attention of the child, with a stern demeanour (negative reinforcement); on the other hand, as the teacher is speaking in front of the class, while other students become unruly and disruptive, one student remains quiet and attentive, hence, the teacher reprimands the others while the attentive one is praised, with a smile (positive reinforcement).

Even though behaviourism has its uses and advantages, it also has quite a number of critics. According to Donaldson (1978), the traditional way of encouraging children to want to learn the things that we teach them is by giving rewards for success, such as prizes, privileges, or gold stars. The obvious risk is to the children who do not get the stars, for this is just one way of defining them as failures. The other risk is to all children – ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ alike.

That is, if an activity is rewarded by some extrinsic prize or token, something quite external to the activity itself, then that activity is less likely to be engaged in later in a free and voluntary manner and less likely to be enjoyed when the rewards are absent. Moreover, in view of behaviourism, Gestalt psychologists believe that children’s learning cannot be understood in terms of separate responses to separate stimuli, but rather, learning should be studied as a whole response to a whole situation. In other words, children learn a second language as a ‘holistic process’ (Gerngross and Puchta, 1998).  As a teacher, one has to be aware of the implications of behaviourism in teaching young learners. He/she has to be aware of the negative and positive effects of reward system being the main principle of behaviourism theory, and in so doing be able to strike a balance to bring about maximum learning.

            The nativist approach, on the other hand, maintains the view that ‘native’ to a person are certain abilities or predispositions that are present when he/she is born, as opposed  to John Locke’s proposition that a newborn’s mind is like a ‘blank slate’ or ‘tabula rasa’ which means that it holds very little or no innate ability at all. When applied to language acquisition, nativism theory maintains that children are born with a predisposition to acquire language, which makes it easy for them to learn their first language. According to Chomsky (1965), children are born equipped with universal grammar, referring to a set of innate principles common to all human languages. This allows children to figure out the structure of their first language not because they are exposed to it constantly, but because they have the mental ability to do so. In agreement, children’s minds are not blank slates to be filled by imitating the language they hear around them, instead, they are born with the special ability to discover for themselves the underlying rules of the language system (Lightbown and Spada, 1999). The relative ease by which children learn a second language may be attributed to this unique ability. Children naturally learn to speak their native language; however, it is also oftentimes observed that they are capable to learn a second language quite easily.

Moreover, young learners’ ability to process language structures may be illustrated by the way they over generalise the rules of English language as in making plurals and past tenses once they have deduced the add an ‘- s’ or add  ‘-ed’ rules respectively. Around 2 – 5 years old, children talk of ‘mousses’ and tell us that they ‘rided’ a bike. Clearly, they are demonstrating some degree of sensitivity to regular patterns and possibly innate ability to make analogies with the regular forms, such as ‘houses’ and ‘walked’. One thing is certain, they do not imitate invented forms from adult speech, and they are not taught explicitly that a grammar is a system of rules (Whitehead, 1990). Teachers, for that matter, need to accord young learners with proper amount of respect for their potentials learning second language and in polishing their native tongue.

            Meanwhile, Jean Piaget, a notable figure in psychology, formulated a theory on cognitive development, with four major stages of development which all children go through; these are (Piaget and Inhelder, 1969):

            Sensorimotor stage (Infancy). From 0 – 24 months. His/her knowledge of the world and the environment is very limited, but developing. Intelligence is translated through motor activity, and mobility is being developed which allows exploration and intellectual development. A limited amount of linguistic ability is developed at the end of the stage.

            Pre-operational stage (Early childhood). From 2 – 7 years. Linguistic ability matures, while memory and imagination or creativeness is developed. The child is predominantly egocentric.

            Concrete operational stage (Early adolescence). From 7 – 11 years. Intelligence is demonstrated through logical and systematic thinking. The child becomes less egocentric.

            Formal operational (adolescence & adulthood). From 11 years onward. Attains more abstract and logical thinking, becomes less concrete.

            Piaget’s theory is mainly centred on capabilities of children specific to the stage where they are presently in. In connection to language acquisition it may be concurred that whatever attempt to teach a child must be aligned to whatever stage he/she is in. For instance, attempts to teach very young children to talk may likely fail. Once ready, however, they seem to learn how to talk ‘naturally.’ If exposure to a language is left to a later stage of development, say into puberty, the nature of any learning that takes place is of a different kind. Learning a second language involves psychologically different processes to those which make mother tongue acquisition possible (Wood, 1988). Hence, based on this assumption, if a second language is introduced to a child during a later stage of development, it may be possible that the child would have a harder time to learn. Moreover, Piaget’s ideas about the sequences learners go through are still valid. These can help teachers examine the level of difficulty of curriculum material as a way of deciding how appropriate they are for particular age groups and ability levels. Teachers need to set work for pupils which enables them to experience success and yet gives opportunities for extending their understanding (Burton and Nicholls, 1999).

            Contrary to Piaget’s theory on developmental stages, Jerome Bruner (1983) believed that it was possible to teach children anything at any stage. While Piaget was interested in the structure of thinking, Bruner focused on the different processes that children use in creative problem solving putting special emphasis on language, communication and instruction which are paramount to the development of knowledge and understanding (Burton and Nicholls, 239). While cognitive constructivism revolves around the way a learner thinks with regard to stages of development, social constructivism as promoted by Bruner centres on how an individual understands matters that result from social encounters. In addition to the more important and most recognized learning theories is the concept on the zone of proximal development (ZPD) which supports the theory on social constructivism, as formulated by Lev Vygotsky. This concept refers to the gap between the individual’s present ability and development level and his/her potential level of development. Vygotsky (1962) believed that “whatever a child can do today in cooperation, tomorrow he will be able to do on his own.”

This best exemplifies the nature of this concept as it relates to the learner’s association with other people in the society, and how the learner benefits from this association, and how he/she can potentially become a mentor himself/herself in the future. According to Light (1991), the child is initially helped or mentored by a more capable adult but would eventually take over the rules and responsibilities of his/her own learning. Once the child emerges from the zone of proximal development, he enters into the developmental stage wherein tasks become less daunting and more reachable, and when the assistance from an adult is no longer necessary. However, should the learner find it necessary to go through ZPD, the teacher must be able and willing to repeat his/her earlier teachings so that the child can go through the different stages of performance again (i.e., assisted performance, self-regulation and new automization). This concept shows the importance of the mentoring process, and the importance of the teacher in the learning process of the child, without his/her help, the young learner would not be able to realize his/her potential.

            Last, among the various theories discussed in this essay, but not the list, is the information-processing theory. This promotes the idea that learners act as information processors using language as a system for transmitting information. The three primary stages in this theory is encoding wherein information is sensed and attended to, storage wherein processed information is stored for future use, and retrieval wherein stored information is found or picked up at an appropriate time. Others are of opinion that systematic processes of perception, memory and problem-solving are uniform for all individuals, but speed and efficiency differs from learner to learner. Short-term memory (STM) is where information is analysed and stored temporarily, while more permanent information is stored in the long-term memory (Burton and Nicholls, 242). As Shorrocks (1994) simply puts it, without this complex memory system, we would not be able to function in the world; we would have no way of linking the past with the present and the future.

When we talk to others, read or carry out a simple task, like recognising an object, we use these memory systems and thought processes. When applied to language teaching, this theory is demonstrated when children’s neurological systems are activated after a visual or aural input. Multi sensory activation of the brain during these processes increases the learner’s ability to concentrate and then recite a pattern of verb inflections without the necessary explanation about the third person singular rule. This can be useful but not meaningful, and is stored in the STM. So, once the child has processed and understood the ‘s’ inflection on ‘he’, ‘she’ and ‘it’ for one verb in the present simple tense, then it should not be difficult to apply the rule of other verbs. Children’s mistakes may probably be attributed to the overload of new concepts requiring their attention. It is important to note the great significance of teacher instructions to guide learners as they develop strategies to solve problems and to think critically. The use of games and simulation techniques are useful in encouraging critical thinking.

            With much ado about different types of theories and how these theories play part in the children’s learning processes, understanding their different learning styles may actually make or break actual learning. Although learning conditions are cultural and depends highly on the context and condition of education in the country or school, learning styles are individual and may be cross-cultural. The major types of learning styles are auditory, visual and kinaesthetic. Visual learners need to see the lesson and the teacher giving the lesson; they would most likely sit in front of the class in order to see the teacher’s body language and facial expression. They may think visually and learn best from visual displays, such as, diagrams, videos, overhead displays, illustrated books, etc.

On the other hand, an auditory learner learns best during discussions, verbal lectures, talking, or just simply listening. They often benefit from reading texts aloud and using audio recorders. Kinaesthetic learners’ benefits best when they learn through moving, doing and touching. They actively explore things around them and would likely find it hard to sit still for long periods of time for want of some physical activities. In cognitive development, social constructivism and information processing theories, there is an emphasis on the individuals and the differences in their methods of learning. Therefore, to understand the differences of style and how these affect the way young learners’ process information, it is necessary to examine learning styles. An effective teacher would find out the different learning styles of his/her students and make use and take advantage of it in order to produce learning approaches that would be “best fit” and apply these to particular groups of children.

            However, whatever learning theory or style, it is noticeable that many learners of a second language follow a similar developmental path, Holderness (1999) describes these as follows: (1) Silent period, children are reluctant to produce any language in the initial stage, (2) Interlanguage, first language and second language are used simultaneously in the same sentence, (3) over-hypothesis, rules of grammar are applied to rigidly (e.g., he wented out). This can occur in spoken or written work, (4) errors, may be the result of over-hypothesis, mispronunciation or mismatching language, (5) intermediate plateau, children who learn to speak a second language quickly, would sometimes reach a plateau, development and progress slows down.

Classroom Management

            After learning the various theories, and learning the students’ learning styles, the best way to maximise and ensure learning would be through the use of classroom management. Classroom management involves group dynamics, and classroom organisation. The usual benefits of classroom management depend on the monitoring of behaviours, motivation, and time management and discipline. Depending on what kind of classroom management the teacher uses, he/she will be able to address prevalent issues in discipline, behaviour and class participation. Discipline as an area of classroom management is an emotional area for many teachers, but teachers need to bear in mind that no matter how well researched and useful their lessons were, they would only be as effective as their classroom management.

Implications to teachers

            From learning theories, learning styles, and classroom management skills, teachers must be able to put to good use these very useful educational guides in order to be considered as a good and effective teacher. Based on the learning theories, a smart teacher would be able to take a portion of what is good from different theories and apply these concepts depending on the need of his/her students. It may be wise not to stick to a single theory or practice since exclusivity to only one concept may unnecessarily limit the students and teachers alike. One should carefully study the underlying and overt principles in every theory so that only the most appropriate concept will be used. Moreover, an effective teacher would highly consider the learning style of each and every child in his/her class in every lesson that he/she makes. He/she should be aware that strictly imposing his/her style uniformly on the entire class, regardless of different learning styles would only be a waste of time as the young learners may not be able to maximise, or better yet, not be able to understand the lesson. Finally, teachers must be able to come up with an appropriate and effective classroom management scheme in order to come up with a learning environment that is most conducive to leaning. All these factors and principles taken in, teachers should have a better time teaching young learners English as a second language.


            If we are to base our opinions on the theories and principles discussed in this paper, on whether or not teaching English to young learners may be made more effective and easy, then the answer should be yes. Teachers just need to able to strike a balance among the many factors available to come up with the ‘best fit’ for his/her young learners. An effective teacher just needs to be flexible, mature and with a good sense of judgment. Learning theories, learning styles and classroom management principles are just guidelines that are meant to be taken by teachers as guides. If wisely followed and carefully examined, teachers will have less trouble teaching EFL to young learners.


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BREWSTER, J., G. Ellis and D. Girard. The Primary English Teacher’s Guide. London, Penguin. 1992

BREWSTER, J., What is Good Primary Practice? In Brumfit, C., J. Moon and R. Tongue (eds.), 1994.

CAMERON, L. Challenges for ELT from the expansion in teaching children. ELT Journal. 2003. 57/2: 105-112.

DONALDSON, M. Children’s Minds. London, Fontana Press, 1978.

GERNGROSS, G. and H. Puchta. Playway to English I. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1998.

CHOMSKY, Noam. Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Cambridge, Massachusetts, The MIT Press. 1965.

LIGHTBOWN, P. and N. Spada. How Languages are Learned. Oxford, Oxford University Press. 1999.

WHITEHEAD, M. Language and Literacy in the Early Years. London, Paul Chapman Publishing. 1990.

PIAGET, J. and B. Inhelder. The Psychology of the Child. New York, Basic Books. 1969.

WOOD, David. How Children Think and Learn. Oxford, Blackwell Publishing Limited. 1988.

BURTON, Diana and G. Nicholls. Ways Pupils Learn. In S. Capel, et. al. (eds.) Learning to Teach in the Secondary School. London, Routledge. 1999.

LIGHT, Paul. Learning to Think (Child Development in Social Context 2). London, Routledge. 1991.

SHORROCKS, D. The Development of Children’s Thinking and Understanding. In C. Brumfit et. al. (eds.). Teaching English to Children. London, Nelson.

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