English Language Teaching might still be perceived as a fairly marginal professional activity in many contexts, relying on teachers with little or no formal education in the field. Finding committed language teachers who display basic competences to successfully perform their job is likely to be one of the biggest challenges managers face nowadays. When it comes to identifying teachers for young learners, the challenge is even bigger for a number of reasons. One of the reasons why teaching young learners might be particularly challenging relates to the fact that a more comprehensive approach needs to be given to teaching this age group. The learning process should go beyond the language itself or the ability to help learners establish intelligible communication. Working with young learners means helping them develop in a more holistic way. Read (1998), for example, explores the idea that language learning is part of whole learning and that it is our role, as educators, “to help lay secure foundations for all those years in the future when they will continue to study.” Not something that one can easily learn how to do in formal teacher development initiatives.
The YLs teacher also seems to need a greater level of awareness of their role, reflecting upon how their decisions can impact the motivation of their students. For example, Cameron (2001) talks about the importance of striking a balance between demands and support and suggests teachers apply the Goldilocks principle: tasks that are demanding but not too demanding and in which the teacher provides support but not too much support. Being sensitive to the appropriate balance between challenge and support demands experience, knowledge and a willingness to truly connect with learners. It is not easy for organizations to find professionals with this background and drive. Neither is it easy to implement an environment of reflection that will allow for further investigation of how their practice might be improved. Oftentimes the teaching of young learners is considered to be a ‘simpler task’ directed to the novice teacher, who is still getting their bearings.
Adding to the (often neglected) complexity of teaching English to young learners, Brewster et al (2002, p. 53) raise the importance of ‘learner training’ and how activities can gradually lead pupils to a conscious development of their own learning strategies so they can become more independent learners. Pinter (2006, p.99) reinforces this belief by discussing the aim of incorporating some kind of ‘learning to learn’ in our language classroom in order to raise children’s awareness of the various factors that influence their learning and their thinking. Nonetheless, in my experience as a manager, only teachers who are aware of the strategies they themselves resort to and who are conscious of their own development as professionals can move on to implement effective learner training in their lessons. Given that it is considered to be an important feature in the YLs classroom, as suggested by Pinter and Brewster et al, allocating more senior teachers to deal with this age group would be the ideal course of action to a manager of YLs. However, although this allocation may sound ideal, it does not seem to be very feasible in practical terms.
There are other features in the teaching and learning process that can be specific to the context of dealing with YLs. Testing and assessment, for instance, also need to be carried out by professionals who understand the specificities of how children think and behave and what they need. Students in this age group can, for example, be negatively affected by assessment techniques used for older learners (Ionnaou-Georgiou and Pavlou, 2003) - hence the importance of devising tools that account for the children’s motor, affective, linguistic, social and conceptual development. I have encountered, nevertheless, several assessment tools that fail to recognize that children are different from adults. Raising this awareness in all teachers who work with young learners is a challenge managers seem to face today. Managers need to help teachers develop an understanding that in spite of the threatening potential that children may see in any kind of assessment, it can still be an important component of their learning process. Ionnaou-Georgiou and Pavlou (2003), for instance, defend its importance and list some purposes that assessment can serve: (1) to monitor and aid children’s progress, (2) to provide children with evidence of their progress and enhance motivation, (3) to monitor performance and plan for future work and (4) to provide information for parents.
In summary, I believe that more attention needs to be paid to the importance that the YLs teacher has and the complexity that their work presents. Being a manager in this context can be particularly challenging when it comes to recruiting and investing in the right human resources that also understand their role and the specific demands that working with YLs raise. From my experience, these are some of the most common obstacles to the recruiting and development of an effective teaching staff of YLs:
Language Proficiency is often underestimated: many organizations believe that one doesn’t need to have a very high level of proficiency in the English language if they are ‘only’ going to teach children. This belief prevents a lot of professionals who work with young learners from investing in their own language awareness, creating a paradigm based on poor command of the target language that can be extremely detrimental to the children’s development.
Few professionals are interested in this age group: there are several career paths for the English Language teacher (ranging from the university context to Business English) that might seem more profitable and easier. Dealing with young learners demands specific knowledge of language acquisition and pedagogy that might discourage professionals who are not particularly interested in this area of expertise. Some teachers, who feel they have a better chance of securing a job when working with young learners, end up transferring the skills they use when teaching adults without delving into the features that might be specific to a very different profile of learners.
There aren’t many development opportunities that cater for this age group: many teaching awards and international courses focus on a range of techniques, methods, approaches and practice that do not necessarily prepare teachers for the reality of a young learners’ context. Many professionals I have worked with mentioned that they felt unprepared and expressed a desire for further training that aimed specifically at this age group.
Managing teachers of young learners today means finding professionals who are not just experimenting with the career, and who display a good level of language proficiency and solid knowledge of the age group. It also means creating opportunities for them to develop continuously and acknowledge the importance of the work they do. These are tasks that grow more and more challenging as we learn more about the complexity that lies within effectively educating children in a second or foreign language so that they become whole learners and, hopefully, more fulfilled human beings.
Brewster et al (2002) The Primary English Teacher’s Guide. New Edition. Essex, England, Penguin English Studies.
Cameron, L. (2001) Teaching Languages to Young Learners. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Ionnaou-Georgiou, S. & Pavlou, P. (2003) Assessing Young Learners – Resource Books for Teachers, Series Editor Alan Maley. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Pinter, A. (2006) Teaching Young Language Learners. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Read, C. (1998) Towards Whole Learning. In: Young Learners: Creating a Positive and Practical Learning