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Some basic features of young learners

Nauczanie dzieci języka obcego jest bez wątpienia trudnym i stanowiącym ogromne wyzwanie doświadczeniem. Jednakże, może ono przynosić wiele satysfakcji oraz pozytywne efekty, pod warunkiem, że nauczanie odbywa się z uwzględnieniem poziomu rozwoju dzieci, ich zainteresowań, a także potrzeb. Celem tej pracy jest ukazanie, podstawowych cech uczniów od 7 do 10 roku życia.

Teaching English as a foreign language to young children is without doubt a challenging experience, but it can be also extremely rewarding if it is done in the respect of the children's learning processes. Although, the actual learning processes are not clear and differ from child to child, it is known that, by better understanding of the nature of a child, the teacher is able to organize her/his teaching in such a way that the child's learning is more natural and effective. It is advisable for teachers who work with young learners to go thorough characteristic features of child learning as it differs a lot from adult learning.

"The good language learner is an acquirer; he may or may not be a conscious learner" (Krashen, 1981). Young learners are acquirers and learn new languages in a subconscious way. First, a child is not in the least interested in language for its own sake. The children's intristic motivation is usually insufficient. To a child, the value of language is measured by its ability to help him better enjoy his primary interest. Children respond to new language according to what it ‘does' or what they can ‘do' with it. They are more concentrated on using the language to convey meaning than on the correct usage. For children teaching rules of usage is not necessary and sometimes even harmful and confusing. They like using new words, sounds and very seldom worry about making mistakes. When children learn a foreign language they approach it in the same way as they learn their native language.

The way children learn a foreign language and the way the language is taught, obviously depend on the children's level of competence. The years at primary school are very important in children's intellectual, emotional, physical and social development. Children go through different stages of development. The knowledge of them, and the ability to recognise the changes in their development extremely help when working with young learners.

Teachers should remember that tasks need to be within children's abilities, and easy enough for learners to understand what they are expected to do. It is not advisable, to teach a six - year - old to tell the time in a foreign language, if he is not able to do it in his first language. Or asking a child to follow a route on a map (when teaching directions), which requires advanced control of spatial orientation, would not be reasonable if a child has not developed the skill yet. It has been noticed that concepts which are already known to learners are more quickly and easily mastered while learning a second language.

However, children do not enter the language classroom empty - handed. They already possess some well - developed skills and well - established features, which identified can be put to good account of teaching.

Firstly, it is worth mentioning, that children perceive the world in a different way. The child's imagination plays an important part in the language teaching, it is a powerful stimulus for real language use. "The act of fantasising, of imagining, is very much an authentic part of being a child" (Halliwell S.,1992). Language teaching is concerned with real life but it must be remembered that for children reality includes imagination and fantasy.

Children coming to the language classroom have highly - developed skill of massage - interpreting. This ability to grasp the meaning is a part of the way children learn new words, expressions and concepts in mother tongue, and they are able to use the skill in learning a new language.

"Very young children are able to understand what is being said to them even before they understand the individual words. Intonation, gesture, facial expression, actions and circumstances all help to tell them what the unknown words and phrases probably mean" (Halliwell S.,1992). As Fontana (1988) stated, material understood by the child is more memorable than material which is not. To convey the meaning of the words or expressions teachers should make full use of gesture, intonation, demonstration, actions and facial expressions.

Children learn and create language not by sitting at their desks doing pencil and paper tasks in isolation from their classmates, but by interacting with peers, by doing things and by own experience. They are able to work in pairs and groups. When children take part in activities, they absorb the language which accompanies those activities. A good example can be giving instructions to partners and following them, or when teaching the Present Continuous children's utterances supported by actions (for example I'm drawing now... etc.) According to Fontana (1988) material put to practice tends to be remembered better than material which is not. Children remember best those things that appeal directly to their own experience and feelings, to things that are vital to them.

Children like movement, it is connected with their physical development, and often determines what activities are right for young children. To learn effectively they need involvement of "the whole body". Activities including moving, touching, smelling, hearing, use of voice and gesture are right for children.

Teachers should remember that children have a very limited concentration span, therefore all the activities should not be too long and any signs of boredom and apathy must be signals to change the type of activity. The length of time a child can concentrate on doing an activity varies from child to child. A rough rule is that the teacher can expect to hold the attention of a normal class "... for no more than a minute to a minute - and - a - half for each year of the children's age..." (Fontana D.,1988). For example from ten to fifteen minutes for a class of ten - year - olds.

The fact, the concentration span of child is shortened, may be a result of a child's constant exposure to new things, concepts and experiences. Children are just unable to cope with more new things. As noticed by Susan Holden (1980), this can be the reason why children seem both to learn quickly but also forget quickly.

Bearing in mind, that young learners forget quickly, constant re - presentation, practice and consolidation are essential. A lesson should always consist of going over previous work. Repetition seems to give children a feeling of success and achievement which helps to motivate. However, when a child experiences only failure this produces low self - esteem or a rejection of a school. That is why teachers need to provide opportunities for success for all learners, no matter what level they are. Children enjoy repetition. Once a young child likes the activity it can be done many times, over and over again. But it is different with older children, who get easily bored and discouraged. Therefore for older children repetitions should be interesting, untypical and creative.

Another significant feature of children is their desire for immediate results. Children have expectations about what they are going to learn, and what they are going to achieve. Children want to go home after a lesson and be able to speak some English, so that they can be praised by parents, and they can show off to friends. If a child's expectations are fulfilled, the motivation is supported and strengthened. But when a child has to wait too long for results of his work, his motivation can suffer. It can result in the lost of child's interest in the task and how well he has performed.


  • Fontana, D. 1988. Psychology for Teachers. Basingstoke: Macmillan.
  • Halliwell, S. 1992. Teaching English in Primary Classroom. London: Longman Group UK Limited.
  • Harmer, J. 1998. How to Teach English. London: Longman Group UK Limited.
  • Harmer, J. 1991. The Practice of English Language Teaching. London: Longman Group UK Limited.
  • Krashen, S. 1981. Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

    Małgorzata Kolczak
    Szkoła Podstawowa nr 2
    w Przeworsku

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