BTR-TESOL Unit 5B - Young Language Learners
by Heidi Healy



objectives of this unit

the least you should know

who are young learners

comprehensive questions

how young people learn

effective strategies

class 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 next one (Unit 5C: Working Successfully with Very Young English Language Learners) are about teaching English as a second language to children. This unit focuses on teaching English abroad (Usually, state certified teachers teach English as a second language to children in the United States.) Many other BTR-TESOL units can be combined with the information contained in this unit to help you be successful in teaching children.  This unit discusses the needs of children aged 7-12 years who are learning another language.  The next unit covers younger children, aged 3-7.

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Sara was studying at a local university.  She decided she wanted to spend the summer abroad volunteering. She found an organization that sent volunteers around the world to help with various needs.  She noticed there was a high demand for English teachers.  She thought this would be the perfect opportunity for her. Sara applied to volunteer with the organization and was assigned to teach English to children in Thailand.  As the date for her to leave got closer Sara realized that she didn’t know very much about teaching basic English to children.  Additionally, while she enjoyed playing with her nieces and nephews, she was always grateful when their parents took charge when they were crying or misbehaving.  She became nervous as she thought about teaching children English.  How was she supposed to teach a language to children?  How would the children behave? How would she teach the ABCs to children who used the Thai alphabet?  How would she talk to them when they spoke little English and she spoke no Thai? 

  • What would you teach to the children in Sara’s class? 
  • What activities would you use? 
  • Would you try to teach reading and writing or just focus on speaking and listening?
  • What could you do to make it fun for the children?
  • What would you do if the children misbehaved?
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    Objectives of this unit

    After you work through this unit, you will be able to work successfully with children by…

    • Planning fun, effective lessons
    • Understanding more about children, so you know what to expect
    • Knowing what things help children learn
    • Knowing some basic classroom management skills

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    The least you should know

    There are differences between young learners and adults.  There are also differences between very young learners (ages 3-7) and young learners (ages 7-12). These differences affect how they learn and how they should be taught.  These differences also affect the way you run your classroom. In this unit you will learn about some of these differences, including…

    1. Who are young learners
    2. How young people learn
    3. Effective teaching strategies
    4. Classroom Management

    1. Who are young learners?

    Start by thinking of a young learner you know, such as a family member or neighbor.  Think of a child about 8-9 years old. Take a minute and think about this child. What do they like to do? What do they think is interesting? What do they have a hard time with? As you read this unit think about how you have seen these characteristics in an older child you know.

    Background knowledge

    Most children in this age group have attended a few years of school, but their knowledge is still limited. Most children in this age group read and write in their native language. This greatly increases their knowledge about their native language.  It also increases their knowledge about language in general. This means it is easier to teach them to read and write.

    Your students come from a different culture, so their expectations about school may be different.  (see Unit1D: Dealing with cultural differences and culture shock)  You will want to become familiar with the expectations of other teachers and parents.

    Some children may only hear and speak English during English class.  Others may hear it more often. You will want to find out how much English your students listen to.  Most people think children are very good language learners, but the amount children are able to learn depends on the amount of English they hear, use and see. Their learning also depends on the teacher and other things.

    If you teach older young learners (ages 9 – 12), they do not want to be treated the same way as younger children.  It is important to be sensitive to this need.  When you choose games and songs you will want to chose things that won’t make them feel like they are being treated like younger children.

    How Young Learners Think

    Young learners are beginning to think more like adults. They can tell the difference between fantasy and reality. (See Unit 4A: Language Acquisition) They think more logically.  They are beginning to categorize things in a more adult-like way. This allows them to begin simple grammar instruction such as, learning about nouns and verbs.  They have greater memory capacity. This means they can handle more complex directions.  Most young learners can handle up to 5 directions in a row.  You may need to start with less or use pictures to help remind them of steps in a process.  They are able to focus on a specific thing.  They can find differences between pictures or objects.  Their experiences, both in and out of school, allow them to understand more difficult concepts.


    Young learners are typically highly motivated and have confidence in their ability to do things. However, as they get older generally their motivation decreases. They are also starting to learn to compare and notice differences in abilities.  This can cause them to loose their motivation because they notice someone else is doing better. Most children will learn English for many years, so it is important that teachers do their best to keep them motivated.  Like most people, older young learners are motivated by success.  It is important that they feel successful and confident in their ability to learn a language.  It is very important that teachers be aware of students and help keep them motivated by planning lessons and activities that are at a good level.  Activities at a good level are not too hard or too easy. Older learners may not understand why they need to learn English, so it is important to make learning fun and exciting. Young learners are also motivated by rewards and people that care about them.

    Attention Span

    As children get older they are better able to stay focused on one thing, but if something is boring or frustrating they will start doing other things.  It is important to be aware of your class.  Planning many different activities will help students maintain attention.  Don’t have them do any one activity for too long, especially if they are getting bored.  If they are enjoying the activity you can keep doing it, but if they are bored it is good to have another activity planned. Games are also a good way to help students pay attention.  For example, use a small ball and toss it to a student.  The student who has the ball answers a question.  Then, he throws it to another student or back to the teacher. Students will pay more attention because they have to catch the ball and answer a question. (See an example of this in the video at the end of the unit.)


    Children can learn about almost anything, if they find them interesting.  For example, many students enjoy learning about animals and dinosaurs.  Even though they have never seen an actual dinosaur, they are able to learn about them because they are interesting. Try to use things in your lesson that they are interested in.  For example if you are teaching colors – find something that they are interested in that can be used as an example. If you have the freedom to plan your own lessons, find out what the children want to learn about.  This is a great way to increase motivation and attention span.  


    Older young learners may go through a period of silence where they don’t talk.  This does not mean they are not learning, they are simply choosing not to talk.  They may not feel comfortable talking in the new language yet.  Make the classroom a comfortable place for students by creating a place where it is OK to make mistakes.  Don’t always correct students. They do not need to speak perfect English. Also allow opportunities to answer by pointing or using gestures. (See information about Total Physical Response (TPR) in unit 5C: Working Successfully with Very Young Learners.) Young learners sometimes need time to think before they are ready to answer.   When you ask questions give your students time to answer.  Many teachers only give students a few seconds to think of an answer.  Children need to be given more time to answer. Try counting to 30 or 60 before giving them an answer. Having children share with a partner may be less scary than sharing with the class.


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    Comprehension (and reflection) questions

  • Name three things you learned about children and explain how they affect your teaching?
  • What are some challenges to teaching children?
  • What are some good things about teaching children?
  • Have you seen any of the characteristics mentioned in the behavior of the child you were thinking about?
  • 2. How Young People Learn

    Now that you have an understanding of some of the basic characteristics of young learners let’s look at how they learn


    Young children learn best by being actively involved. They are trying to make meaning.  When they are actively involved it makes it easier for them to link things together and make meaning.  Language is something that we learn best by doing. We may have students repeat words, answer questions or show their knowledge in other ways.  For example, you could play a game where you have a student draw a picture and the other students try to guess what he or she is drawing. This could be a good way to review vocabulary.


    It is important for learning to be connected to students’ lives. Many young learners have a good knowledge base from which to draw.  Many are connected to the world through the internet and pop culture.  In some areas they may not have this access.  It helps them learn when things are connected to themselves.  They are also able to associate previous experiences with new ones.  For example, they may be interested in comparing food and eating in America and in their countries.  Showing them pictures especially actual photographs of things is very helpful.  Be aware and teach them things from their culture and their community.  If the place where you teach does a lot of fishing you could teach them vocabulary related to fishing. (ie: boat, fish, net, fishermen, shore)


    Older young learners have an easier time thinking abstractly and but they still rely on real (concrete) examples. You will want to use pictures or actual items to help your students understand. Some young learners can understand simple dictionary definitions or explanations from the teacher. But, you want to make sure that you keep your language simple. (See unit 3B: Adjusting Your Spoken English) Generally the older the student the more aware they are of their own language and can begin to understand more complicated, abstract language. If you know the native language of the children it can be helpful to translate some words or short sentences.  Translation is often the best way to understand a word in another language.


    Children learn by talking and doing things with each other and adults.  Young learners can benefit from practicing English with each other.  Most of them can work with a small group or partner to practice language or do an activity. For example, they can play a game with a partner or practice simple greetings.  Children also talk differently when they are talking to adults and when they are talking to other children.  They can gain many skills by having opportunities to talk with other children.  You should show the children how to do the activity and help them when they need help.


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    3. Effective Teaching Strategies

    Now that you know how older children learn in general, we will discuss some specific methods that can be used when planning and teaching lessons. Young learners can handle some challenging material, but they may not be able to participate in very complex activities such as role-plays, debates and translation.

    Reading and Writing

    Older children are more aware of how written language works.  Most of them read and write in their native language.  Thus, reading and writing becomes an important tool for teaching the second language.  Some students will use a different alphabet.  Russian, for example, uses a different alphabet than English.  Other students will use a completely different writing system. Chinese, Korean, and Thai use a different system.  Chinese, for example, is written up and down from right to left.  (English is written across a page from left to right). Chinese is also written in characters not an alphabet. If your students use a different writing system, you will want to spend more time talking about the alphabet. You will want to spend some time teaching and practicing how to write the alphabet.  Some students will use the same alphabet as English, but the letters make different sounds and go together in different ways.  For example, in Spanish h is silent. When teaching new words, it is important that the students connect the way the word is written and the meaning of the word.  Simple pictures are good for learning vocabulary.  For example, if you were teaching the word apple, have a picture of an apple.  You could also bring an apple to class. Some other ideas for teaching reading and writing skills include

    • Reading books a loud 
    • If everyone has the same book, have everyone read at the same time.  This way they can practice reading without feeling embarrassed because they don’t know a word.
    • Talking about and practicing how to write the alphabet letters.
    • Create personal dictionaries
    • Have students retell a story you have read or told them
    • Talk about characters, settings, storyline
    • Use of graphic organizers (charts, graphs)

    Language Experience Approach

    Young learners benefit from listening to stories.  Stories can help increase vocabulary and help students start to read.  One common activity in elementary school classrooms is known as the Language Experience Approach or LEA.  LEA helps students with both reading and writing.  The class as a group writes a story based on a common experience.  You could write a book about some English vocabulary, such as color words. They could also try and retell a story they know in their native language.  The teacher and the students write the story together.  Sometimes the students tell the teacher what to write.  Students can also help write the story.  If the students are writing the story be very kind when they make mistakes with spelling.  If there is an expectation that things are spelled correctly, you may want to do the writing.  If the students make mistakes they can become embarrassed.  (Spelling in English is difficult!)  The students then practice reading the story.  The students could also make individual copies of the story.  (For more ideas see Unit 6 C: Teaching Reading Skills and Unit 6D: Teaching Writing Skills)

    Games and Competitions

    Young learners enjoy games and competition.  Games can be done as whole group or in small groups. Small groups give students more chances to practice English.  Simple matching games or other vocabulary games can be good.  Older children can compare things and sort words and pictures into categories. Whole class games and competitions can be motivating for older learners.  As seen in the video, even reviewing vocabulary seems like a game when students are thrown a ball to take turns answering.  (see Unit 8C: Using Games and Other Fun Yet Effective Activities for English Language Teaching)

    Theme Based Teaching

    Theme based teaching is very effective for young learners.  The content may be connected to what children are doing in their regular classroom or can be specific themes for English class.  Common themes include, all about me, animals, dinosaurs, science topics, food etc.   Pay attention to what your students are interested in and then plan lessons that help them talk about those things in English. (See Unit 6E: Teaching Multiple Skills in one class)


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    4. Class Management

    Managing the classroom is one of the top concerns for many teachers.  You cannot teach if the students are not well behaved.  There are several things that teachers can do to effectively manage their classrooms.  One of the most important is to have good rules or expectations. Rules are often stated in the negative (Don’t run).  Expectations are stated in the positive. (Walk in the building.)  You may need to find out what the rules or expectations are for the classroom or school that you teach at.  You also need to set your own expectations and then wait for the children to meet those expectations.  For example – never talk louder than your students.  When the teacher talks, the students listen.  If your students are talking, wait for them to be quiet before you begin talking.  It is also good to have some kind of signal for when you want the students to be quiet.  For example, when you ring a bell the students know they need to be quiet and look at you.  Practice the signal.  Have the students talk with each other and ring the bell, then repeat several times.  (See Unit 5C: Working Successfully with Very Young English Language Learners and Unit 3E: Managing Classes of English Language Learners)


    Comprehension (and reflection) questions

  • What are three of the ways children learn and an example of each?
  • What do you need to think about when planning lessons for young children?
  • Give an example of one activity you could do to develop reading and writing skills.
  • What are two things you can do about classroom management?
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    Video examples

    This is a video clip of a 4th grade class in Thailand taught by two volunteer teachers. The class reveiws the parts of the body and then plays a simple game where the teacher tosses a ball to a student and then points to a part of her body. The student then has to answer with the right word.

    Click here

    Reflection and Responses

    As you view this clip of a class of young learners, think about each of the following questions:
    1. What was especially good about this class? What did the teachers and students do right?
    2. What teaching principles/techniques discussed earlier in this unit did you notice in this clip?
    3. What changes could you make for your class?
    4. 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 5C: “Working Successfully with Very Young English Language Learners”
    • Unit 6C: “Teaching Reading Skills”
    • Unit 6D: “Teaching Writing Skills”
    • 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

    mes-english site
    This website has lots of free printables.  If you can’t print, it still has useful information such as games that you could use by writing on paper you have or even just using the ideas and adapting them for your personal situation.  There are also ideas about teaching phonics – letter sounds and corresponding letters.  There is also a forum with information about teaching ESL/EFL and more ideas of games and activities.

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    Print and paper-based resources

    teaching young language learners cover

    Annamaria Pinter. Teaching Young Language Learners. Oxford University Press, 2006. Offers theory and practical suggestions on teaching foreign languages to children.  It includes theory as well as practical ideas for teaching listening, speaking, reading, writing and grammar. ISBN 978-0194422079

    Caroline T. Linse.  Practical Language Teaching: Young Learners. McGraw-Hill: New York, 2007. Information on teaching and assessing young learners. Includes information and ideas about teaching reading, writing, speaking, listening, grammar and vocabulary with young learners of all ages. Includes information on working with parents, assessing and classroom management. ISBN 978-0071118415

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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

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