Table of contents
Definition of Young Learners
Characteristics of Young Learners
Theories of Teaching Young Learners
Principles of Teaching Young Learners
Категория: Английский языкАнглийский язык

Psychology of teaching English to young learners


By Zhatykbaeva Marina Zhanabaevna

2. Table of contents

Definition of Young Learners
Characteristics of Young Learners
Theories of Teaching Young Learners
Who is Jean Piaget?
Principles of Teaching Young Learners

3. Introduction

• “Teaching enables you to be forever young. When you teach
children you share their interests and their problems. For
someone like me, who is child at heart, it is an absolute
pleasure” (May, 2005). I totally agree with May’s point of
view that teaching young learners is enjoyable and
pleasurable, especially for teachers who have good
background knowledge about the theories and principles of
teaching young learners. However, teaching young learners
is different from teaching adults. Young learners tend to
change their mood every other minute, and they find it
extremely difficult to sit still. On the other hand, they show
a greater motivation than adults to do things which appeal
to them (Klein, 1993). But before going further into our
discussion, we should know who young learners are. And
what are their distinctive features?

4. Definition of Young Learners

According to the education system in
Libya, ‘young learners’ are those who
are studying in basic education
between six and fifteen, while some
teachers think that young learners
are only those aged twelve and
below. From the literature review,
there is some controversy on
specifying the exact age of a ‘young
learner’. For example, Rixon (1999)
and Phillips (1993) defined young
learners as those aged between five
and twelve years old. Scott &
Ytreberg (2001) have their own
classification in which they divided
young learners into two main
groups, five to seven olds, and eight
to ten year olds. They added that
each group has its own abilities in
doing things and recognizing the
world around them.

5. Characteristics of Young Learners

Unlike adults, young learners have their own features which
need to be understood by those who wish to be successful
teachers of young learners. For instance, Brumfit (1991)
described young learners as keen, enthusiastic and
motivated learners, who can be easily stimulated. Another
striking feature of young learners is that they have a greater
facility than adult learners for understanding and imitating
what they hear (Brewster & Ellis, 2001:3-4). Other
characteristics listed by Scott & Ytreberg (2001:1) include
that five to seven years olds understand situations more
quickly than they understand the language used, have a very
short attention and concentration span, and sometimes they
have difficulties in knowing what is fact and what is fiction;
whereas eight to ten years olds can tell the difference
between fact and fiction, ask questions all the time, rely on
the spoken word as well as the physical world to convey and
understand meaning, and have the ability to work with and
learn from others.


Cameron (2001) claimed that “young children may learn a
foreign language especially effectively before puberty
because their brains are still able to use the mechanisms
that assisted first language acquisition” during what is
known as ‘the critical period hypothesis’.
With regard to my own experience it could be argued that
some young learners have a great ability to imitate adults,
and learn things easily but usually without understanding.
That is, unlike adults they may reproduce what they have
been exposed to, but they may not be able to interpret why
and how. Again this could be due to the method of teaching
with which they have been taught. However, I believe that
age is considered to be one of the most important factors in
the process of learning a second language, yet there are
other essential factors such as motivation, desire and

7. Theories of Teaching Young Learners

In discussing the process of second language learning, it is significant to start
with the role played by behaviourists such as Skinner who believed that
“language development is a result of imitation, practice and positive
reinforcement”. That is, children acquire a language by listening, for instance
to a word or a structure produced by a speaker or a tape that acts as a model to
be imitated. Children keep imitating that model by repeating it again and
again until they become able to reproduce it correctly. For better learning, good
attempts are usually praised and rewarded. The influence of behaviourism can
be clearly seen in the Audio-Lingual Approach which is still used in different
parts of the world, including in, especially in teaching speaking skills at the
university level.


• Nasef, 2004 investigated the
difficulties encountered by some
Libyan university students in
acquiring English speaking skills,
and found that students who were
taught by the Audio Lingual
Approach very often fail to use
different patterns of dialogues
they have already mastered in
different situations.


However, advocates of behaviourism such as
Watson (1982) argued that imitation and
practice are crucial in any language learning,
whereas others such as believe that “repetitive
oral practice, direct teaching, or language
imitation serve no purpose except to frustrate the
students and teachers”.


However, behaviourism has been criticized
by many researchers and theorists. The
most prominent of these was Chomsky
(1959) who published a strong attack on
Skinners’ analysis of verbal behaviour
which became well-known. In his review of
Skinner’s book, he explained his refusal of
the behaviourist view of language
acquisition. He believed that language is
not a form of behaviour, it is a complex
rule-based system and a large part of
language acquisition is concerned with the
learning of the system. That is, there are a
set of grammatical rules in the system and
with knowledge of these, unlimited
numbers of sentences can be created and
produced in the language.
He added that children are born with an intrinsic, biological talent to learn
language, which known as the Language Acquisition Device (LAD). The LAD
functions as a facilitator that helps children “to process all the language they
hear and to produce their own meaningful utterances” . The LAD, however, was
underestimated later on by Bruner (1983) when he noted that the LAD “was not
able to function without the help given by an adult”.


Who is Jean Piaget?
Jean Piaget (9 August 1896 – 16
September 1980) was a Swiss
psychologist known for his work on child
development. Piaget's theory of cognitive
development and epistemological view
are together called "genetic
Piaget placed great importance on the
education of children. As the Director of
the International Bureau of Education,
he declared in 1934 that "only education
is capable of saving our societies from
possible collapse, whether violent, or
gradual." His theory of child
development is studied in pre-service
education programs. Educators continue
to incorporate constructivist-based


The child develops cognitively through active involvement
with the environment, and each new step in development
builds on and becomes integrated with previous steps.
Because two of the four shifts in developmental stage
normally occur during the elementary school years, it is
important for language teachers working with children to
keep the characteristics of each cognitive stage in mind
(Piaget, 1963). They are as follows:


1) The stage of sensory-motor intelligence (age 0 to 2 years). During
this stage, behavior is primarily motor. The child does not yet
internally represent events and “think” conceptually, although
“cognitive” development is seen as schemata are constructed.
2) The stage of preoperational thought (age 2 to 7 years). This stage is
characterized by the development of language and other forms of
representation and rapid conceptual development. Reasoning
during this stage is pre-logical or semi-logical, and children tend
to be very egocentric. Children often focus on a single feature of a
situation at a time—for example, they may be able to sort by size or
by color but not by both characteristics at once.
3) The stage of concrete operations (age 7 to 11 years). During these
years, the child develops the ability to apply logical thought to
concrete problems. Hands-on, concrete experiences help children
understand new concepts and ideas. Using language to exchange
information becomes much more important than in earlier stages,
as children become more social and less egocentric.
4) The stage of formal operations (age 11 to 15 years or older). During
this stage, the child’s cognitive structures reach their highest level
of development. The child becomes able to apply logical reasoning
to all classes of problems, including abstract problems either not
coming from the child’s direct experience or having no concrete


Piaget discusses several processes relevant to the way
children know and understand the world: through
schemas, assimilation and accommodation,
organization and equilibration. Schemas refer to
what develops in the brain of a child while trying to
construct and understand the world - in other words,
mental representations organizing the knowledge.
Piaget argues that a very young child would be
characterized by behavioral schemas (simple physical
activities like grasping something or watching
someone) whereas later on, mental schemas develop
(meaning cognitive activities such as strategies for
problem solving or the classification of objects).
Adults of course have much more complex schemas of
functioning in the world than children do.


Piaget used the terms ‘assimilation’ and ‘accommodation’
to refer to the process through which children construct
their new knowledge. Assimilation usually takes place
when the children’s new experiences are incorporated into
or fit in with the image of the world they hold in their
minds. On the other hand, accommodation is the process of
reconstructing the inner image to fit the new experience
(Wadsworth, 1996)


For instance, if a child has an experience of playing with a small toy
that has a keyboard and screen, and after some time (no matter how
long), the same child comes across a computer, in this case the child
will use his/her previous knowledge about that object which is stored
in his/her mind to explore the new object which is the computer. The
integration of the two experiences broadens the child’s knowledge
and facilitates the process of learning. Thus, it can be said that
“assimilation and accommodation processes work in a
complementary way with each other to give organization to our evergrowing knowledge and understanding”.


Unlike Piaget who argued that
“language plays a role in the
development of children’s thinking
and understanding but it is not the
language as the most important tool
for cognitive growth, and investigated
how adults use language to mediate
the world for children and help them
to solve problems. Supporting a child
in carrying out an activity has been
labelled ‘scaffolding’ in which the
teacher’s task is to push the learner
one step at a time beyond where he is
now. That is, to provide the child with
the necessary support until he/she
can stand on his/her own feet. The
process of scaffolding focuses on
enabling students to develop and
move to the next step. “Some
scaffolding intuitively; learning from
experience what each learner is
capable of and how to give the last
little push each needs”.


Bruner added that learning can be achieved by ‘routines’. Cameron
(2001) referred to the research conducted by Bruner with middleclass American families where parents read bedtime stories to their
children. Scaffolding occurs here since the stories are read at the
same time each day and because of the fact that the language used
by parents includes a lot of repetition. “The repeated language
allows the child to predict what is coming and thus to join in,
verbally or non-verbally”. Students in the classroom will be familiar,
from routines, with activities and instructions which allow them to
predict the meaning and intention of new language. Although
routines take time to establish, they “make the children feel secure
and save a lot of time and explanation in the long run”


However, Piaget’s theory had been criticized because it
ignores social and cultural factors in intellectual
development, and therefore many have turned back to the
social constructivist theory developed by Vygotsky. Unlike
Piaget, Vygotsky gave a much greater priority to social
interaction. For him, “social factors play a vital role in
intellectual growth. He assumed that all individual
construction was mediated by social factors. For example, the
teacher had to model or clarify information to be taught. “The
child, then, constructs his or her own internal knowledge
from what is modelled. The child does not invent, but very
much ‘copies’ what is socially available. This is seen a process
of transmission from culture (teacher) to the child”. This sort
of interaction is considered by Piaget as “intervention by the
teacher and could lead to superficial rote learning and not
genuine understanding and progress”.


Vygotsky emphasized the role
of the child’s interaction with
the people around them, such
as parents and peers, and
therefore he stated that “with
the help of adults, children can
do and understand much more
than they can on their own”
(Cameron, 2001: 6). What the
child can do with help of the
adult is known as the child’s
‘zone of proximal development’
(ZPD) which was defined by
Vygotsky (1978) as;
“ the distance between the actual development level as determined
by independent problem solving and the level of potential
development as determined through problem solving under adult
guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers”

21. Principles of Teaching Young Learners

1 - Create a pleasant relaxed atmosphere in the classroom
The more relaxed and pleasant the atmosphere is, the more
motivated the learners become. This is related to the problem
of anxiety, which had been well discussed by Hymes (1971).
He argued that a tense classroom creates anxious students,
and thus their motivation will be very low, which will affect
their learning process. Some Libyan young learners used not
to be as active as they should all course long to avoid the
teacher’s negative comments, where he did not believe in
learner’s mistakes, and used to consider these mistakes as
sins. This attitude made them feel tense and not motivated at
all in his class. Therefore, it is mainly up to the teacher to
create a positive atmosphere.


2- Present the task properly
Application of better teaching methods increases the
motivational levels of the learners. In other words,
presenting the tasks in an interesting manner creates
a positive attitude towards learning. Teachers should
try to change the way they present tasks by attracting
the learner’s attention through the use of games,
videotapes and flash cards according to the level of
their language and age as well as by using cognitive
based activities, in order to break the everyday
routine that the learners expect from their teacher,
and to raise the level of attention of students.


3- Develop a good relationship with the learners
Al-Moghani ( 2003) pointed out that the value of
developing good relationships between teachers
and students is well known among teachers in
general, and among teachers of a second
language in particular. However, “personal
relationship between students and teachers is not
common in Libyan schools. It is believed that
certain distance should remain between students
and teachers in order to maintain the relation of
respect expressed towards teachers.


4-Children are full of energy therefore,
according to Asher, a professor of
psychology, suggested that primary teachers
may find it helpful to associate language
learning with physical responses which is
more effective with children compared with
adults as they are very active and as a result
will appreciate the enthusiasm gained from
TPR classes.


5- Activities should be fun and
enjoyable, Moon (2000) emphasizes the
idea that activities should be fun for
children to keep them motivated and
interested. In addition, according to
Piaget’s theory, learning occurs when
children take action, so children can
learn English better by doing.


6- Support and guide your students
• Children need to be supported and guided,
making them interested in the activity, and
showing them how to do it while controlling
their frustration during the process of learning .
7- Recycling For better language learning,
language items should be recycled wherever
possible using different activities in which each is
based on the information presented in the
previous activity. e.g: listening to something then
talking about it and after that reading the same


8- Create and encourage cooperative work One of the
main principles of teaching young learners is that they
should have the opportunity to interact and socialize
with others around them, as recommended by
Vygotsky who postulated that “all cognitive
development, including language development, arises
as a result of social interactions between individuals” .
Thus, for the benefit of the learners, teachers should
think about creating a situation in which the
maximum interaction can be established. In the case
of Libyan learners where the English language is not
used outside the classroom, ‘language games’ which
were described by Roth as a mini social world could
be the most appropriate technique through which
learners can socialize and interact.

28. Conclusion

Researchers interested in teaching young learners have
proposed various ideas and principles that can guide language
teachers in how to teach young learners, what skills they
should introduce first, how to choose and establish effective
activities, and what kind of support young learners need at
each stage. Teachers of young learners should have clear idea
about the process of acquiring the first language as well as the
psychological development of the child. In addition, they
should know how and when learners need to be supported in
the classroom. For instance, teachers should explain to the
children the task, encourage them to carry out it by
themselves, encourage learners to ask and answer questions,
encourage pair and group work, praise success, and intervene
if the group is clearly stuck.


However, principles of learning could vary according to the
theory or method of teaching being used. For instance, audiolingual methods view language learning as a habit formation,
whereas the communicative approach views language learning
as an interactive and cognitive process. Therefore teachers of
young learners should be aware of the different theories and
methods of teaching as well as the principles of learning. They
also need to match their educational practices to the ways
children think and learn, by understanding the whole child
and the nature of the language learning process

30. References

Brewster, J & Ellis, G. 2001.The primary English teachers guide. Penguin English
Brumfit, C., & at el., 1991. Teaching English to children: from practice to principle
London: Collins ELT.
Cameron, L., 2001. Teaching languages to young learners. Cambridge University Press.
Beilin, Harry, Piaget’s enduring contribution to developmental psychology,
Developmental Psychology, 1992, no. 28, pp. 191–204
Papert, Seymour, Accessed January 2018
Harmer, J., 2001. The practice of English language teaching. Longman
Hymes. D., 1971. On Communicative Competence. Philadelphia, PA: University of
Pennsylvania press.
Klein, K., 1993. Teaching young learners. Forum , 31 (2), 14
Lightbown, P. & Spada, N., 1999. How languages are learned. Oxford University Press.
Rixon, S., 1999. Young learners of English: some research perspectives. London:
Scott, W. and Ytreberg, 2001. Teaching English to children. Longman
Al-Moghani, M., 2003. Students’ Perceptions of Motivation in English Language
Learning in Libya Thesis (PhD). Durham University.
Bruner, J., 1983. Child’s talk: learning to use language. Oxford: Oxford University
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