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How many books to teach a six year old?

<![CDATA[Yannis is 6 years old and last year his parents decided it was about time he started learning English. So they enrolled him in the local foreign language centre, part of a big franchise of similar centres in Greece and the Balkans.

What is the best way of teaching young pre-school children English?

Well, this blog post is not about how it should be done. I take it as a given that my readers understand and accept that children at this age should be taught through play, following an oral first approach, delaying reading and writing especially if the child has not yet started school in his/her mother tongue.

Should coursebooks be used at this age?

Personally, I would steer away from using a coursebook for this age group, but I do understand why the school might pick out something, just to keep interfering parents at bay …(“What? No coursebook? And how is my child going to study? And how am I going to be able to help him do his homework? , etc. etc.” ). Language schools are businesses, too, and losing students to the school next door is not uncommon – I have heard of good schools losing young pupils because they “were not doing Grammar and did not have a Grammar book”.

Yannis’ dad (who used to be in one of my business English classes) called me up to ask for my opinion. His question was “How come I have to buy 5 (five) books for my six-year-old? How many will I have to buy him when he goes up a few levels?” Even though he is not an educator, his instincts kept telling him that something was not right.

So here is the list of books for a 6-year-old

xxxxxx Alphabet Book with cassette
xxxxxx Primary 1 Course book
xxxxxx Primary 1 Language Booster
xxxxxx Primary 1 Test Book
xxx xxxxxx x xxx xxxxx 1 Pupil’s Video Book

How can this be?  When will there be time for oral work, for fun and games in this class, when so many pages, units, exercises, tests, have to be covered by a harrassed teacher who has to show that s/he has covered every page?

I am especially concerned by the “language booster” title and, even worse, by the “test book” ! Testing a 6 year old may seem like a normal practice to some, but I hope not to all educators. Creating a sense of high anxiety in a child goes against all I believe in for learners of such tender years!

And how can parents afford to pay so much money for so many books? If we calculate their cost ( a minimum of 160-180 euros) and then think of the 200 branch schools of the particular franchise, the numbers begin to make some sense.

These sales have made some publisher very very happy. I sincerely hope they have not also made the franchise equally happy and I am pretty certain that this is not the only publisher with similar sales.

Are young pupils and their unsuspecting parents the lifesaving force of publishing houses?

Or should this be blamed on local practices only?

(In my particular locale, the least experienced, least trained and least well-paid teachers are budled into young learners’ classes – this logic dictates giving the teacher as many books as possible to “keep the teacher busy” and, I suppose, out of mischief…)

What are the practices in other countries?  I hope some of you may find the time to share some information on this.]]>

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13 replies »

  1. Marisa,

    Unfortunately, in the US this is a common practice. I teach this age group now in Germany and I do believe students should be taught with engaging techniques that are fun and pedagogically sound. We don’t use a text, but use an English curriculum. This curriculum has songs with funny animal voices, encourages TPR and role-playing games, has fun assessments, software and online games, flash cards, and so forth. In addition, I use finger chants, puppets, hands-on activities, experiments, felt board activities, and sometimes dress up when I tell the stories. The best learning motivates children to explore and investigate! The worst type of learning is the type that bores you and makes you hate the subject or going to school!

  2. Nearly all of my kindergarten students are English language learners (ELLs)
    I teach in a district that has a regimented and scripted ‘language arts’ program for all of its students, but somehow they have adopted a fairly engaging program for the ELLs. The program uses chants, songs, realia, pictures, and kinesthetics to help students acquire language. Songs, videos, poems, and having well illustrated storybooks read to them combined with playful interaction with English speaking peers is the best way to teach small children.
    I would not endorse ‘textbook’ driven language acquisition for a six year old. Until students are either literate in their ‘home’ language or fluent enough in English, the introduction of text is another hurdle. I developed bilingual fluency in Spanish relying heavily on texts, but I was already a literate adult.

  3. Ouch! That book list does seem like overkill for a 6 year old. I’ve seen excellent classes with and without textbooks (and also lousy classes both with and without). I think it’s the teacher that makes the biggest difference. An experienced teacher likely prefers to create her own syllabus and materials. However, as you point out, the least trained and least experienced are often stuck in children’s classes, and a good text (plus teacher’s book) can be a big help.

    Quite often (at least in Asia) language school chains prefer to publish their own coursebooks rather than buy commercial–usually to create an additional source of income for the school.

    One reason I like using a coursebook is that we can play games with the vocabulary on each page (which students can then play at home with parents and siblings), and I like my students to see English text on the pages from the start–they don’t read, but get the idea that English moves from left to right, that the alphabet has both big and little letters, and that each letter has its own sound. We play games with the letters and sounds and they become comfortable seeing written English long before learning to “read” and before they learn to use the English alphabet to represent Japanese sounds (in 4th grade).

    In the spirit of full disclosure, I should share that I am a coursebook author. But, since my books use American Englsih, and don’t have alphabet or booster components, I’m pretty sure they’re not the ones being pushed in this school 🙂

    Since language schools are a business, perhaps Yanni’s father can look for a place that does a better job of teaching through play. At six, that’s the most effective (and efficient) way of learning!

  4. Thank you all for your comments.

    Shelly, having a curriculum and doing the things you are doing is definitely a step forward! In my country, the syllabus is driven by the coursebook and the concept of curriculum development and all it entails in terms of teaching very young pupils, is left very much up to the choices & designs of some author (apologies to Barbara…) and some editor, who may or may not be that familiar with cognitive develoment in young children. This is the bad end of publishing for children, obviously.

    Katje, I am glad you agree with me on the point that unless mother tongue literacy has taken a firm hold in the child, it can be very confusing to have so much textbook driven language thrown at them and your curriculum seems to be a much more appropriate one!

    Barbara, there is no doubt that a well designed coursebook may be a great help, especially to a new teacher with little knowledge of what makes children tick. But my personal preference would be for something resembling some sort of “reader” or storybook which resembles books parents read to children when they are very young – why not copycat parents, who seem to instinctively know how language acquisition works? I don’t recall any gapfills or such stuff in my bedtime storybooks and yet, they do the trick the world over.

    Yannis’ dad’s choices are extremely limited, unfortunately. Most language schools I know of seem to be operating under a similar rule – and the more enlightened ELT managers have to make concessions to keep their schools open.

  5. I’m sorry that Yannis’ dad doesn’t have more choices. Unfortunately, since language schools are businesses, they are consumer driven. And consumers, in the case of young learners, are parents. If parents think quality=more books + tests, then schools will fall over themselves to offer what they want. And publishers will create what there’s a market for.

    Unfortunately, I’ve seen the same thing in Asia–especially in Taiwan and Korea. It saddens me to see children learning like little adults.

    I love storybooks–so do my students, and their parents. I’m glad Greece has voices like yours, being advocates for age-appropriate education.

    If schools heavy on structure and assessment are the only choices, maybe Yannis’ dad should consider beginning English instruction at home, with a storybook. Maybe you can create a parents’ guide to teaching English to get them started. I’d be happy to help!

  6. I couldn’t agree more Marissa!

    I think there are two problems here: The frontisteria and publishers obviously gain more income from this situation. Also as you point out it is easier and less time consuming for teachers to just walk into the class and teach/read the textbooks.

    The second battle though is with the parents themselves. I have been lucky enough to work with some parents who trust me and are happy for the children to do up to 2 years with me where we just play games, use storybooks as I would with my own children at this age etc but these are few and far between. (I should mention here that I teach private lessons not classes) Even amongst those who seem to “get it” at the beginning as soon as the child is in class 1 at school the pressure starts. And where is it coming from? other parents at the school gate, parties, ballet classes etc.

    Having children myself who have been through the greek school system I know how hard it can be to remain steadfast to your principles! I have been admonished many times for the fact that my children “did” their first certificate and proficiency “late” (because they are bilingual and they should have done these exams early!!!!)

    This year I lost a great pupil because I haven’t pushed her to get ahead of school work/other children in fronisteria etc Her parents and i had endless discussions over the years about language aquisition and even though she was an excellent and adventurous communicator, they have gone to another teacher to get her ahead of her classmates! (who I am sure wouldn’t be able express themselves as well as she could)It’s a question of priorities I suppose!

    This question of curriculum time pressure also raises many questions. Sometimes students have had a bad day, are feeling sad/unhappy/tired so then we have a games day. Does it really matter if we don’t do any “real” work for one hour of the many they spend at their desks? My bag is always full of games for just such eventualities!

    I don’t know what the answer is. So I just carry on in my little world knowing that “my students” love their lessons and enjoy all that we do!

  7. What a pleasure to see you here, Adele! Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

    You must be pretty upset about losing that student… for such wrong reasons! I have seen that happen so many times – excellent teachers losing pupils, excellent schools having to shut down because some grammar mafia opened next door advertising the fact that THEIR pupils do grammar and THEY have a special grammar book, blah blah….

    I have even been called in by schools to do parent training – but will those parents listen?

    The same parents would take their child to the dentist and NEVER dream of telling the dentist how to hold the drill…. so why do they think they know how children learn languages best is a mystery to me!

    We have to keep trying though – don’t give up and keep making these pupils happy with your lessons.

    🙂

  8. Hello Marissa

    I’m touched that you remember me – you must have so many people passing through CELT!

    I love the idea of parent training and think it would be extremely beneficial…….Also before any child starts a foreign language I think it would be beneficial to have a parents evening about language aquisition – someone asked me recently why I spoke english to a 10 month old (greek child) when they (babies) can’t understand or talk) !!

    I’m only upset about losing the pupil from the point of view that I was very fond of her. Anyway she loves english so I feel I’ve given her a great start….

  9. Hello Marisa,
    I am really happy to come in contact with you, even if it is via a blog. By the way, I have read some invigoratiog stuff here, and I really liked the idea of a blog.

    I would also like to sympathise with my colleague who lost one of her students. Any one of us has had a similar experience and I really know how it feels. At least she’s got a clear conscience, and that’s all that matters now.

    As for the issue of coursebooks in relation to young learners I would like to add my own perspective. Parents should not be blamed for what they ask. This is the usual trend and they feel that by that way they serve their children’s own benefit. They are not trained to judge teaching methodology anyway. The greek educational system is the one to blame, as it does not leave any room for something more fascinating and intriguing. Nevertheless, the middle ground can give the solution, I think. Coursebooks, Yes!But leave room for other things as well. Train learners to accept different things, supply them with fun material. When learners feel that they are learning, they will continue asking you to bring some other material to have fun. It’s a game we all have to play!

  10. Adele,

    The parent training idea is worth exploring – not in just one but in many languages. Perhaps this is a good idea for a collaborative project with teachers around the world taking part.

    Sophia,

    Long time no see! Hope you are doing well personally and professionally! Yes, the middle ground sounds like a good idea – if parents are willing to listen.

  11. Hi Marisa,
    Catching up on some blog reading. I find all of the contributions very interesting. Luckily although I have worked in Greece for nearly 35 years now I have been lucky with the schools I have worked for and haven’t had such bad experiences as many of the teachers you describe.
    I would like to make one point about books though as an illustration as to how books are also seen culturally. When I was at school in Great Britain having a set text book for a class was the exception rather than the rule, in fact my entire primary education took place WITHOUT the assistance of text books. The only book we had was a reading book and that up to a certain level was a diffrent book for each child depending on individual reading level.[I believe that now they do have text books for maths] Having mentioned this lack of books to many of my Greek, teacher friends, even the good ones, they cannot concieve of an education system without course/text books. Of course every school in GB comes equipped with an extensive library even at primary level.
    So to get back to my point. If the education system doesn’t have the experience of non-textbook teaching or doing anything that is not in a state prescribed text book , the future teacher will find it extremely difficult to envisage teaching in any other way than the way in which he or she was taught. Since the majority of teachers do not take courses at CELT or similar teacher training centres they can hardly be blamed for continuing in the tradition in which they were taught. Likewise the parents are also stuck in this mind lock of the necessity of books having been a part of the same system.
    Just how this situation is ever going to be resolved should have been on the agenda of lifetime of education ministers whose sole aim appears to have been to determine how many exams kids should take when they should take them and what their marks/grades should count for. But that as you say is another can of worms!

  12. What an important point you have made Heidi – yes, I hadn’t thought of the local education culture and its affinity to textbooks. Indeed!

    No wonder language schools are crazy about anything published with -book and the second half of the word!!!

    The more book things you have, the more knowlegde you must be meting out, right?

    Thank you so much for your insight.

    Marisa

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