Watching Young Learners at Work: From Practice to Principle

This post is based on three activities on video with a young class in their first year of English videotaped as part of a training project for a course on teaching young learners.


 Photo Credit: woodleywonderworks via Compfight cc

Some information about the young class

At the point of  being video-taped, this class of Greek children attending classes in a small language school in Athens, had had about 40 hours of English in total, mostly concentrating on oral work. The children were at the initial stages of being introduced to reading and writing . Most of them were  8 or 9 years old but there were also one or two 7-year-olds in the class as well. I taught the class myself, so  I am “the teacher” mentioned in the activity descriptions. Although I was not the class teacher, I had already taught the pupils at least four or five times prior to having their lessons videotaped. We had also videotaped them on two previous occasions to get them used to the presence of the camera. In this lesson, they were more or less used to its presence and, for the most part, ignored it.

N.B. The school had obtained permission from the parents to have the children video-taped for training purposes and on the day of the filming which was on an extra day, all the parents were aware of and in agreement with this project. 



Compliments – total time 6 minutes

This activity involved familiar language which the teacher intended to revise, i.e., various items of clothing presented in previous lessons, and was organized in three stages:

  1. The teacher complimented one or two students about their T-shirts, dresses, etc. by saying a simple phrase: “Nice dress, Eleni” and generating the response “Thank you, miss”.
  2. The teacher  directed various pupils to ‘say something nice’ to each other, indicating what to comment on, e.g. clothes, pencil boxes, shorts, pencils, etc.
  3. The students were organised in pairs and small groups and asked to think of something nice to tell each other. Pupils replicated the teacher’s comments (from stage one) but some were also overheard commenting on hair, schoolbags and one or two pupils asked the teacher for words such as “cardigan” and “ hairband”, which the teacher supplied.


Compliments, or as I put it to the children, ‘saying something nice to each other’, is a simple way to do a quick lead in and to get them to start understanding the importance of making other people feel good – a basic ingredient in polite communication in English. The other reason for including such positive feeling activities is that, of course, young children can sound, or even be, cruel. It’s a good idea to show them how nice it is to be rewarded and it encourages better relationships and friendships.


    • Activities promoting a pleasant classroom atmosphere, and establishing a climate of positive feeling and mutual awareness and respect amongst the pupils should be used early on kapitzvirt
    • The element of personalisation involves and motivates pupils to talk and provides endless opportunities for communication activities; although 9 year olds are beginning to ‘de-centre’, this ability is not yet fully developed and they are more engaged when the lesson is about themselves
    • Revision does not have to involve the pupils in doing “ busy work “ type of written exercises
    • Pupils enjoy the personal contact with the teacher who may comment about them and uses them as the “ subject” of the lesson



A Jazz chant – total time 12 minutes

The rhyme used for this chant had already been introduced to the class in a previous lesson

  1. In stage one the whole class chanted the lines rhythmically, prompted by the Teacher using a set of  picture flash cards.
  2. In stages two & three the class divided in two teams, “the Lions“  and “the Tigers“,  chanted Questions and Response lines alternating roles .


The Chant

Questions ……………………………………….Answers

Where’s my little mouse?…………………I’m here! I’m here! I’m in the house!
Where’s my little cat? ……………………… I’m here! I’m here! I’m in the hat!
Where’s the red fox? ……………………….. I’m here! I’m here! Behind the box!
Where’s the green frog? ………………… I’m here! I’m here! I’m under the dog!
Where’s the honey bee?………………… I’m here! I’m here! Between the two trees!


Every time I watch this, I cannot help but notice how the children’s level of comprehension was much higher than their ability to produce language. Another interesting comment has to do with the difficulty the children had with the last line of the chant. The structural complexity of the last line is to blame, of course, and the fact that possibly the different rhythmical pattern may have confused the class.

This was clearly a bad line and a mistake on my part when writing the chant;  the children had enough to do what with memorising the lines, the animals, the prepositions…. having to deal with this suprising complexity was a little bit too much for most of them. Comment: Despite the point just made, I am always surprised when I watch this video by the fact that some children were in fact able to reproduce this uinecessarily complex line. Some learners do learn despite their teachers!!!

Principles drawn from this classroom event

    • The Teacher’s language is a rich source of input and, though simplified, can enhance comprehension and promote acquisition.
    • The lesson should include lots of short 5-7 minute activities as children lose their concentration quite quickly.
    • The Teacher encourages the use of team or group names to promote group membership and help classroom dynamics.
    • The children repeat a poem or a rhyme to satisfy their need for repetition, rhyme and music- even if they do not understand all the words or grammar of the language included.


The “Please” Game” – total time 10 minutes

This game is an adaptation of the well known Simon says” listening game, in which the children are not supposed to perform a command if the teacher does not include the word “please” in it because it’s not “nice”.

  1. In stage one, the teacher gave a variety of commands to the class, which also included the prepositions of relative location introduced earlier in the chant. The teacher preformed the actions at the same time as the children to facilitate understanding and promote acquisition of the items.
  2. Individual pupils were then invited/encouraged to give the teacher a variety of commands using or not using “please”. The teacher was instructed to run, jump,close her mouth, ( ! ) , * speaking, etc. The teacher followed the pupils’ commands but did not correct accuracy errors like the one noted above.
  3. The pupils were then instructed to work in pairs and give each other orders or polite requests, “two each”. The pupils mainly replicated language used earlier, but were also overheard trying to create new combinations.


    • Pupil involvement, which was quite high,  was perhaps because children love ordering the teacher and each other around (!)
    • The teacher explained the activity very simply and gave instructions, carefully checking and rechecking, as well as physically going round the class and dividing  pupils into pairs, as well as
    • There was no error correction at all in this activity; there was a lot of error correction on the spot in the chant but none here
    • There are no discipline issues at all as the class was interested and engaged in the activity

When I sometimes show this short clip to teachers, they express concern at my lack of correction. At some point in their production, the children forget all about using the imperative with ‘please’ and some start using the -ing form instead, as in “Standing over there, please!” 

My reasoning for not correcting is not an uncommon one; children should be allowed the opportunity to experiment with language and some interference of old with new forms is natural and expected. At the time of teaching this lesson, they were also being introduced to the ‘here and now’  present progressive so some conflict between old and new forms is really not so difficult to understand.

There was no delayed correction either, something which would be expected with adults. With this very young class I chose not to do it as this was a game played very frequently and my expectation was that it would eventually get sorted out anyway.

On occasion, I used some L1, but only for instructions and only in the middle of saying it twice in L2 – sometimes called the ‘sandwich method’ : say it once in L2, then quickly in L1 and again in L2, gradually removing the L1 from the instructions.

Principles drawn from this activity

    • The children should often be engaged in Total Physical Response activities; Listening to the teacher and performing commands is a natural way of acquiring language in a way which resembles the way they acquired their mother tongue, with their mother either describing what they were doing or telling them what to do.
    • The teacher does not frown or tell children off even if they are making mistakes in their own production but praises them even for just trying.
    • The teacher reinforces positively and avoids negative correction
    • The teacher sometimes asks pupils to play a circle game or do some other kind of high energy activity to release tension and increase motivation.
    • The pupils should already be familiar with the concepts in the English lesson from home or L1 class – in this case, it seemed relevant to teach the imperative but to lead children to the discovery of a familiar politeness rule in L2, that if they do not use ‘ please ‘, this form is considered rude.



Final Comment

All three activities were ‘micro-planned’ by using this simple outline:

  1. Preparing the class by demonstrating what they need to do
  2. Providing some oral controlled practice to establish the patterns needed during the game
  3. Allowing the children to get on and try out the new language in pairs or small groups
  4. Wrapping up the activitiy by praising children, asking them if they enjoyed the activity, laughing with the children…

I hope you enjoyed reading this post based on teaching a young class.  One of the comments I would like to make is that even today when I show this video to trainee teachers or colleagues, they have a hard time believing that these children had only had only a total of 40  hours of English so far. This says a lot about their class teacher, Mrs. Effie Kallimani, an absolutely superb teacher who was unfortunately camera-shy and refused to be filmed for this project.

In the following year, many of these children were taken by their parents to another school, because this teacher was not using a grammar book like that school next door…. A rather sad ending, isn’t it… Teaching young learners is a very serious business but I am afraid that ‘serious’ is confused with ‘no fun and games in class’ in some contexts.

Do please leave your comments on this lesson or add your thoughts and ideas about teaching young learners.

Related Posts on this Blog

    1. How not to Teach English – June 2010
    2. Playing Games or Being Serious? – January 2010
    3. The Power of Play for Education and Language Development – September 2009
    4. Companions; An Aid, a Crutch, a Snag? – September 2009
    5. How Many Books to Teach a Six Year Old? – August 2009


16 replies

  1. Dear Marisa

    Πολύ ωραίο!! Thank you for sharing these lovely resources and ideas for Young Learners. I’m bookmarking this post to show to groups of Primary teachers I’ll be teaching in the summer.

    I loved watching the video of you teaching the children. It’s a great example of how to keep the pace moving and achieving the aim of the lesson. Jazz chants are great fun and students of all ages seem to enjoy them.

    It’s a shame the parents of the children didn’t understand that one of the main principles of effective learning is actually enjoying the lessons and having fun.

    I could have done with doing Jazz chants with a lively group of 6-year-olds in the Canary Islands many years ago!

    Ευχαριστώ Marisa.

    • Ευχαριστώ κι εγώ Τζάννετ!!!

      You are very welcome to share and use in your workshop – I use it to to analyse all sorts of things, T’s language and evidence or lack of evidence of comprehension, amount of teacher talk and whether all necessary and lots more.

      I hope it’s not too dated because it goes back a few years 🙂

  2. Great video, always so useful to have examples of successful good practice in YLs’ classrooms.
    As I was watching my two kids wandered in and got interested too. Sam(7) thought it was really cute and loved the flashcards – especially the frog under the dog- but then wandered off. Anna(5) really got into it. She started repeating the chant with the kids – she had it off pat almost straight away – it was amazing to see how universally appealing jazz chants are for kids, and how accessible and enjoyable and fulfilling – but her interest and enjoyment went beyond finding and loving the rhyme. Is this language they’ve just learnt? she asked, does the teacher speak Greek? She was impressed -very impressed – what a shame the parents who opted for the grammar book approach didn’t see it in the same way!

    • Wow, your 5-year-old is already asking highly pertinent questions!!! Am really impressed with her!

      Yes, shame about the parents. Things have changed somewhat since then but there are still so many schools for young pupils operating in this inappropriate way.

      Just the other day, one of my trainees withdrew her young daughter from such a school – nothing but busy-boring-mechanical-nothing homework and the child was still learning nothing!

      But my CELTA trainee is the exception – many parents really know so next to nothing about what is good for their children, and yet insist on schools which ignore good ELT practices for this age group.

      Thank you and your young ones for feedback.


  3. I enjoyed watching your Jazz Chant activity here, Marisa.

    One thing I particularly liked was the fluency-building side of it, that even though the children already had the rhythm, with each new flashcard they had to process a new idea and work it into the chant as it is happening.

    I know a lot of YL experts might say this is making things too hard for them, and harming the potential for them to feel quick success, but I do think it is an important aspect of activities – that they become accustomed to working with a rhythm or pattern that is familiar and learn to cope with new situational lexis “on the spot”.

    Without an element of spontaneity, I think fluency-building is held back, with more chance of L1 interference. Noticing, thinking and speaking the L2 in something close to “real time” is important, especially during practice.

    Your follow up applications allowed the necessary time to work more on mastery of the chants, and a feeling of comfort and familiarity, so the initial chance to link comprehension and speaking was well-placed, I thought. As you stated in your post – the children already understood more than they could immediately say, so closing that gap (and having the learners aware they are closing that gap) is important.


    – Jason

    • Jason,

      I know a lot of so-called Young Learner experts who have never been anywhere near any young learners and yet this does not stop them either from producing materials for young learners, training teachers of young learners or making heavy pronouncements regarding the teaching of young learners…

      I don’t think there is acquisition without some challenge.

      S. Krashen called this comprehensible input +i but if you look at the mass of linguistic data out of which a mere baby organises patterns, creates organised systems and attempts communication in the face of partial comprehension or sometimes, even complete lack of comprehension, there is food for thought about all the theories regarding what is too hard and how far the +i cam describle child language acquisition.

      There is a sentence in N.S.Prabhu’s “Second Language Pedagogy” (p.56) which should perhaps encourage teachers of young learners (and other ages, by the way) to reflect on this: “The concept of reasonable challenge implies that learners should not be able to meet the challenge too easily but should be able to meet it with some effort. ”

      The children in this class were not aware that they were being introduced to prepositions of place and their syntactic placement in the clause. Yet they were able to reproduce the pattern fairly well and, despite their own limited range of available language, they were also able to get the general drift of what their teacher was saying, ready to guess and comfortable to take risks based on correct or incorrect interpretations – this didn’t matter actually, as their comprehension shifted and changed shape from one stage of the lesson to the next and with each clue given by the teacher. Whether it was full or partial, by the end of the lesson, was again not so important, as long as they could perform with some degree of success and feeling of accomplishment.

      I also liked your comment regarding the fluency-building aspect of this. Although the children were not engaged in an activity in which they might have generated new and unsolicited sentences using the pattern in this particular instance, this acticivity type aims to help them memorize and automatize chunks of language, sound sequences and rhythmic patterns for easy access and availability when/if children are placed in such a situation.

      Thanks for continuing this discussion, Jason

      P.S. The link leads to a free download of N.S.Prabhu’s book from the Oxforf University Press website.

  4. Interesting blog post to read. I work at The English Teacher Training College of Austria where we use active learning to teach TEFL to Young Learners.

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