Should my English teaching school be a pre-school school?

As I promised/ warned, here is the first of a series of blog posts which will just be newly-edited articles of mine from elsewhere. This one is responsible for the closest I’ve ever got to a claim to fame – a very brief mention in the latest edition of The Practice of English Language Teaching .

Should my English teaching school be a pre-school school? (Or should my pre-school be an English teaching school?)

You only have to look at the amount of new materials for the pre-school English teaching market being launched by the major EFL publishers to see that 2 to 7 year olds is tipped as a growth market in the near future. So as someone in the English teaching industry, how should you feel about this wave of very small students descending upon an English language classroom near you? Should you dread toilet troubles in the classroom, jump on the bandwagon, change your teachers, change their training or dismiss the whole idea of teaching such students as a delusion resulting from an increasingly competitive market and increasingly competitive parents? In this article, I will examine the consequences of playschool and kindergarten age kids learning English in our schools for all the people involved, including the teachers, parents, students, school managers, and school owners. Even for those who are not directly touched by this trend, I believe there are things we can all learn from this change in ELT.

Why are you here?

As a teacher whose work is described by the rather general expression ‘outside contracts’ I have come to have two seemingly diverse specialisations- classes in businesses and classes in kindergartens. That mixed experience makes me automatically want to look at a new kindergarten class in the same way as I would look at a new business class and do a ‘needs analysis’. This is obviously not straightforward for the under sevens, as any of the few kids who might have a present or future need for English are unlikely to be able to articulate it or even understand it. However, knowing why those pre-school children are learning English is maybe the best starting point to being able to pick a syllabus and teaching methods suitable for this age range. We might have our own views on if and how such young children can learn English well and the children themselves will certainly have reasons why they will ask their parents to continue going to a class or refuse to go again, but it is ultimately the parents who provide the impetus for trying a new language class and who continue to pay for it every month.

Education mothers?

One common motivation for starting children in pre-school classes it that it will give them a head start in language learning and their academic careers more generally. There is a commonly-held perception that the younger you start a language the easier it will be to learn, especially in terms of picking up listening skills and native-like pronunciation. This effect can certainly be seen when a family moves to an English-speaking country and the children are quite happily mixing with their peers in English while the parents are still struggling with learning the alphabet or pronouncing their maid’s name. Indeed, “there seems to be some agreement [by researchers] that there is a sensitive period for acquiring a second language. Children who start younger than 11-12 years of age, given advantageous learning circumstances such as plenty of input and interaction in an English environment are more likely to acquire English to native levels without an accent”. This academic data seems to have trickled down over the years to the general public, perhaps because it seems to match their own everyday experience. There are several major caveats to this data that seem to get little coverage outside the specialist press, however. One is a debate on whether these children are actually learning the language quicker than the parents in this situation. The fact that they more quickly learn enough to cope in their everyday life might just be a result of the limited amount of language they need compared to an adult who needs to learn vocabulary and formality levels for many different social situations. More important for most EFL learners is the question of whether whatever language learning advantages young learners have can be reproduced outside of the circumstances of ex-pat kids, namely intensive exposure to the language they are learning and a real need to pick up the language to interactive socially with the people around them every day. If that isn’t possible, the question then becomes whether those circumstances can be reproduced outside the English speaking world. These questions will be dealt with below, but at this ‘needs analysis’ stage the important point to bear in mind is that some parents will expect their children to be able to pick the language up quickly because of their age, and will often want work on pronunciation and listening comprehension with a native-speaker to reproduce what they think of as their natural advantages. In my experience, the reasons why parents pull their children out of pre-school English classes or do not sign up after a demonstration lesson is that they think the classes are too easy and therefore their children will not progress quickly enough. The fact that we have to match the parents’ expectations or seek to change them if we want to even continue teaching those kids is one reason why the parents get first mention in this article.

The second major reason that parents of pre-school age children state for coming to the schools I work for is for their children to learn to mix with other people. In Japan, children sometimes start English lessons before they have even started kindergarten or any other situation in which they mix with large groups of unknown people. One reason that parents choose language lessons for this first experience is that language is by definition a social and interactive skill and therefore suitable for a class where students will also learn to mix with others, share, wait their turn, use polite language, etc. In Japan, a more specific social skill they say they want their children to pick up is to mix with foreigners without the nervousness that many adults and teenagers feel when faced with someone of a different culture and background. In my experience, there is also often an unspoken motivation connected to social mixing, in that working on language learning and using language learning materials at home, e.g. reading an English bedtime story or listing things in English as children pass them in the street, can help the interaction between parents and children at a time when people in many developed countries are losing the ability to interact without any clear short term benefit or goal. Again, if we want the parents to be happy we will need to provide training in social skills like saying thank you, as well as language they can recycle with their children in their daily lives or language learning materials at home.

The third main reason parents at our schools want their students to study our English lessons is for them to have fun. This must partly be because not having to drag their children to the school makes the parents’ lives easier, but here in Japan this also reflects a cultural emphasis on children being as ‘lively’ and ‘energetic’ as possible while they are still young. Cultural, economic and other factors will affect the reasons why parents choose English as a subject and certain schools to learn it in, so in each situation schools and teachers will need to find out each specific group of parents’ needs, wants and preconceptions if we want to match outsiders’ ideas of success with our pre-school students with our own understanding of language learning at this age. How far these demands are compatible with what researchers and teachers think about teaching students English at these ages will be examined after we have looked at who else is likely to have strong opinions on this little boom.

Doing it for the kids?

Although the paying customers are the parents, the people who should benefit most from being taught English are obviously the students themselves. Why might they be dragging their parents to their English classes rather than the other way round? Unlike their parents they are not motivated in any way by long term future gain. To look at what does naturally motivate them, let’s look at what 2 to 7 year olds are happy to do when left on their own without anyone telling them what to do. Left in a room with no toys or people, kids will happily do things like jump and skip around, open things up to see what is inside, count to themselves, sing to themselves, make up their own songs and nonsense words, shout loudly and bang things to make noise, draw shapes on the mist on the window, name everything they can see, mess things up and tidy them up again, etc. Put more children into that room and they will race each other, tell each other what to do, organize make believe games, etc. Put them in the room on their own with toys and they will talk to a teddy bear, make animal and transport noises, stack things up, take things apart, stage fights, etc. Bring an adult into the classroom and the whole dynamic can change- they will compete for the adult’s attention, show them what they have been doing, perform a little dance, etc.

One striking thing about the list of motivating things is that most of the items are obviously of benefit to the child’s physical, intellectual and social development, even though that is certainly not the conscious reason why they do them. This gives us some hope, then, that what children are motivated by at this age is also what they need and the demands of the children and academic demands of the teachers should hopefully not need to clash.

We can also see that the range of things that children are motivated by and need for learning are much wider than just ‘fun’. They can be motivated by praise, a natural love of learning, being right, love of music, playing with language, testing their physical coordination, organising things, the frisson of a moment of fear (e.g. ghost stories), stepping out of bounds and being naughty, storytelling, a sense of anticipation, a challenge at the right level, and real and simulated social interactions. An English class that gives the kids what they want will include as many as possible of the points above, for example by telling a story about scary animals where students guess what they are before they pop up from the page. We can also make sure that these stimuli continue outside of the classroom by, for example, putting stars on good work so the praise continues at home, or giving them vocabulary of things they see every day so they can list things for themselves and their parents. Before we fit together parents’ and children’s’ wants and needs with what we think they need to actually learn a language, I’d like to look at two more ‘stakeholders’ in the move to teaching of younger and younger ages – groups that are often assumed to just meet other people’s needs but can hopefully gain something too in a ‘win/ win’ set up for pre-school teaching of English.

In it for the money?

There are three major ways in which the under 7s are taught English here in Japan. One is being brought into an English ‘conversation’ school. Another is having English lessons in their regular kindergarten, either from their regular teacher or from someone coming in. The third is children learning English at home with videos, storybooks etc, often with their parents. For a publisher to provide more materials for this age group the advantages are clear in a rapidly expanding market. For the schools the possible advantages and disadvantages of getting involved are more mixed.

For the language school, the advantage of expanding your range to teach younger kids is that students who start young tend to remain students for a long time, often due to their positive feelings they get about studying English in fun classes. Another motivation for the kids can be getting praise at their primary or secondary school for their high level of English lessons due to their head start. The disadvantages for a language school of starting to teach these age groups for the first time are that in order to teach them well the classroom, equipment, textbooks, teaching skills etc will all have to be changed a lot from what might be useable with all other students. You will need smaller tables and chairs, carpet or something else soft on the floor, nothing sticking out at head height, no other sharp corners, lockable cupboards, safe and easily-handled scissors, crayons rather than colouring pencils, easily-washable surfaces, plastic objects rather than flashcards, nothing that is dangerous if it is put in the mouth. You will also need very experienced teachers to be able to cope without a good supply of suitable storybooks, colouring and crafts activities, and songs. Despite all your best attempts at keeping the students amused and out of danger, there still will be bumps and bruises, fights, screaming and tears, and all the staff in the school will need to have the ability to cope with these. This can mean more training for everyone, or might even have to mean specifically employing people who are more qualified and/ or temperamentally suited to dealing with little people.

When we are looking at adding English to kindergartens staff training will also almost certainly be needed, this time in how to adapt teachers’ classroom routines for this particular subject and often language classes so that teachers can raise their own level of English to the point where they can provide a good model for the children. In my experience, non-native English speaking kindergarten teachers generally lack confidence about their own English and have doubts about whether they can teach the language as well as a native-speaking teacher. They are generally positive, however, about taking on English in terms of professional development and having a topic to teach that is often easier to structure classes for than things like teaching kids about nature.

The selling point for the kindergarten in adding English lessons is that they can distinguish themselves from the other kindergartens by providing a subject that the others don’t. Making this distinction clear often means having a native-speaker teacher come in, especially one that looks foreign! Although a lot depends of the skills of the teacher, having someone different who comes in and teaches English as well as instruction from their class teacher probably is useful to help very young learners make the distinction that L1 and English are two different languages used by different people in different situations, in the same way that bilingual children more quickly stop mixing their languages if each parent exclusively speaks only one of the two languages. It can also give the regular teacher a focus that they can help the kids prepare for the rest of the time, e.g. by teaching them questions they can ask the native speaker when they arrive.

What the kindergarten is likely to want to be able to show for their money is a rapid and obvious mastery of English by the kids, which often means an early focus on production such as drilling, craft work etc. that can be shown to the parents. Especially when a native speaker has been employed, the use of L1 is often frowned upon. This mainly means its use by the teacher, but even sometimes its use by the children!

What the teacher can learn

I have never met someone who set out to be a pre-school EFL teacher before they started their initial TEFL training. There are plenty of trained English teachers now teaching mainly 2 to 7 year olds and more and more pre-school teachers who took on English as it was added to the curriculum, and there are also a surprisingly large number of people who have neither background but who still, willingly or unwillingly, work full or part time in this field. Apart from the obvious ability to earn a living by having experience in a growing field, what can and do all these kinds of teachers gain from teaching particularly this age group? In my own survey of native speaker teachers who have taught the 2 to 7 year old age group (see questions below) almost all the teachers thought it was useful to have teaching this age group on their CV and gave generally positive answers to most of the questions I asked. For example, most would be happy to send their own children to an extensive foreign language course similar to those they teach.

The most common positive adjective associated with teaching this age group was ‘fun’. Others included ‘varied’, ‘amusing’, ‘unpredictable’, ‘funny’, ‘refreshing’ and ‘spontaneous’. I would add ‘touching’, ‘cute’ and ‘heart warming’. Intimately connected to the positive words, the most common negative adjective was ‘tiring’. Others were ‘disorganized’, ‘frustrating’ (‘because you can’t see them progressing’), ‘temperamental’ and ‘unpredictable’ (again). Most teachers put teaching pre-school kids in the top half of their list of favourite classes, and many could think of at least one pre-school class they would put up near the top of their list. Most teachers said that the most important thing to make a particular school or class a pleasure to teach in was to have parents and school staff who were genuinely interested in foreign cultures, languages and education, rather than just using the English teacher as a babysitter. Other complaints were also mainly about things other than the children, such as the space and materials available. In fact, things like fights that might make a class of teenagers unmanageable seem a more natural part of the life of a three year old and so more easily forgivable. The worst moments of teaching this age group were generally about not feeling you were doing your job properly- such as being caught short of activities in a class with very short attention spans, students who seemed to be doing well being moved out of the class by their parents and losing control. The very best moments seem to combine a chance to step back and notice how cute the little monsters are and a feeling of a job well done, such as end of year performances of songs and plays or suddenly finding that silent or uncooperative classes and students have been listening and learning all along when they start to actively join in.

All the teachers questioned thought they had become a better teacher through teaching this age range and that they had developed skills, such as mastery of pacing, using your body, simplifying language, using warmers and coolers, accepting a silent period before production and responding to the moods of the students. This turned out to be an important question. Although all the teachers were positive about teaching this age group, few of them wanted them more often in the future, mainly because they thought that there was more they could learn from teaching other kinds of classes. In order to keep these kinds of experienced teachers in pre-school teaching, then, we need to make them feel like they are continuing to develop as teachers. Connected to this, the teachers’ most and least rewarding moments are mainly connected to how much their students learn and how much they can see the importance of what they are teaching them. The latter is again connected to having a system where you can find out what the children, parents, other teachers, academic management, the children’s future school and society in general want from the English classes and so start each teaching day with a clear aim. The satisfaction to be had from actually teaching them that language well brings us finally to the theory of how these very young learners learn and should be taught.

Teaching how they learn

To compare pre-school children very generally with the next age group up (8 to 12 year olds), there are several clear differences in how and why they learn (there are obviously many differences between a 2 year old and a 5 year old, but in the interests of brevity I will make some sweeping statements about them, often by concentrating on the lower end of the age range). Firstly, younger students are “too young to feel any need for English. Their attitude is mainly affected by whether they like their teacher, the way English lessons are taught, their parents’ views, and what their friends feel about English”. In fact, “very young children lack the ability to manipulate and think about language in a conscious way” and are often not even clear that English is a separate and equal language to their own.

As younger children tend to be “more concerned about themselves [than their peers]” and have often spent more time with adults than children, how they feel about their classmates has less effect than for older classes, for better or worse, and the teacher will be a main focus of their attention during the lesson and the biggest influence on their willingness to come back. “Very young children say they like English because they like the teacher” and in fact, “it may be that the teacher’s relationship with his/ her pupils is more important in the end than the particular teaching method used”. That does not mean that a more technical teacher with less charisma will be less popular, though, as students at younger ages do not make any distinction between the fun they had and the personality of the teacher. “You are their children and therefore they will always associate the activities with you”. Depending on the child, it might be easier or more difficult than with older children to spot these positive or negative feelings. Many younger children seem to need a silent period of absorbing the language before they are willing or ready to produce it in any way, but these students don’t seem to learn more slowly than those who shout everything back on the first day. As in many of these factors, you can draw a parallel with L1, where “children who do little overt imitation acquire language as fully and rapidly as those who imitate a lot”.

Perhaps surprisingly, many teachers say that students at younger ages show more variation in personality and learning styles than older kids. This means that some students will not join in an activity just because everyone else is enjoying it. It is possible, however, to make generalisations on activities that are successful at this age, although how the students respond to them will vary greatly depending on personality, mood, time of day etc. These activities include action songs, simple mimes, stories, guessing and memory games, and coordination and other physical games. “The younger the pupils are, the more they want to move” and again the children have the right instinct here as they is much evidence to suggest that combining physical activities with learning produces the best level of language retention at these ages. Something being popular does not always mean it is effective as a language learning tool, however, and crafts and colouring are often more useful as coolers than as ways of teaching language.

All the activities teachers do will need to be shorter than with older classes and more easily adaptable (or even abandoned) to deal with the short attention spans and quickly changing moods of these very young learners. It is often possible, however, to retry exactly the same language and/ or activity when they are more ready. In fact, you will need plenty of recycling both within the lesson and over the course as a week is a very long time for a 3 year old and a holiday can seem to wipe the slate clean. The language will just as quickly come back, especially if prompted by the same game in the same part of the lesson as the previous time. This is partly because for “unfamiliar tasks, unfamiliar contexts and unfamiliar adults can cause children anxiety and as a result they may perform well below their true ability” but is also because even in L1 they produce language much more due to the context they are in than to the actual words they hear. This can be seen as a strength or a weakness, but means that students who can happily answer “What’s your name?” at the beginning of the class using the context will be totally lost if the same question is asked in other parts of the lesson or out on the street. They can also have the same problem transferring vocabulary they know from picture books to flashcards to posters and they will need to see the same language in many different contexts before it becomes generally useable rather than tied to one situation. There is again a parallel in L1, when “a child may first recognize the word ‘cat’ only in reference to the family pet [then] as the word is heard in more contexts- picture books, furry toys, someone else’s cat- the child recognizes and uses the word as a label for all these cats”. With “What’s your name”, however, you might want to accept that they will usually be asked this question at the beginning of a conversation, accept their good strategy and move onto something else. The same could be true of their total focus on meaning rather than accuracy and so stubborn refusal to learn the 3rd person S for years after it is first introduced.

On to a winner?

So, do all these distinctive characteristics of the under sevens (and there are plenty more) add up to an advantage or disadvantage in learning English? You might have noticed a lack of quotes directly from research papers above, as well as many references to the theory of learning L1 rather than L2, both reflecting a lack of research on 3 year olds studying English for 45 minutes a week. Apart from the impressions of the teachers I interviewed, who are generally doubtful of how much progress then can make at this stage but positive enough to send our own kids to similar classes, we are often reduced to extrapolating from data on learning L1 or on slightly older EFL learners. Unfortunately, the general conclusion from this data is that “when learners receive only a few hours of instruction per week, learners who start later […] often catch up with those who began earlier” and that “at least in the early stages of second language development, older learners are more efficient than younger learners”. Students that start younger are, however, more likely to have a positive impression of the language and foreign language learning in general and are therefore more likely to consider continuing their studies. They are also likely to be more confident and bold in their language use and therefore more likely to use it in real life. In terms of getting an academic head start though, the evidence seems to point at them starting the violin or tennis at three instead of English. The older child’s advantages include being able to analyse the language consciously, more developed study skills and, often, more motivation. Their disadvantages can include shyness in speaking out and experimenting with stress and rhythm through music etc, and these parts of their pronunciation are, indeed, best developed sooner rather than later. In terms of individual sounds, though, the older student’s ability to think logically about mouth position etc. means they have a definite advantage here. This does actually match with everyday common sense when you think that young children can often not even pronounce the difficult sounds of their own language and how little effect correction has on, for example, their grammar in L1 (at least in the short term), but parents have often not put two and two together and will often expect this too to be dealt with from a very young age.

That’s all very well in theory

Is it possible, then, to combine what all the different groups above think about very young people learning English and create a model that makes everybody happy, especially when we are not even sure that it is a useful for them to be learning the language at all? The first thing we can say is that there are many ideas that most of these groups have in common, perhaps more than for different age groups such as teenagers. For example, the researchers, teachers, parents and students all generally have no doubt at all about the use of fun and games at these ages. There is also a very general agreement that they should use the time in class to learn other things as well as the language, e.g. the social skills of mixing with other people. All the groups also seem happy to accept that children at this age should learn chunks of language such as fixed phrases rather than individual pieces of grammar. There are obviously differences and potential conflicts as well, though, such as different ideas on how quickly young children will be able to learn, especially marked if the number of contact hours is low. Another is that parents, school owners and others might want to see the instant production and correction of the language.

So, what can we do to please a parent who has what we believe to be unrealistic expectations of how much English their son or daughter should be learning in half an hour and how they should be learning it? For parents who certainly cannot move abroad or even send their kids to a full-time English medium pre-school, the only English-related skills we can seem to offer them are better rhythm, intonation and confidence, and the chance that they will take a liking to learning languages. Can we convince them that their time and money wouldn’t be better spent in different ways, e.g. by saving the money they would spend on pre-school English classes in a high interest account to pay for a more intensive course or send them abroad when they get older? In terms of ‘amount of English learnt per pound’ there may indeed be little point in sending your three year old to English classes for 45 minutes a week. In fact, it might not even be better than nothing if the school system means there is the chance that they will have to abandon the lessons later on and so forget literally everything. One possible reaction to all this is to try to persuade the parents that a lack of progress from extensive classes is a reason to give them more class time rather than less, as the way that children learn by seeing the same language in many different contexts means that the relation between time spent and progress is exponential and each additional hour paid for should be better value than the last one. For students and parents who don’t have much time or money, that could mean just an occasional ‘summer school’ or other intensive course to give a little boost and do things that there aren’t usually time for like project work. Alternatively, it could mean having an English native speaker taking part in all the activities of a kindergarten for one whole day to interact more naturally with the children.

The other selling point we can offer everyone is to see things like teaching the children how to use crayons before they can use the English colouring book not as a second best to teaching them more vocabulary but as an integral part of the course. Simply writing all the skills you are planning on developing in your classes on the syllabus and communicating this to the parents is a great start to making everyone more motivated about the English classes. For example, renaming a pre-school class ‘English and Art’ could make a teacher think they are expanding their skills and adding something new to their CV, make parents happy that children are learning two things at once, and allow twice as many students to be best at something in the class. In a similar way, if we can give parents a list of exactly what language we want students to be able to passively understand at each stage and when we are expecting this to become production, we can hopefully persuade them to accept a silent period and generally have more patience when it comes to production. We can use the same tactic when trying to explain how and why L1 use in the classroom will be converted over the weeks, months and years into use of English. If we can then get everyone’s feedback on what they think of the aims and how far they think the children have progressed in them we can really open the communication channels and help start a process that can achieve all that I set out to describe when I started writing this article: find out all the stakeholders’ needs and preconceptions and try to match them with our own academic aims. Trying to point out our aims and theories on how to achieve them to groups such as school owners and parents should also help us make it clear to ourselves what holes there are in our knowledge, prompting us to research the things we don’t know and start filling in the academic black hole that exists for extensive pre-school English classes. It could also help us have a more humble approach to the view of others. For example, when “no one has produced a continuum of the developmental stages of writing for children learning English as a foreign or second language, [and] there is no theoretical model to follow at this time” we could do with as much input as we can get on conundrums such as very young learners on extensive courses needing reading and writing to make up for lack of day to day access to the language but often not yet being ready to learn those skills quickly and easily. Turning the teaching job and the whole industry into a process of identifying and solving problems with everyone involved should also help create an endlessly rewarding job that the most experienced and talented pre-school English teachers will be happy to stay in for much longer.

Appendix: Pre-School English Teacher Teaching Satisfaction Questionnaire

What positive words do you associate with the experience of teaching pre-school children? (Teaching English to pre-school children is…)

What negative words do you associate with the experience of teaching pre-school children?

Of all the types of classes you teach, what are the most rewarding for you?

If that is the top of your list, where would you put pre-school classes in a ‘most rewarding’ ranking? Top? Second? Near the top? In the middle? Near the bottom?

Compared to your other classes, does it take more or less time to prepare for pre-school?

Are you are better teacher due to teaching this age group? Why/ how?

Could any of the skills you have developed from teaching this age group be useful in other types of classes? Which skills? Which classes?

Will it be useful to have the fact that you have taught this age group on your CV in the future? Why?

What kinds of people are suited to/ unsuited to teaching this age group? Are you particularly suited to/ unsuited to teaching pre-school? Why?

What’s the difference between a good pre-school job/ class/ school and a bad one?

In what ways are primary age children more rewarding to teach than KGs? In what ways less so?

What is your single best moment in teaching pre-school English? / What was the worst moment?

If you could choose between your own pre-school age child studying a foreign language once a week (e.g. French for a child in England) or using the time and money for something else, would you choose a language class?

References

Annamaria Pinter (2006) Teaching Young Language Learners, Oxford University Press

Jayne Moon (2000) Children Learning English, Macmillan

Henk Van Oort (2005) Challenging Children, Delta Publishing

Patsy. M. Lightbown and Nina Spada (2006), How Languages are Learned Third Edition, Oxford University Press

Jackie Reilly and Vanessa Reilly (2005) Writing with Children, Oxford University Press

Originally published in Modern English Magazine

Exclusively republished here with the permission of Modern English Publishing

(C) Alex Case/ Modern English Publishing

Much more on teaching very young learners here.

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