Is it possible to plan for very young learners?

So you’ve spent the whole weekend crafting an ideal plan for your young learners. You are confident and excited to have this class but the second you enter the classroom, you feel that something is off. Does it mean you’ve wasted your time?

I have immense admiration for all teachers who are truly passionate about working with (very) young children. They spend their entire days in a class full of energy and oh so many unexpected turns. I remember my first time teaching a group of eleven three-year-olds. I started off well, very hyped when suddenly everything collapsed. Until this day I don’t know what had happened. Needless to say, I left this classroom sweaty, exhausted and with the feeling that I don’t want to do this ever again.

I somehow managed to survive one full year teaching this group but the feeling of dread before every single class never changed. Luckily, it was only one year and since then I taught very young learners but in smaller groups and with more resources. This taught me one important thing – there’s a huge difference in class preparation between teenagers/adults and young learners!

Last week I talked about the importance of planning. While I still believe that it is important to at least think about your lessons, look at the textbooks, maybe prepare some CCQs and refresh some grammar points, I think that having a detailed plan for VYL doesn’t make much sense. Instead, we should have a general draft of the lesson that can be easily manipulated depending on how the lesson goes.

The reason for having an outline rather than a plan is that classes with young learners are a bit more unpredictable. I can think of so many times when all my kids got distracted so I had to scrap my plan and just go with the flow. To give you some examples of great distractions: a fallen and then lost tooth (we all had to go on a tooth search – without it, the Tooth Fairy wouldn’t come at night), a lost pencil (I tried giving one of my pencils but it just wasn’t the same), someone’s birthday (it doesn’t even have to be your student’s birthday, apparently a cousin’s birthday is as distracting), Halloween, Christmas, a car outside…or worst out of all of them – a boring activity.

Plan more than necessary

When you prepare an activity for a group of adults, even if it isn’t your best work, they’ll follow and most likely you won’t hear much complaining. In the case of VYL, you hear immediate feedback. Now it’s up to you to either listen to your learners and tweak the activity based on their likes or just abandon it altogether and move on to something else. For this reason, it is essential to plan more than necessary. Worst case scenario is that you used all your planned activities, the best case scenario – you have some ideas that you can use next time! Most importantly, don’t feel bad that your students don’t enjoy your task. It’s hard to predict a good activity, especially that the exact same one can work just fine some other day!

Create learning stations

On a similar note, imagine that you have a craft idea prepared but not everyone wants to do it. You have some kids who can’t wait to be a part of it and others who prefer something else. In the case of larger groups, you may benefit from creating learning stations. You can start by learning vocabulary and grammar together but then you can send your students to do the tasks that they enjoy at the moment. It requires a lot of preparation and you need to be everywhere at the same time but your students enjoy the class and that’s what matters the most.

Listen to your students

Now, hear me out. Sometimes your students enter the classroom and they know what they want to do. It’s normally a game or an activity that they’d done at school and enjoyed it. There are times that the ideas are not great but more often than not I learnt new games that I adapted to my lessons. At the end of the day, you show that you have trust and respect for your students as their opinion matters to you. The same goes for some of your activities. If the activity is a bit off and you can see that students don’t really enjoy it but have an idea how they can change it, then give it a go! You may have a hidden gem on your hands and you just need some courage to try it out. Again – if it’s not working, you can always stop it.

From the top of my head, I can think of one example from my own class. I wanted to do a flashcard race but the kids were not having it that day. Instead, they were really distracted by…chairs. So I got up and without saying anything, put the chairs in a straight line. This already created some interest and brought back attention to me. I asked them to form a queue and we had a crawling race. Students crawled under the chairs and named the flashcards that they found on their way. At the end of the task, I had reached my objective and everyone was happy (and a bit dusty but you can’t have it all…)

Have a treasure box

Let’s imagine that you came to the class really under planned and you are running low on activities and ideas. In that case, try to have something up your sleeve. Maybe there’s a game, a song, or a dance that your students really love and you don’t do that often. In general, keep the best and most exciting activities on the low, so when you do them, you immediately get everyone on board.

By no means I’m a (V)YL expert. These are only some of my thoughts and ideas based on observation and experimentation. Keep in mind that all the groups are different and that just because one activity didn’t work one day, it may work perfectly fine next time! My only advice is to keep the lesson planning as flexible as possible and most importantly just have fun with it!

What are your thoughts on teaching and planning for VYLs?

One thought on “Is it possible to plan for very young learners?

  1. Pingback: The horror of teaching Young Learners | Joanna ESL

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