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?

Creating a classroom community

There’s nothing better than having a group of students who enjoy each other’s company. On the first day it is essential to build a safe space and create the feeling of community.

Last year when I was combing through the internet for the perfect first class activity for young learners. I wanted something that will help them get to know me, at the same time demonstrating their speaking and grammar skills. I found a perfect activity on ESL Kid Stuff (a great website with so many lesson plans and a range of activities!) I decided to go through their intro lesson plans for kids aged 8-12 years old. One of the activities describes drawing a stickfigure and writing one word answers around it. The stickfigure is a representation of a teacher and the answers are basic facts about you!

I decided to take a spin on this activity. My end goal is to create an arts and crafts corner for my YL groups. Instead of drawing ourselves, students can trace their hands and write the answers to these questions inside! I think that it gives a personal touch to it and students will definitely look at their classmates’ projects at least to compare their hand sizes! It also gives a sense of belonging as you create something as a group and no one from outside of it is allowed to be a part of your little family.

You can start the class by drawing a big hand on the board (or use a ppt for online classes) with certain words written inside, as seen below.

An example of a handprint with information about me – the teacher.

Now students need to predict the questions to the answers – they are quite obvious, so focus on reviewing correct word order and tenses instead! You can even ask your young learners to come to the board and write them next to the corresponding fingers. I focused on name, age, birthday, favourite pet and colour, and best friend’s name. Of course, you can and maybe even should adapt the activity based on your group! I wanted to include the birthday dates as it may help you with planning a special activity, a song or a little gift for your little ones in the future.

At the end you can either decorate the hand on the board OR show them the real craft you’d done yourself prior. As it normally goes with the little ones, you have to do some of the crafts at home to show them the visual example. So trace your hand, write the answers to your questions and decorate it! If you know that at your academy/school there are plenty of materials that you can use (markers, stickers, glitter…) then of course, use them on your project. If not, better stay away from it. It’ll save you a lot of questions and comments about your materials.

Once everyone is done you can go around asking and answering the questions. At the end dedicate one section of your classroom just for this group and display their work! Young learners LOVE looking at their art and at the end of the year they will definitely want to take them down and keep it as a souvenir. It is also an incredible way to check their progress and physical development at the end of the year!

What do you think about my introduction craft? What do you normally do with your YL on the first day of school?