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  Teaching English to Young Learners: Reflections on a decade (1990-2000)



I recently gave a talk entitled A story-based methodology – 10 years on at a conference in Paris for teachers and trainers of English working in the primary sector. The purpose of this short paper is not to discuss the merits of a story-based methodology, but to reflect on some of the developments that have taken place over the last decade in English language teaching for young learners (5 – 11 year-olds).

It has indeed been an active and evolving decade with the primary ELT market expanding worldwide and more and more children and teachers involved. The latest volume of the English Language Teaching Journal (No 54) alone reports on two ambitious projects to train primary teachers, the Primary English Teaching in Rural Areas (PETRA) in rural areas in South Africa and the Sri Lanka Primary English Language project (PELP). Other countries like Taiwan and Vietnam are expanding rapidly while in some countries in Europe and Latin America the teaching of English to children has been established for many years.

From a European perspective I have observed the following developments over the last decade.

Experience, expertise and confidence

The last 10 years have brought accumulated experience, expertise and confidence. This sounds an obvious point but it represents a bank of knowledge that did not exist 10 years ago when, for many, the introduction of foreign languages into the primary curriculum was a new venture. What shall I do? How do I teach children? How do children learn foreign languages? What materials shall I use? There was a general feeling of excitement in the air but also one of apprehension, bringing together primary and secondary school inspectors for the fusion of ideas and resources. Training courses were organised when and where possible and the pedagogy and practicalities of teaching children were discussed. Ten years on we witness teachers and trainers whose current practice has been informed through experimentation, reflection and modification. They are now experienced and in a position to pass on their knowledge to new teachers and learners of English.


Ten years ago there was a dearth of materials for teaching children, both course materials and teacher support material. Over the decade there has been an explosion of materials. Today there are now over 20 handbook titles from major British ELT publishing houses on the primary market ranging from more academic to practical titles. The Keltic Guide to ELT Materials 2000 lists over 40 coursebooks for children and this does not include those that have come and gone in between or those which have been written for specific markets. These publications represent a wealth and variety of resources for the teacher to choose from which did not exist 10 years ago, and with the possibility of on-line purchasing they are easily available.

Mixed ability

For any teacher of any subject differentiation is a day-to-day reality due to a variety of factors: attitudes, motivation, learning styles, ability for academic study, different world or cultural knowledge, etc. For the foreign language teacher, we have also observed a sometimes marked difference in the level of English amongst children in any one class. This is due to a greater provision of private structures for learning English (for example, the British Council’s worldwide network of teaching centres), where parents send their children for additional and complementary English classes; to greater global mobility where families may move to an English-speaking country for professional reasons and their children are educated in English; to new families arriving in a host country for political reasons from countries where English already had an established role in their curriculum. Consequently, classes consist of very mixed levels, possibly ranging from beginner to bilingual. Teachers have therefore had to develop a range of skills and the flexibility to accommodate the needs of all these children in one class.

The globalisation of English

English has become the world’s global language and classroom practice reflects a greater emphasis on ‘world Englishes’ and other cultures. Class materials now provide images of different countries where English is spoken, and models of English as spoken throughout the world rather than just one selected model. Stories, for example, from other English-speaking cultures provide a rich resource for the teacher to develop their pupil’s awareness of ‘world Englishes’.

The technological explosion

The explosion in technology offers radical changes for the child learning English. CD-Roms and Internet offer interesting and fun sources for children to practise their English at school or at home. The British Council’s Learn English site includes a section for children.

Variety of ‘intelligences’

There has been a greater awareness of and emphasis on the different types of ‘intelligences’ that contribute to language learning, including the development of emotional intelligence. Ten years ago the teaching of English was often still done in a formal, conventional way which may have suited the learning style of the more academic learner where learning was assessed only in terms of linguistic outcomes with little or no attention to social, cognitive or psychological gains. Today each child is recognised as an individual and as having the potential to learn a foreign language, as many different types of intelligences come into play. Consequently methodologies and materials are designed to develop all ‘intelligences’ in order to create an all-round, holistic language learner.

Intercultural awareness and citizenship

In the increasingly global world and linked to the above is a greater awareness of and emphasis of the importance of developing intercultural awareness, where the development of tolerance and empathy are high priorities in our struggle to create a more just and peaceful world. Also related to this area is the development of citizenship skills, which include an understanding of environmental and ecological issues, gender issues, human rights issues, and health and safety issues.

Learning to learn

Also linked to the above two points is the greater awareness of and emphasis on helping children learn how to learn and become more responsible for their own learning so they develop their potential as autonomous learners. This will involve helping children become aware of what they are doing in the classroom and why, in other words understanding the methodology of language teaching and learning which may differ radically to the way other subjects are taught in the curriculum. This will allow children to express themselves meaningfully about what goes on in the language learning classroom. This is especially important in terms of accountability to parents who may be paying for their children to learn a language. It is meaningless if a child describes their language learning experience as follows, Today we played/we watched a video, we coloured. Learning to learn will help children to go beyond this phase and say why they played, watched a video or coloured. For example, Today we played a game to practice saying where things are. Today we watched a video to learn the names of, and find out about, animals in the Kalahari desert. Today we coloured a picture to learn the words for clothes. This aspect of learning is linked to the point below. Learning to learn also involves helping children become aware of the range of learning strategies at their disposal so they can select the ones they prefer and, finally, it involves helping children reflect actively on their learning so they can perceive their progress and maintain their motivation.

Parental perceptions

Ten years ago many parents perceived language learning at school as an additional subject which was ‘fun’ for their children. Parents now recognise the important role a foreign language can play in their child’s global development as well as the instrumental role it can play in their future at school, at university and in the work place. Consequently, more and more parents are keen to support their child’s learning and involve themselves in this process. A need has therefore arisen for parent courses which not only help them form realistic expectations about their child’s language learning, but also to provide them with an understanding of what goes on in the classroom and why. Such a course should also provide them with practical tips on how they can help their children and therefore maximise their learning.


It has been an evolving and exciting decade. The teacher of English to children has become a highly skilled teacher who can incorporate the above developments into classroom practice. In short, the teacher’s role has greatly expanded. With the development of the website of the worldwide survey on practice and policy in Young Learners Teaching, and its regular updating, we will be able to keep abreast of future developments in a systematic way. I look forward to the website and the next decade.


Gail Ellis The British Council, France, and Centre for Research into Second and Foreign Language Pedagogy, University of Nottingham, UK

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