Lessons Learned (by Naomi Moir)

Like many native English speaking teachers of English, when I started out I’d had no real training in teaching young learners. I’d had training in teaching adults (CELTA) and happened to quite like children – but it didn’t make me qualified or prepared for the YL classroom! Looking back nearly 15 years later, I can identify a few key lessons I’ve learned along the way – through trial and error – sometimes quite long periods of error! I’ve decided to focus on 3 of them – the 3 I think have helped me the most or the 3 I wish I’d known before starting out!

1) Stir and Settle

I thought teaching YLs was primarily about making sure they had fun, oh…and teaching them English, and to have fun, you need to play high energy, noisy games. Of course, what this actually leads to is a room full of hyperactive children that can’t really take anything in, and are difficult or even impossible to manage. This in turn means little chance of teaching them anything!

Tip: As you sketch out lessons, include an upward arrow next to the activities/stages you think will stir, and a downward arrow for those you hope will settle. This will help you to see at a glance if you have a good balance and help you ensure you don’t have too many of either in a row – too many stirs = hyperactive, too many settles = sleepy!

2) It’s not all about English

I know the primary goal is to help them learn English, but what I didn’t realise initially was how much more I needed to be thinking about. Anyone working with children, especially in an educational capacity, has the responsibility to develop and support the development of the whole child. This includes more obvious things like developing their social skills – sharing, turn-taking, being friendly etc. but it also includes supporting their cognitive and physical development, as well as helping them to become independent and effective learners (learner training).

Tip: Identify the non-language outcomes of lessons and stages within lessons. It doesn’t necessarily mean completely changing the activities and materials you use – it’s more about becoming more aware of what else might be being learned alongside the language aim. Being more aware of the additional aims or outcomes will mean you are better prepared to highlight them and exploit them.

3) Less is more:

When I started teaching my biggest fear was running out of material, so I planned, planned and planned some more! I rarely, if ever made it through all my material and I often found myself squashing in activities or sometimes not even getting to the main event! Over time, I learned that covering a little less, but doing it properly was definitely a better approach. I took my time setting up tasks, knowing that the students were benefitting from following the instructions just as much as from doing the task itself. I spent more time on routine – how we started and ended the lesson and the general management of the class, for example, tidying up, handing out materials and taking the register. Rather than thinking of these things as consuming or wasting valuable lesson time, they became as important as the main language aim.

Note: This article by Naomi Moir originally appeared on Teaching Village, and is licensed under a Creative Commons, Attribution-Non Commercial, No Derivatives 3.0 License. If you wish to share it you must re-publish it “as is”, and retain any credits, acknowledgements, and hyperlinks within it.

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16 Responses

  1. Barbara says:

    What fabulous advice, Naomi! I really appreciate the emphasis you place on striking a balance is stirring and settling. It makes us sound a bit like orchestra conductors, doesn’t it?

    I also love the idea that following directions and classroom routines can be valuable lesson components, especially when teaching children.

    Such solid, practice advice, Naomi. Thank you so much for sharing it.

    • Naomi says:

      Hi Barbara,

      Glad to hear it hits the mark! Stir and settle really was one of the most valuable lessons. Once I realised I shouldn’t simply be ‘entertaining’, my lessons were so much more constructive. I really need to credit Susan Halliwell and her book ‘Teaching English in the Primary Classroom (Pearson Longman) for this one!

      Thanks very much for the opportunity to write for your blog – much appreciated.


  2. Dear Naomi,
    I also teach at kindergarten and I agree every single thing you have written here but especially want to thank you for pointing the development of children. Most of the time, it is ignored or not mentioned but I think it is a vital element if you are teaching very young ones. Knowing and understanding their cognitive and physical development is very important! It is not only teaching, it is education. Thanks for sharing:)

    • Naomi says:

      Hi Ersa,

      Thanks very much for your comment – I couldn’t agree more.

      Thankfully it seems that the general development of children is coming into focus more and more and those in ELT are incorporating it in the preparation of materials and in lessons. It’s good to see!

      I’d love to hear any lessons you’ve learned along the way!

  3. Mohammad Reza Minoosepehr says:

    Thanks for your nice tips. They are really helpful especially the second one which is about doing something more than learning language. The first goal of each language is to have communication with others and it directly relates to other social skills. So, for each language teacher at any level, I do believe that it’s so essential to teach not only the language but everything which is about it.
    many many thanks …

    • Naomi says:

      Hi Mohammad,

      Thanks for you comment Mohammed, you make a good point about teaching more than the language. Nowadays there is a strong focus on learning about things (content) rather than learning about how the language works. I also learned somewhere along the way that if students are interested in the culture(s) related to the language, they will probably be more successful in learning it. I guess it’s all about making connections and links and having personal interest and motivation.

      Thanks again for you comments – it got me thinking about more lessons I’ve learned along the way!

  4. DavidD says:

    Hi Naomi,

    Thanks for these tips. Even after years of working with Primary School children, being reminded of these things and reflecting on them is always useful.

    I especially agree with you about ‘less is more’. I used to plan lessons in detail as well thinking I had to be prepared for every step of the lesson to ensure I remained ‘in control’. Instead, I was actually producing rigid formulaic lessons with little room for the students to express themselves. These days, I aim to be more flexible and responsive with fewer activities. As a colleague of mine put it: “I’d rather see my students do one activity well rather than several in a rush.”

    • Naomi says:

      Hi David,

      Thanks for the comment. There’s definitely something to be said for striking that balance between a well-planned, structured lesson and leaving ‘space’ for incidental interaction, communication and learning. I think feeling brave enough to not have every moment planned out, trusting that you will be able to manage the class and knowing that the lesson will still be contructive is something that comes with experience. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of thorough planning as you start out, especially for things like the instructions or set up for major tasks – or task types that are unfamiliar to the students.

      There’s some really nice/useful phrases for teachers who aren’t so confident in English to help with the natural interaction etc in ‘English for Primary Teachers’ by Mary Slattery and Jane Willis (OUP)

      Thanks again for your thoughts.

      • Aaron says:

        Hello Naomi and DavidD,
        I also really enjoyed this post, but I especially liked your point about “Less is More.” I work with adult ESL students, and I’ve learned that this concept is true when working with them as well.

        Lesson plans are vital. I hate going into classes without having a clear idea of where I need to go, what I need to do, what skills need to be developed or practiced, etc. I just feel blind, and un- professional if I don’t have a game plan ready. (That’s a good thing, I think.)

        But one thing I’ve been learning is that you shouldn’t try to map out every minute and every second of your class. And, as you said, you shouldn’t try to do a million and one things each class. While it can be tough to balance course length restrictions (how much time I have to get from A to B) I’ve always found that going DEEPER is more effective than going WIDER. Better learning takes place when students get soaked vs splashed with what you’re teaching.

        • Naomi says:

          Hi Aaron,

          Thanks for your comment. Lovely to hear you found the blog interesting – even though you work with very different students – actually, there’s a quite a few YL ideas and theories that apply to adults, not all, but definitely some!

          I love your soak not splash comment! I’m definitely in agreement with you about that, deeper not wider absolutely the key.

          You’re right about it being difficult to get the balance right with course demands versus needs of the students. Actually, sometimes it can be the students themselves that demand a fast pace (especially adults), but it’s important to help them understand the difference between ‘done it’ and ‘got it’. ‘Done it’ is churning through the content, ‘go it’ is truly understanding and being able to use it.

          Thanks again for your thoughts.

  5. moez Latrous says:

    thanks for your pieces of advice. I totally agree with you concerning the Less is More. I used to prepare lots of games for my pupils but end up doing 3 or 4 per session. But I really want to ask you about another thing . How can you push the pupils to memeorise what they have learnt in the day.
    i am facing a hard time since i am teaching in a very distant area ( borders) and pupils are so excited about the language yet they just don’t revise. I Ttried all kinds of techniques however it is useless. This a general case for all the subjects.

    • Naomi says:

      Hi Moez,

      Thanks for the question – and a good question too! Unfortunately, we can’t force them to remember, however we tend to remember what we’ve contributed to, or what we have some sense of ownership or connection with. We also remember things we find funny and things that are visual.

      It was just last week in a session on how the brain works (at the IHYL conf – thanks Dennis!) that I was reminded of the need to revisit and revise and how often we need to do that. Tony Buzan (author and educational consultant) suggests the following:
      1st review – end of first class
      2nd review – beginning of next class
      3rd review – 1 week after
      4th review – 1 month after
      5th review – 3 months after
      The first two reviews are the most important – we forget about 70-80% of the content of lesson within about 24-48hrs! To drive this home, here’s a lovely quote: ‘All learning without reviewing is like filling the bath with the plug out.’ (Mike Hughes ‘Closing the Gap’).

      I think we have to factor in the revising/reviewing, they won’t do it without us guiding them. You could also do an experiment – introduce maybe 8 new words or phrases, revise 4 of them and ignore the other 4, come back to them a few weeks later to check which they remember – then talk to them about why they didn’t remember the 4 you didn’t revise – this might encourage them to take more responsibility for revising – especially if they’re excited about the language as that’s a really good starting point!

      This is turning into a blog post of its own rather than a comment, so I best leave it there! I’d love to hear other suggestions for helping students to remember and recall the content of the lessons.

      Thanks again Moez for the interesting question, I hope my thoughts help a little.

  6. Leahn says:

    Hi Naomi and Barb,

    I was nodding my head as I read this one! You give very sound advice. It’s amazing the number of people who take a Cert course based on teaching adults and then are pushed into a class with a group of 4yr olds. Like you said it’s not just about entertaining them. There’s so much more to it than just that!



    • Naomi says:

      Hi Leahn,

      Isn’t it a shame that there isn’t the same need for YL specific qualifications as there is for adults – especially as YLs are so very impressionable and what we do can have such an impact on their attitude to learning and how well they learn for the rest of their lives.
      Thankfully, there are a number of options out there and they are slowly growing in value. There’s the Cambridge ESOL TKT-YL, CELTYL and YL extentsion to the CELTA (https://www.cambridgeesol.org/exams/index.html) and also the International House Certificate in Teaching Young Learners and Teenagers (https://www.ihonlinetraining.net/) – particularly good if you’re already teaching. They also offer one-off online workshops.

      Does anybody know of any other options?

      Thanks for your comment Leahn.

  7. kylie says:

    Thank you for the advice! I don’t teach YLs yet, but hope to some time in the future, but I feel that your advice is applicable with my University students as well! How important to keep their attention and realizing that there are bigger things than just learning English in life!

  8. Janet says:

    Excellent tips regarding teaching young learners! I’m enjoying reading through your posts. Thanks for all you do!