This post is a summary of the IATEFL panel discussion about Teaching English to Young Learners (TEYL), in which I was involved, along with Vicky Loras, Juup Stelma, Magdalena De Stefani and María Muniz.
Vicky Loras started off the discussion with an inspiring talk about what young learners can do when engaged in Project-Based Learning. Vicky drew on her own experience as a young pupil in Canada, and talked about the impact that her first project had had on her. She went on to discuss how resources, both on-line and off-line, can be used in projects, and presented several examples from her own teaching practice at the Loras Network, the language school that she and her sister Eugenia own.
Next in the line-up was Juup Stelma, who talked about the ways in which students construct meaning. Juup suggested that language learning was more effective when meaning-making was driven by the pupils, rather than teachers. He then showed examples, from a research project in Norway, illustrating how children bring their knowledge and creativity to bear in language tasks (and, in the process, made what is -to my knowledge- the first ever reference to Minecraft in an IATEFL context).
Magdalena De Stefani, speaking next, started by showing a fascinating video of a TEYL class engaged in language practice. She then went on to discuss different approaches used in TEYL in private and state education in Uruguay. This included English Medium Instruction (which completely excluded the pupil’s mother language), EFL classes, and gradual immersion programmes. She argued for a balanced approach, which takes into account the young learners’ affective and cognitive needs alongside linguistic objectives, and raised some questions about the role of English in relation to the L1.
After that, María Muniz talked about certification in TEYL, with reference to Uruguay, where certification appears to be becoming an increasingly prominent feature of language education. For instance, she pointed out the somewhat startling fact that in 2014, one in every 210 Uruguayans sat a Cambridge exam. She then discussed the reasons underpinning this trend, including pedagogical and commercial considerations, and pointed out some risks for learners and for the overall quality of education provided.
Finally, in my talk, I discussed a nation-wide TEYL programme in Greece, by focussing on what happened after its ‘pilot’ phase, when initial institutional support was withdrawn. I pointed out that the programme was expanded too fast, due to political pressures, and that not enough provision was made for developing the school system’s capacity to deliver high quality education. Eventually, many TEYL courses came to be delivered by language specialists from secondary education, whose experience was not always a good match to the young learners’ needs and abilities, and this has resulted in what might, at times, be excessive focus-on-form.
Pulling the strings together
One common theme running through our presentations was that TEYL is often constrained by larger structures. These might include the kinds of social expectations described by Magdalena, the washback effect of examinations described by María, or the political pressures that I talked about. At the same time, we noted bottom-up processes shaping TEYL. These included the emergent meaning-making which Juup identified in his data. These processes can be exploited pedagogically, and the project-based work that Vicky described is one example of how this might happen.
In addition, we noted some tension between conceptualisations of TEYL that prioritise linguistic objectives (“language education”) and ones that prioritise affective, cognitive and social goals (“language education“). Certification pressures, such as the ones discussed by María, seem to align with the former, whereas the learning activities discussed by Juup and Magdalena seem to align with the latter. Quite often, the orientation of the programmes seems to be ambiguous or opaque (e.g., in my talk and Magdalena’s) and this is an issue that perhaps needs to be addressed.
And some concluding thoughts
We all felt that the participant input was very helpful in clarifying our own thinking. One thing we realised is that, even though we were each talking about our own particular professional contexts, our experience and the insights from the audience seemed to overlap. While being mindful of the need to remain sensitive to local particularities, we think that this overlap suggests that there is space for a shared discourse about TEYL, discourse which is driven by language professionals; and we hope that this panel has provided impetus for such a discussion.
The great photos of our panel were taken by Sophia Mavridi (featured) and Beatrix Price (embedded)