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EL Young learners: Prime time for pre-primary

Is starting early more effective than waiting until primary school?

Starting early is only more effective if it is done properly. If the appropriate conditions for language learning are created it will be successful.

These conditions include adequate exposure to the language, appropriate teacher education, transition from pre-primary to primary and the relevance of materials, resources and approaches in relation to the early-years setting. Parental support and interest is hugely important when we consider very small children, and in many countries English starts in pre-primary because parents are keen for their child to begin their English learning experience as early as possible.

However, this can also be detrimental, especially if parents want their child to learn to read and write in English instead of communicate and play in English, which is more appropriate at this age.

What is the ideal teacher for pre-school programmes?

The ideal pre-primary English teacher should bring together a love for small children, a fairly good level of English – which enables the teacher to respond in an authentic way to small children – a basic understanding of child developmental theories and how to make the most of these for language learning purposes.

In your teacher training course are you mainly working with former primary or secondary teachers that wish to retrain or pre-service teachers about to start their first assignment?

On the Nile online course we get a lot of British Council and language school teachers who have taken Celta and maybe a young learner extension course but are now in the position of having to teach children under six. Young learner extension courses don’t usually include pre-primary. They bring some experience of the early-years classroom with them and that’s really useful as they can reflect through the course on their own practice and what we are discussing in the different units. The approach we take is one that values the sharing of experience and ideas.

At present there is very little training for pre-primary language teachers in Europe. It’s beginning but slowly. In many countries it is still an English teacher, trained originally to teach older learners, who is asked to come into pre-primary – this is especially the case in Spain and Portugal. The Nile face-to-face courses, when they run, train teachers from these kinds of contexts.

What I like about these teachers is their discovery of a love for working with small children. When these courses began a decade ago, we had cohorts of pre-primary professionals who needed to develop their language proficiency but also needed training in language teaching methodologies. So there is a great mixture really.

Are teaching and learning materials an issue?

No, I think that it is very easy to beg, buy or borrow materials. For any young learner teacher visuals are a necessity and this is also the case with pre-primary. A puppet is always useful, but this doesn’t have to be an expensive one and can be home-made. There are thousands of online resources bringing English culture through rhymes and songs to teachers all over the world. Stories are available online too, though it’s nicer to have a little pile of picture books, which are now also readily available through online books stores like the Book Depository or Amazon.

Here are a couple of links to information which teachers might find useful:

• European Commission (2011), Language Learning at Pre-primary School Level: Making it Efficient and Sustainable. A Policy Handbook, Brussels: European Commission. http://ec.europa.eu/languages/policy/language-policy/documents/early-language-learning-handbook_en.pdf

• Mourão S. (2015), Learning English is child’s play – how to leave them to it: www.britishcouncil.org/voices-magazine/learning-english-childs-play 

• Murphy, V. and Evangelou, M. (Eds). (2016). Early Childhood Education in English for Speakers of Other Languages. London: British Council www.teachingenglish.org.uk/sites/teacheng/files/F240%20Early%20Childhood%20Education%20inners%20FINAL%20web.pdf    

• Nile Teaching English in Pre-primary Education online course www.Nile-elt.com/courses/course/452