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The lower the age, the higher the quality

Emily Hird looks at a text for teachers of young learners

Teaching English to Young Learners: Critical Issues in Language Teaching with 3–12 year olds
Edited by Janice Bland, Bloomsbury Academic;

This volume sets out to address the issue that, despite young learners significantly outnumbering adults studying English, adult learners remain the default focus in most EFL teacher training, syllabus design, classroom methodology and research. This authoritative work therefore provides research-based analyses of the particular methodologies and issues most relevant to primary and pre-primary English language teaching contexts.

No overview of this field would be complete without some discussion of Clil, technology and assessment, and these topics are all represented. In her accessible and informative chapter, Kay Bentley asks, ‘What exactly is a Clil approach?’ and ‘What are the Clil-specific challenges surrounding it?’ She contrasts ELT and Clil approaches to the same topic before presenting a range of Clil case-studies around Europe. Euline Cutrim Schmid and Shona Whyte discuss the advantages and challenges of employing new technologies in the primary language classroom, based on the findings of an IWB-based video conferencing project between schools in France and Germany. Carmen Becker’s chapter on assessment examines uptake of the European language portfolio as a means for learners to record their formal and informal learning achievements and experiences.

Importantly, the volume also reflects the trend towards lowering the starting age for English language teaching by including an excellent chapter by Sandie Mourão on the specific needs of the pre-primary age group (3–6 years). This section deals with the ways in which good pre-primary English instruction is qualitatively different from primary teaching, with a particular emphasis on play-based activities and fostering English as a tool to be used in other activities.

Few teachers of young learners would disagree with the concluding message in the chapter on materials development that the single most important ingredient for creating a successful learning environment is to ‘provide an engaging and enjoyable experience of English’. Motivating learners emerges as a recurring theme. Practising teachers will find the chapters on task-based learning, drama, poetry and picture books particularly helpful in this endeavour. Annamaria Pinter’s chapter usefully explores best practice in TBL task design, ensuring achievable tasks for young learners. Janice Bland’s enjoyable chapter on poetry and nursery rhymes is packed with fun ideas.

It’s notable just how much of the volume is dedicated to literature in primary language teaching. In the chapters on poetry, oral storytelling, drama and picturebooks we are reminded that, as well as being vehicles for teaching grammar and lexis, stories have a significant role to play in developing empathy and sociocultural awareness, as well as being a means through which young minds make sense of the world. This holistic approach is widely advocated across the contributors, and we are prompted to embrace the intrinsically interdisciplinary nature of young learner teaching. In a chapter dedicated to intercultural understanding, Patricia Driscoll and Helen Simpson make the case that primary language teachers are well placed to cultivate curiosity and openness to diversity, and argue for long-term planning through the whole curriculum which incorporates learning objectives associated with cultural concepts.

The volume does not shy away from some of the big challenges, however. Inadequate teacher training and in particular the need for a focus on the primary level in teacher education is highlighted as a key concern, as is specific training for Clil and the meaningful integration of interactive technologies. Mourão’s chapter goes so far as to suggest that, contrary to general assumptions, ‘The younger the child starting to learn an L2, the higher the importance of teacher qualifications.’ As ‘the younger the better’ mantra is adopted by an increasing number of policy-makers and parents, and the starting age for learning English drops around the world (outlined by Shelagh Rixon in her presentation of the 2011 British Council survey), this volume strikes a note of caution, stressing the fundamental importance of the quality of that early provision as a prerequisite for effective learning.

Emily Hird is an ELT primary author and freelance publishing consultant, UK. Twitter: @eahird