They’re little. And?
Procrastination Prose part 1
It’s 6pm on a Friday night, friends are at the pub or on their way home. I’m sitting at my kitchen table staring out the window into the grey and slowly darkening street. I hate this time of day. It reminds me that my time is slipping away. I’ve been asked to create an online workshop. At first I said ‘Sure, no problem’. I mean, why not? I love workshops. No sweat. Right? Wrong. You see it’s my first online workshop and although Neil has kindly taken me through everything I need to know, I find myself so blocked by the unknown, that I can’t even fool myself (I tried – ‘pretend it’s a face to face one, then rewrite it to match the context’ I said to myself this morning, and again throughout the day). So here I am, procrastinating might be the best word for it, but for morale let’s call it brainstorming. I decided that writing a blog post was more constructive than looking out the window and maybe I could use it to bash around some ideas before writing my workshop. So here goes.
The topic of my workshop is VYL. Voracious Yelping Leeches. Sorry, tiredness and delirium setting in. In fact, teaching Very Young Learners is one of my favourite things in the world to do. I could be on to something though. It could be an obvious start. What the hell does VYL mean? And yes, maybe they are voracious yelping leeches, but why? And what impact will this have on lessons and teaching. Look! I’m doing it! I’m scratching out a plan already 🙂
The obvious start: What are VYLs? But first, indulge me while I rewind a little bit.
Why a workshop on VYL?
Aside from there being a very active VYL discussion currently on the YL Google group, it’s relevant for teaching TEFL today. I could go into Critical Period Hypothesis and a debate over whether younger is better for mastery of a language blah blah blah, but let’s face it, the real reason we are teaching more and more VYL is because there is a market for it. The parents want it. They are customers, we’re the providers, right?
So, if we look at the (by the way totally fabulous book) Very Young Learners (Reilly and Ward, 1997) it’s stated the main ‘bonus’ teaching VYL is ‘no strict syllabuses to follow, no tests and no performance objectives to be met’. Cool huh! Hmmm. While I agree with what they later go on to say about the absence of pressure leading to an ‘enjoyable experience’ how does a VYL virgin (for lack of a better term) start. Walking into a classroom with some great activities is great and all, but a few bits and pieces of basic knowledge and some sort of structure surely leads to a more focussed and relaxed teacher.
So. What should a ‘VYL for Beginners’ workshop do, apart from give the teachers a bit of confidence before striding on into the lion’s den, oops, I mean VYL classroom ;)?
What are VYLs? (as we already established, a good start)
What are their characteristics and the implications of these in the classroom? (sounds useful enough)
How about some defined pathways designed to meet our goals? Validating teaching VYL to sceptics who say it is ‘just’ playing games and singing songs? Pleasing stakeholders in an increasingly competitive industry? (oooh, the heavy stuff)
What are VYL’s?
Basically, they are little. Very little. So what comes with being little?
Imagine yourself looking into the window of a VYL classroom. What do you see?
- Songs/ chants
- Pictures. Lots of pictures
- ‘make believe’
- Little things e.g. little chairs, little scissors
- Little People. People with their own little personalities, their own feelings, their own histories and backgrounds, their own (limited) experiences of the world, their own ideas about how the world works.
- People between the ages of 2-6 (give or take a year), who are not yet in formal schooling and more than likely not yet reading or writing.
What are the characteristics of VYL and the implications for teaching?
One word. Development. That’s right. We’ll start with the obvious first.
While there are criticisms floating about that Piaget underestimates the capabilities of YLs, you only need to step into a classroom to see VYLs:
- are egocentric and unable to see others points of view or take responsibility for communication
- live in the moment and are unable to consider past or future actions and consequences
- are unable to think logically and enjoy ‘make believe’
But why stop there, we can go on to say they:
- have shorter attention spans which increase with age
- are easily distracted if not being paid attention or focussed on a task
- unlike adults won’t pretend to be interested if they are not or do a task for a greater learning purpose
- are still developing socially, cognitively and physically as well as linguistically (in their L1).
- have more physical energy than older YL’s (and certainly adults), but also tire easily
- are more emotional and open about their feelings
- require constant teacher attention and praise
- can’t read or write
- don’t normally make the decision to attend English class
- lack insight into their own learning
All very well, but what does this mean for us teachers? How about a checklist 🙂
- Interesting topics to hold attention
- Concrete language presented in context
- Short, varied activities
- Linguistic and non-linguistic goals
- Stirring and settling activities
- Teacher centred interaction, but child plays an active role at all times
- Language presented orally relying on visuals and considers all learning channels
- The teachers role is one of greater responsibility
- Fun activities designed to motivate the child by the task over outcome
And let’s not forget
- Little to no written text
Not a big enough list yet? How about we try this one on for size. VYL actively try to construct meaning. i.e they need some thinking time. What’s more, they:
- have a very limited experience of the world
- depending on their background, are often unaware of the concept of other countries, languages, and cultures
- not unlike older learners recognise more than they can produce
- are risk takers and like to guess and predict
Time to add some more things to your VYL list (pffft to those who thought it was all about games and songs!)
- Language repeated and presented in variety of contexts, which VYL can relate to own experiences
- Focus on recognition before production
- Stories to allow VYL to predict and make sense of new language whilst using their imaginations
- Quiet activites such as craft to help consolidate language and give ‘thinking’ time
Think I’m done? Think again my friends. Vygotsky and Bruner have a little beauty which, whilst not rocket science, often goes against what some people think learning is all about. VYL learn more with help. Go figure. They get by with a little help from their (grown up) friends…..do you need anybody…oops! Short singing interlude. Back to the serious stuff. Aside from all the technical stuff about the ‘Zone of Proximal Development’ and ‘scaffolding’ etc it makes sense that a little bit of help can be confidence boosting and that a positive first language learning experience is really what it’s all about. I’m totally cool with this one. Why? In my VYL classrooms my little lovelies;
- participate more when they feel safe and produce more language when singing songs or saying chants
- are often (but not always) excellent mimics (I am proud to have Czech pre-school students with an Australian accent), but whilst impressive in terms ofpronunciation does not always equal understanding orretention of language
- appear to learn quickly, but actually learn more slowly (Brewster, Ellis and Girard, 2004) and also forget quickly.
- are desperate to impart information
My weapons of choice (checklist time again);
- Supportive and secure classroom environment, conducive to providing an ‘enjoyable’ and ‘positive’ English experience a must.
- Flexibility required with planning, error correction and L1 use in the classroom.
- Low stress production activities like songs and chants
- Easy to answer’ questions e.g. ‘yes/no’ questions ‘IS it blue?‘
- Lots of eliciting, feeding, giving and helping with answers
- Lots of opportunities to ‘mimic’ and experiment with sounds and intonation
- Language repeated, recycled and integrated
- Topics VYL would like to talk about
- Functional language to help VYL express themselves e.g. ‘I like/ don’t…‘
It seems a few ramblings have turned into a rather long post. And it’s now 8pm on a Friday night and hubby is hungry. BUT, stay tuned for part 2. They’re little. Now what? Quite possibly (If I don’t get distracted on facebook, twitter or youtube) some key elements to a VYL programme i.e. those defined pathways I mentioned and some practical ideas.
Until next time….