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Teaching VYL

Teaching VYL

I’ve been busy the last year being a part of the writing team for a new IHWO teacher training course, the IH VYL.

International House Certificate in Teaching Very Young Learners

We piloted the course face to face  in 4 different schools around the world and now it has been released online via the IHWO OTTI (Online Teacher Training Institute).

First online course starts 27th September 2014 October 25th!


They’re Little. Yeah yeah. Got it. Let’s get on with it!

They’re Little. Yeah yeah. Got it. Let’s get on with it!

Procrastination Prose Part 3

Practical Tips for Teaching VYL

The Classroom

If possible, have lots of bright colours and some toys, small tables and chairs, small scissors, big markers.  And remember, nothing dangerous. They are super quick on their feet.

Think about how you will use the classroom space. If possible put their work on the wall. They love to see it displayed and makes the space their own. It’s a good idea to have certain places (as well as routines) for certain activities e.g. a storytelling corner. It’s a non-verbal way of letting them know what is coming next and what is expected from them.

The Teacher

  • Ready and willing to nurture a whole range of needs, not just linguistic, a MUST.
  • Patient
  • Creative
  • Energetic
  • Organised
  • Quick thinking!

A VYL teacher needs to be super talented indeed, but above all they need to be flexible and have an affinity with young children (or at least like them! Don’t laugh, I’ve met a VYL teacher who didn’t like children. Her lessons were well planned and logically staged etc but classroom management was impossible – they sussed her out immediately). They are intuitive little things. They can sense fear and whether or not you genuinely like them. They also seem to know when you are unorganised and delight in taking advantage of this and why not? when their number 1 goal in life is to enjoy themselves.

Materials and Activities

Before we get into the ideas, don’t forget some rules of thumb.

  • Set up the activities clearly and have all your materials ready to go. Turn your back for a moment to get your flashcards and you’ll lose them. Give clear simple instructions and demo if possible. If you do leave your materials on the other side of the room – don’t panic! Just give them something to do so there is no waiting time e.g. get them to close their eyes and count to ten’
  • Recognition before production. Give them plenty of opportunity to hear the word and recognise the word before they say it. When they are ready, saying it in a song or chanting with the group gives them the opportunity to experiment with the sounds.
  • Stirrers vs settlers. What this means is don’t have the whole lesson sitting on the floor (they’ll get fidgety and lose interest) or the whole lesson running around (They’ll get over excited and impossible to calm down and control). It just won’t work. Think about not only using the classroom space well but also their energy.  Keeping them calm but engaged keeps them focussed.
  • Repetition, repetition, repetition BUT don’t forget to mix things up and move from activity to activity quickly and smoothly. Have whole lots of tricks up your sleeve. Their attention span matches their size and just because they loved a particular game last week doesn’t mean they’ll dig it this week. Be prepared to be flexible and don’t get caught fighting a losing battle. Keep activities short, focussed, fun.
  • Think about why you are doing each activity and what they need to be able to do in order to complete it. Don’t forget that language isn’t the only limitation. Pair work ? Forget it, try to make each child feel they are working with you. Them and you. They don’t generally cooperate well together and are sometimes, but not normally, competative. A race to see who can line up first won’t go so well if they don’t care what their team mates are doing and don’t care if they are first or not. Some team games will work, but keep their developmental needs in mind. Give lots of individual praise.


Bright, easily recognisable flashcards (It’s a good idea to have them uniform: same size, same type, same coloured backing etc. VYL tend to make their own rules about what they see and may think if one is a different shape or size it’s for a reason). Making up actions for the corresponding flashcards is also a good way to help them remember the vocabulary and make it their own.

What to do with them?

There are hundreds (maybe more) flashcard activities. Here are a few to get you started.

Presenting the language

Work with what they already know. Hold up the flashcard and talk about it. Ask easy questions you know they can answer and HELP them.

e.g. Look! A monkey! Monkey!. What colour is the monkey? Is it brown? Yes. How many legs has the Monkey got? Let’s count. 1,2. MONKEY.

Find the Card

It’s good to have a game where there are no losers and children aren’t afraid to try. Here is a VLY version of pelmanism.

  •  If possible, teach some actions for the flashcards.
  • As you place each flashcard on the floor (face down) say each word clearly and (if applicable) do the action and encourage the children to join.
  • Count to 5 (the children should join in) and as you do so move the flashcards around so they  won’t be able to remember where each one is.
  • Show the children how to sit up nicely and put up their hands.
  • Choose a child who is sitting nicely and say ‘Where is the monkey?’ Then do the action.
  • As each child turns a card over encourage the rest of the group to clap if they find the monkey.
  • If the child doesn’t find the monkey say ‘No, sorry, that’s not the Monkey, that’s the tiger’
  • Repeat

Sometimes the children can be shy to join in other ‘finding’ games as they can’t remember the word or recognise what you are saying making them anxious. This takes the pressure of and makes it a ‘finding’ game as opposed to a language game. The bonus is they get to hear the language over and over again.

You could go on to play this with the cards facing upwards when they are more comfortable with the language.

Flashcard Boules

  • Get the children lined up into teams
  • Give each team a fluffy toy. Use the fluffy toy to name the teams plus an adjective e.g. the ‘Blue Teddy Bears’
  • Layout the flashcards on the floor in front of the teams
  • Call out a word and the children must throw the soft toy to the flashcard.
  • The team who is the nearest wins a point
  • Allocate points by putting a classroom object such as a building block in front of the teams.
  • At the end of the game count the building blocks with the children
  • If it’s a larger group you’ll need to keep those waiting occupied with a chant or perhaps counting.


  • Place flashcards around the room
  • Call out the word and the children run to the flashcard
  • Alternatively give further instructions (pre taught) e.g. jump to the monkey, swim to the tiger

Musical statues

  • Play some music, the children dance
  • When the music stops the children freeze
  • Once they get the hang of this, call out a word when the music stops e.g. monkey. They freeze, wait for your command, then do the monkey action
  • Alternatively they can do more than just dance to the music e.g. you can give them a task before pressing play ‘jump, run, swim, fly’.
  • If you have a musical instrument at your disposal this is even better than a CD/ MP3 as you can change the tempo for each instruction

Run and find

This requires preparation, but can be used over and over and the kids love it.

  • Prepare small pieces of paper with pictures of the target language
  • Get the children to help you scatter them around the room face down
  • Think of a chant or song to go with the vocab (or create one)
  • Put the children in 2 or more teams
  • One at a time the children have a time limit to find as many bits of paper as they can. Here is an example…

I photocopied the pictures from a zigzag book (Cookie and Friends PMB) and cut them up. I also made a paper picnic basket (Cookie and Friends PMB) for the children to put the pictures  they collected in)

Teacher says ‘ Mmmm. I’m hungry. I want….Ice-cream! 1,2,3, GO!’ (can point to a picture on the board or mime if necessary)

1st child in line runs, turns over pictures one at a time, if Ice-cream takes them, if not, turns them back over

Rest of class and teacher sing (to the tune of, the super wonderful, Frere Jacques);

I am hungry, I am hungry (rub belly)

I want ice-cream, I want ice-cream (mime ice-cream)

Yummy Yummy yummy, Yummy yummy yummy. (rub belly and lick lips)

I like Ice-cream. I like ice-cream.(nod head and mime ice-cream)

5, 4, 3, 2, 1 STOP

Once the child hears ‘stop’ they must run back to the team and we all count the pictures together.

What is it?

For the same reasons as the find the flashcard game, this game is a game of chance. An opportunity for the children to say any words they know. This is good when they are not yet confident with the language.

  • Shuffle the cards
  • Encourage the children to say stop
  • Say (shrugging shoulders) what is it?
  • Don’t show the card or give any clues. Hold the card close to your chest and shrug.
  • Encourage the children to hold up their hands and choose each child to say a word or if it’s a smaller less rowdy group allow them to call the words out.
  • The idea is they will call out what they know – not that they are ‘proving’ they know the word to match your card.
  • If they need help start listing some of the words ‘monkey, tiger, elephant, snake…’
  • Children can take it in turns to be the teacher (holding the cards)

Of course there are many other ways to play this such as giving a quick glimpse of the flashcard or a slow reveal, but I like to give them the chance to say as many words as possible rather than only the word which corresponds to the flashcard, although, later as they are more confident it can be confidence boosting for them to ‘prove’ to you that they know and understand the words.

1,2,3 Bye Bye!

A VYL version of Kim’s game.

  • Lay the flashcards on the floor (or stick to the board) saying the words clearly as you do
  • Hold hands cupped in front of you
  • Say ‘1,2,3 Bye Bye!’ (Move hands up and down as you count and cover eyes when you say by bye)
  • Remove one flashcard
  • Say ‘Hello’ and all children uncover their eyes and call out what is missing


Lots of songs. Simple, repetitive, even better with actions. Use them for language work, use them for fun, use them for routines. Don’t be afraid to make up your own.

What to do with them?

Frere Jacques is an amazing song. The tune is so memorable. So many ways to use it. Getting them settled;

Look and Listen, Look and listen

Shhhh, shhhh’

Point to eyes, then ears, then mouth. First line is to the tune of Frere Jacaque

OR a Flashcard game using the whole Frere Jacques tune.

  • Shuffle flashcards with the pictures facing the kids
  • Encourage the kids to call out ‘stop’
  • Sing

Look and listen, Look and Listen (point to eyes then ears)

What is this? What is this? (hold out arms shrugging and point it flashcard)

Is it a…..(pause for a moment to scratch your head like your thinking and then say a word from the lexical set you’re using) monkey?

Is it a monkey? (mime monkey)

  • Look at children waiting for response, indicate thumbs up and thumbs down for those who are too shy to join in with the yes or no.
  • If it is a monkey children sing

Yes, yes, yes. Yes, yes, yes (nod and give the thumbs up)

  • If it isn’t a monkey

No, no, no. No, no, no. (shake head and thumbs down)

  • Repeat process

The old favourite Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toesis a great song with Actions. I like to mix things up a bit by singing it the first time really slowly then repeating it getting faster each time. I also like to sing the last ‘Knees and Toes’ of the song in a really deep voice as the kids love experimenting with their voice. Or, you can skip out words like in this wiggles video.

I also like to ‘act out’ the songs. For example I love ‘Five little ducks and ‘Five Little Monkeys. First I teach the songs with sitting down actions. Once they are familiar with the songs it’s fun to get the kids to act them out. This also helps them with meaning.

Use songs and chants for paper based activities such as colour dictation.

  • Set up the task and give first instruction e.g. ‘Colour the ball blue’ and demo
  • Start singing the following colours song from Cookie and Friends A to the tune of ten green bottles (while monitoring and helping as necessary)

Red, Pink, Yellow. Purple, Green or blue?

Red, Pink, Yellow. Purple, Greenor blue?

What’s your favourite colour, please tell me do, is it

Red, Pink, Yellow. Purple, Green or blue?

  • Repeat the song if necessary. Once you can see that a few children have finished call out

5 4 3 2 1 STOP!

  • Put your hands on your head and tell the children ‘hands on head’.
  • Walk around and take away the blue marker/ pencil/ crayon.
  • Repeat process with new colour and be firm to  make them stop with the blue during the second colour.
  • By the time you get to the 3rd colour they get it.
  • Give them time at the end to ‘finish’. They next time they ‘play’ this they won’t be anxious if they know there will be time at the end for ‘finishing’.


We’ve already discussed the virtues of stories, but what to do with them? Don’t be afraid to repeat them over and over. Studies have shown that children, although they get bored at some point, enjoy the stories more after they pass this. It’s the reminsicence and the known. We already mentioned having a story corner. How about a storytime chant? The first time you read a story is a chance for them to listen. On consequent readings encourage the children to join in with actions, words phrases. Get them to act out the story. AND don’t forget to choose books which are really visual in nature (or even tactile) i.e. limited text and with lots of big colourful pictures. Story cards are also great (like those used in many VYL coursebooks). If the text is too complicated or abstract, grade it and included some repetition and or noises. e.g. no becomes ‘no, no, no, no’ complete with head shaking and clicking noises with the tongue when someone is walking etc.


There’s more than one was to skin a cat, so to speak, but here is one example of  a very basic lesson structure for VYL (although of course there would be many mini stages)

Don't forget! Let the children SEE. HEAR. SPEAK. and DO!

A welcome routine

  1. Sing a song they know.
  2. Revision of language they know
  3. Present new language
  4. Recognition game (s)
  5. Physical movement/ TPR
  6. Song
  7. Drill/ chant
  8. Production game (s)
  9. Story
  10. Table time (craft, colour dictation, fine motor skill activities, colouring)

Goodbye routine

I think I could go on forever listing games and ideas, but my blog was initially intended to be for the people by the people (before I started my procrastination project), so I’m handing it over to you and putting a call out for people to submit their favourite VYL activity. In the meantime, I think it’s about time I prepared that workshop!

Until next time…

They’re Little. Now what?

They’re little. Now what?

Procrastination prose part 2

Okay. Let’s refresh on procrastination prose part 1.  I decided that a good place to start (I’m supposed to be writing and online workshop remember) was with some questions participants might like answered. They were:

What are VYLs? (I think we’ve covered the basics)

What are their characteristics and the implications of these in the classroom? (we looked at some statements and made a checklist for the classroom)

Ok. That leaves this then.

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?

A normal step would be to assess the needs of the students and choose a coursebook (and use this as our syllabus. C’mon, don’t try and tell me you don’t). Let me begin by saying there are loads of fabulous coursebooks out there for VYL (My favourite is Cookie and Friends. Once you hear the weather song, you’re hooked for life) and a good way getting into the right mindset and arming yourself with great ideas is to spend some time reading the accompanying teachers books and asking yourself why. But for the sake of the blog, let’s get into the nitty gritty of it all.

How do we do a needs analysis for VYL? We could go in with pen and paper and ask them about their learning needs, not sure, however, what kind of response we’d get. Okay, I’m being silly. But with some lateral thinking we can in fact do a needs analysis by thinking about the characteristics we looked at in part 1. How? Have you read Nunan’s legendary ‘Syllabus Design’ (1988)?  Great book. Needs analysis 101: learners assumptions, purpose, societal expectations and constraints and other subsidiary questions….. that’s all very well for most learners, but….. VYL lack the cognitive ability and awareness required to enable them to indicate their present and future learning needs. VYL are not generally aware that they are acquiring a language, nor are they aware of societal values and attitudes placed on one language or another. Their needs are more immediate, related to providing tasks and topics of interest, and tools for basic communication in the classroom. AND let’s not forget. Stakeholders are involved. Mummy and Daddy are the paying customers here. So let’s look to Jim Scrivener and an old favourite of teachers around the globe  ‘Learning Teaching’ (2005) for some simple guidance, intended for adult learners, but indeed suitable for our purposes. He proposes 3 questions for a basic needs analysis.

  • Where is the learner coming from?

Er, Home? Sometimes our VYL have had some English before they come to us, but it’s more than likely they’ve been home with Mum (or Dad) and aren’t used to a classroom environment. They also (as I’m sure I’ve mentioned somewhere already) have a limited experience of the world. Their world is a lot smaller than ours. It extends from Home, to Preschool to Grandma’s, to Tesco, to the Playground…you get the idea. It’s useful to know the child’s cultural background. Have they always lived in the country they live in now, what language is spoken at home etc. I could go on here, but let’ not go overboard.

  • What does the learner want/ need?

A great job in International Relations? I think not (but Mummy and Daddy may have that in mind). They want to have fun and ‘like’ being in your classroom. They want it to be a safe, fun, pleasant place to be and to enjoy positive and constructive experiences. They want/ need you to think about all the intelligences/ learning styles/ skills and teach them holistically. Word up, it’s worth looking in the Primary Teacher’s Guide on page 36(Brewster, Ellis and Girard, 2004). There are certain topics that VYL’s typically like and are interested in; animals, toys, colours, make believe (princesses, fairies, pirates etc) but it doesn’t hurt to ask them what they like (keeping in mind the answer is likely to change from week to week) and asking the parents what topics they like to talk about in L1.

It’s also a good idea to think about what lexical sets are relevant to their age and situation i.e. can be used in real contexts: family, clothes, weather. It’s also key to consider language items the learner can; use in real contexts : ‘I’m..’ ‘It’s…’  ‘It’s a…’ ‘I have…’ ‘Can I have…’ ‘I like/ don’t like…’ ‘yes/ no’ ‘Please’ ‘Thank you’ ‘Hello’ ‘Goodbye’ AND recognise in real contexts: ‘What’s your name?’ ‘Would you like..’ ‘Do you like..’ ‘Is it…?’ ‘What is it…?’ ‘put on/ take off’

Oh, I almost forget. It’s also about what the stakeholders want, need. Perhaps you need to work towards some sort of mini end of year production to keep the parents happy? Find out what their expectations are (and delicately educate them about what they can realistically expect if possible).

  • How would they like to learn it?

We know this one! Songs and games, right? Didn’t we already establish that that’s what other teachers think we do all day? They’re not too far off you know. These are the bricks (without the mortar) or a VYL lesson. They would ‘like’ to learn by experiencing the language, and, as forementioned, by having fun. Whilst most syllabuses include both linguistic and attitudinal goals, the attitudinal goals are often proportionately more important the younger the learner is. VYL lack literacy skills as well as the ability to make abstract deductions. They are often still making mistakes in L1 and therefore can’t be expected to follow a structural progression. Aiming for VYL to enjoy using the language is more appropriate. Linguistic and cognitive aims are embedded within the individual components of the syllabus, but the overall focus is to provide necessary conditions and motivating experiences for the target language to be acquired. Whoah. That was a mouthful (can one say that when typing? A keyboard full perhaps?). To summarise, how about taking a look at the goals of the VYL programme I coordinate at my school.

  • To provide a positive and constructive first language experience.
  • To introduce children to learning English in a fun and involving manner with a focus on recognition before production and exposing them to natural, communicative English through real communication.

I’ve chosen a list of topics, useful language and materials based on my assessment, experience and theories behind VYL. During induction, I highlight to my teachers the six features of the syllabus which reflect key methodology and approaches aimed at making learning enjoyable and meaningful for this group. The six key features: Routine, Stories, Songs and Chants, TPR, Games, Craft, can be incorporated into any VYL syllabus and would act as a good guide for those teachers new to VYL.

Routine is vital in any VYL programme. VYL like the familiar, it gives them a sense of security when they know what to expect (but don’t we all feel this way?), and it provides repeated exposure and opportunity for use of the language. The first month of my VYL programme has limited new language so that the teacher can focus on the routines and recognition metalanguage.

Stories provide an extension to the themes, appeal to a VYLs visual nature and inclination towards fantasy. Indulging in their imagination enables VYL to connect the language to real life. Storytelling is central to a child’s development, is generally a preferred activity in L1, and takes advantage of acquisition based methodology. Let’s have a look at an oldie but goodie from Krashen (1981:103), storytelling…

“ creates an acquisition rich environment and ideal learning conditions which provide comprehensible input, or language a little beyond the child’s current level of competence”

Songs and chants present language in a fun way, and also encourage experimenting with the sounds of English. (Ideally) coupled with this and a dominant feature is Total Physical Response (TPR). VYL learn through direct experiences via the five senses. This combination encourages cognitive development via concentration and coordination. What’s more, the repetition and parallelism is something they like and instrumental to memory.

Games play an important role as they are; motivational and enjoyable, can change the pace of

Once upon a time there was a very stressed out teacher, and then she discoverd storytime...

the lesson e.g. ‘stir’ or ‘settle’ to take advantage of energy levels, and provide opportunities for social and cognitive development such as ‘developing strategies’ and ‘turn taking’.

Craft or table based activities are a valuable way of providing comprehensible input, as following instructions is required. It also gives the learners a ‘silent period’ to consolidate the language, and provides them with a stimulus when their parents ask ‘What did you learn in English today?’.


Okay. Now the heavy stuff is over, it’s time for me to go make a cup of tea. BUT, stay tuned, I intend to write a third instalment. A practical component. Yay! They’re little. Got it. Let’s get on with it. Procrastination Prose part 3. Some hands on ways to apply all this theory. Basically, what the hell to do once you’re inside the classroom.

Until next time……

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