CHARACTERISTICS OF YOUNG LEARNERS
In order to design effective curricula, syllabuses and materials and use appropriate methods and techniques with learners, their profile should be taken into account. This is especially true for young (foreign language) learners, who are quite different from pupils who have already been socialized into the school culture (i.e. from the third grade onwards) and who have developed school literacy. This means that not only they can read and write, hence understand and produce written (educational) discourse which is more and differently complex than daily oral discourse, but they can also handle abstract notions, and begin taking an interest in legitimate school knowledge. On the contrary, the picture drawn by those who have worked with or for young language learners is very different. The young learner’s profile, as described below, was the basis upon which we built the PEAP course, seriously considering also the Greek school and social context, and the specific characteristics of Greek children in today’s Greece.
Young children readily understand whatever relates to their own view of the world which, understandably, is limited. Therefore the teacher needs to design or use educational materials and activities that take into account the learners’ view of the world, and that are on topics familiar to them so that they use the target language in ways which are meaningful to them.
There are significant differences between children of 6, 7, and 8 years of age. Year by year, one can see enormous changes in their cognitive development, especially as they go through schooling and obtain significantly different quality and quality of knowledge each year. Appreciably different are also the social experiences they acquire. Each year they mature cognitively and socially a great deal and there is a world of difference between a pupil of the first grade and a pupil of the second grade.
Children have a short attention span and cannot concentrate on something for a long time. If the teacher insists on trying to keep their mind on one thing, they are likely to lose interest in the lesson altogether, become demotivated or get discouraged. This may bring about disruptive behavior that the teacher might not be able to handle. Therefore, in order to sustain in young learner’s the enthusiasm they might have, the teacher should plan a lesson for them that has lots of variability – a lesson which is full of language activities that are geared to what they already know and, most importantly, to what they can actually do. Listening to stories and (fairy) tales they are familiar with (through mime or by watching a video) is smoothing that children are used to and like doing. The use of language input through stories and tales can be used in different ways –from memorization to mime, and from a game of sounds to a word contest– that might excite children and enrich their knowledge.
Unlike adolescents or adults who have already acquired analytic and synthetic cognitive skills, young children cannot think in an abstract fashion, nor have they developed the ability to think inductively or deductively. They learn by doing and by playing. Namely, young children understand how language works by using it –by using it to communicate with their peers, with imaginary heroes, with adults, etc. They do not learn be explanations about how language works. So, the foreign language teacher should create the right environment for interaction and cooperation. Activities using rhymes and songs help children practice to pronounce words and learn phrases structure of sentences.
Not all pupils have the same experiences, knowledge, skills and interests. In urban and rural areas of a country, in different regions of small or big cities, in affluent area and poor area schools, in classes that have pupils with non homogeneous linguistic and cultural background, learners have different experiences and skills, they have different tastes. They even think differently not only due to the different background knowledge they have, but also because they think and speak differently. The differences are more pronounced in many ways during the first two years of school and it is important that teachers adjust the activities they do in class to suit the characteristics of their learners as a class.
There are also individual differences regarding the knowledge, skills, experiences, etc. of one’s class and these should be taken into account to, as well as differences with regard to learning styles. Some children understand and learn better by seeing, or by listening, while others by feeling, touching or by being physically involved. This too should be seriously considered and, on the one hand, do different activities with the whole class so as to respond to every student’s learning style. On the other hand, having different children doing different tasks but learning to cooperate with one another is equally important.
For young children, oral speech functions as a ‘tool’ which helps them use language, both their mother tongue and the foreign language. They also take pleasure in oral speech while listening to it, processing or repeating it, imitating the speaker’s intonation, pronunciation or facial expression. Use it and avoid teaching the alphabet (as most course books of the market do), avoid teaching them to read and write. Remember, these children are making their first steps to school literacy in their mother tongue. They don’t have to do the same in the foreign language! The teacher should let them learn how to do things with and though language orally. Writing can come a little later, not from the first grade. Perhaps from the second, when and if the teacher can see that they are ready for this. When they are, they will ask for some reading and writing themselves. Young learners get excited when they are able to read words and phrases during the narration of a story.
Language is a complex semiotic system and the way to acquisition and learning is very complex too. But when learning a foreign language, children do not start from scratch but through comparing it to the language(s) they already know. As research has shown, the more languages people know, the easier it is to learn yet another language. So, references to the children’s mother tongue may play a positive role, as the teacher may help them acquire language awareness, which in turn assists their language learning, by comparing the new language elements with those that they already know. But there is another reason why the teacher should not feel obliged to avoid using Greek at all costs in the class, sticking to the idea of the ‘input hypothesis’. It is only through the use of Greek that teachers can:
While it is crucial for children to listen and be exposed to the foreign language as much as possible in the classroom the use of the language they know to facilitate learning of the new can play as important a role if used appropriately.
The texts that we all deal with nowadays are multimodal, involving written language, sound, music, image, etc. We hear language in naturally occurring speech but to understand or make meaning we also use touch, smell and taste, gestures, body movement, facial expression, body posture etc. When learning a foreign language, we must learn to use the representation systems in order to express and communicate our meanings because the way these systems are used differs from one cultural group to another. This is reason enough to use multimodality when teaching a foreign language to all pupils regardless of age. However, with young learners the use of pictures, gestures, songs or sounds is essential because they enjoy the variety which helps them concentrate. Besides, as various studies have shown, the use of multi-modal speech and the exploitation of different means of representation have a positive impact on language development, particularly as regards young children.
Multimodal texts are more likely to attract the attention of younger learners, especially when they are motivated and encouraged to use their imagination in action (e.g. miming, movements, etc). Teachers can use rhymes, songs, games, storytelling, art and craft, DVDs with cartoons and whatever other activities can create a context that will help children understand and produce speech in the target language.
 For example: Cameron, L. (2001) Teaching Languages to Young Learners, CUP; Damon W., Lerner R.M., Kuhn D. and Siegler R.S. (2006). Handbook of Child Psychology: Cognition, Perception and Language. New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons. Fisher, R. (1995) Teaching Children to Think, Cheltenham: Stanley Thornes Ltd; Garvie, E. (1990), Story as Vehicle, Clevedon: Multilingual Matters; Lewis, G. & G. Bedson, 1999, Games for Children, OUP; Manley, D. (1994) Brilliant Things to Make and Do for 6 year Olds, London: Kingfisher Books; Munoz C. (2012). “Age-Appropriate Instruction and Assessment for School Age Learners”. in The Encyclopedia of Applied Linguistics. Nikolov M. (2009). Early Learning of Modern Foreign Languages: Processes and Outcomes. Bristol : Multilingual Matters Ltd. Reilly, V. & Ward, S.M. (1997) Very Young Learners, OUP; Vosniadou, S. ed., (……..) Πως Σκέφτονται τα Παιδιά (The Way Children Think), Athens: Gutenberg; Slattery, M. & Willis, J. (2001), English for PrimaryTeachers, OUP.
 We are not only thinking of the social politics of difference but also have in mind Bernstein’s theory about the direct relationship between social class and the language people use. Think of his restricted and elaborated language codes theory that Basil Bernstein introduced as early as 1971, arguing that the language people use to communicate with others both reflects and shapes the assumptions and practices of the social group they belong to. Furthermore, relationships established within the social group affect the way that groups of people use language, and the type of speech they use. As an educator, Bernstein was interested in accounting for the relatively poor performance of working-class students in language-based subjects, when they were achieving scores as high as their middle-class counterparts in maths. Linguistic empirical studies have shown Bernstein’s theories to be true. The elaborated code that school teaches is familiar to middle and upper middle class pupils, but now to working class pupils. This seems to be more accentuated in the first years of schooling and tends to even out as schooling increases.