With many English teachers and trainers focusing on adults and business clients, we don’t hear much about teaching younger learners. However, some challenges aside, it can be a fun and rewarding experience. Kit Flemons takes us on a little journey into the world of children’s education.
How it started…
When I was thirty, I retrained as an English teacher in order to pursue a dream of mine – but the dream wasn’t to teach, the dream was to move here, to Berlin. Teaching just seemed a convenient qualification that aligned with my interests and would provide me with a source of income (luckily, it turns out I rather enjoy this teaching lark!)
Of course, being a teacher with relatively little experience and no contacts, I knew finding work would not be easy. Instead of finding a job upon stepping onto the Schönefeld tarmac, I struck upon the idea of bringing it with me. And that is how I fell into teaching children…
Perhaps our younger members may know the same as I did – there is currently a boom in online English teaching for Chinese children. Seeking an advantage for their kids in a competitive school system, many parents are turning to companies offering online lessons with first-language English speakers. Remote learning across unimaginable distances, even before corona!
I was homeofficing before it was cool…
So… What’s teaching children actually like? I won’t go into the specifics of the learning platform (there are lots, all with different quirks), but let’s explore what teaching children in general is like.
Banana, banana, banana…
First up – can I say this? – very young kids are… erm… kinda stupid.
[See me in my office! – Ed.]
Wait! I don’t mean to insult them! They’re as smart as they possibly can be – but there’s still a certain amount of development their brain has to do before they’re capable of grasping participles and declension. They don’t even really grasp that you speak a different language to them – expect to be enthusiastically told a lot of very interesting stories, of which you might not understand a single word.
As for reading and writing? They might one day be the next Shakespeare, but right now the only thing they have in common with The Bard is making up words when they can’t find any that fit.
Yup, encountering kids, you’re going to have to transcend much more than just a language barrier.
So, start simple and repetitive –
apple, apple, apple
banana, banana, banana
– and spin your simple vocabulary into a whole range of activities. During this time, you can chatter with them as you like, trying to throw in some useful words as you do. Focus on their target vocabulary – you have a lot fewer words to convey than in an adult lesson – but… remember what I said about kids having different brains? Well, they have one slightly terrifying superpower: they learn at an astonishing pace.
They said… what?!
Any parent will know how quickly, and how thoroughly, children learn a ‘bad’ word they heard once from a stranger at the other end of the bus (favourite teaching moment ever: a five-year old yelling “THAT’S BULL****” upon losing noughts-and-crosses – not part of the target vocabulary). While you’re teaching them one set of words, they will be picking up a whole dictionary more. Rusty adult brains require constant revision – young, supple minds are all-devouring.
So, teaching very young learners can be, quite literally, all fun and games after the initial culture shock – and far more rewarding than it has any right to be, with so much progress from so little input.
How many teeth does a T-Rex have?
Of course, they don’t stay that size forever, and older-young-learners require a different teaching method again.
Teenage learners Teenagers [fixed – Ed.] can be horrific; they make no secret of being bored and they make no attempt to take part when they’re not interested – and why should they? They’re often in your lesson at the behest of their parents, not of their own free will.
They also have an odd habit of often being very fluent in particular areas of interest, and much weaker in more general areas – a few weeks playing Minecraft and suddenly my student knows the names of more minerals than I do – and because they have much greater extremes of shy-outgoing than adults, their competencies can often be masked by their behaviour.
Find something that interests them, however, and you’ll see why ‘childlike curiosity’ is a collocation. Just like very young learners, teenagers are also hardwired to learn. Now, however, they want to learn about things that an adult can find interesting too. I’ve heard various people lament,
I felt so much smarter as a teenager, I knew about art, maths, science, geography and so much more!
As adults, we specialise, developing deep knowledge about particular fields.
Teenagers have a much broader depth of knowledge, and you can rediscover your love of astronomy with a lesson on the solar system, explore biology, geography, history… Learning together with teenagers can be heaps of fun! And you get to indulge your love of computer-games, Star Wars, dinosaurs, or whatever other shared interests you may have. Now that makes a break from participles!
They’re called ‘porgs’
I don’t want to teach exclusively children – I like having adult conversations, or feeding the grammar nerd within. Sometimes it can be really difficult to get a feeling for how to connect to a particular class, who don’t want to learn for the sake of learning.
Sometimes I feel that if I ever see another second of Paw Patrol I’ll turn a bit Cruella de Vil… but it must be said, some of my highlights of the week are those when I can forget about customer service, targets and team meetings and instead share cool dinosaur videos, show off home-science-experiments, or learn the names of weird little creatures from Star Wars.
I might grow old reluctantly, but I’ll happily stay immature.