A holistic approach brought into
the Young Learners (YL) classroom

by Irena Köstenbauer

Published in ELT News, Vienna 2001

For ages teachers have been looking for methods which would easen up or accelerate the process of learning foreign languages.

The problem has become particularly acute about 10 years ago when teachers all of a sudden became confronted with small children as learners. The experience was rather frustrating for all of us. Practically all the familiar teaching methods used so far has proven to be useless. Children were in pre-school age, they could not read or write, their attention span was fairly short, they would not and could not respond to pattern drills and could not be taught grammar rules.

Research into how the brain learns and in particular the understanding of "whole brain learning" - recognising the particular characteristics of the right side of the brain - have led to an important, but lesser known, subgroup of methods and materials, which can be categorized as humanistic disciplines. Foremost among these are Suggestopaedia, Gestalt psychology, Tomatis method, TPR or Silent way.

Having taught small children for the last 13 years I have developed English For Kids® Teaching Programme, which combines many different elements from the above mentioned methods into one compact and complete entity.

In this article I would like to present some of the elements I have integrated into the programme.

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is a term coined by Lozanov in the 1960's and means the application of suggestion to education and learning.

How to use the suggestion as the means of stimulating positive feelings towards learning a foreign language confronting a group of four-year old children, some of which are fighting back tears? What kind of suggestion?

1. Suggestion may be verbal or non-verbal, direct or indirect.

A direct verbal suggestion is when a teacher says: "You will see how much fun you are going to have here in this English class and how easy English is".

I have decided to use a trick that helps the children gain the conviction that they can lean English fast and, what is even more important, gives them the feeling that English is an easy language to learn.

I have prepared a set of 40 cards with the pictures of objects the names of which are very similar in English and in German.

Here are some examples:

Before we started our first confrontation with English I asked the children if they think they could name all the objects in the pictures without having learned English before. The expected answer was no. Then I used the verbal suggestion, explained how easy English is and how quickly they are going to learn it. Then I started presenting one card after another.

The amazement on children's faces was growing bigger and bigger when they realized they could really say all these English words.

They proudly announced their parents after the lesson that..."Englisch ist ein Klax" which was exactly the aim of my suggestion.

A direct non-verbal suggestion is:

If a teacher is well prepared, enthusiastic and relaxed in teaching, then his pupils absorbs his attitude and feel the same way. Small children are particularly sensitive to such indirect signals.

Also the classroom itself is a source of nonverbal indirect suggestion. Its physical aspects can make it more inviting than normally. Colour of the walls, arrangement of the chairs, inspiring decorations on the walls, plants.

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2. Another aspect of suggestopaedia is joy and absence of tension.

Children should not be aware they are in the classroom to study something or that they have to prove something to the teacher or to their parents. Learning should be easy, fun, fast and efficient. The teacher should take the pressure off the children as much as possible. It can be achieved by making masks with the children or giving them animals the names of which are familiar to them, such as: zebra, giraffe, tiger etc...More shy children can hide behind the masks or animals and pretend these fictitious characters speak and make mistakes. A teacher should avoid asking individual children to speak or to compete.

Another method often applied in the English For Kids® teaching programme is so called teaching without teaching. It is based on the principle that most of our mental processes, also learning, are subconscious and autonomous. We can learn and NOT KNOW that we are learning. You can teach small children without them realizing that they are BEING TAUGHT.

We achieve it by introducing certain vocabulary areas much earlier than they appear in the course book .Let me quote two examples.


Presenting the weather vocabulary we introduce a teddy bear. Every lesson, making the weather forecast we ask the children to dress the teddy bear according to the weather. We do not ask them to produce the words. We just show them pieces of clothes and give orders: When we finally reach the unit on clothes, children have already mastered most of the words without any effort.


We start reading "Spot, the Dog" books to the pupils from the very first lesson on. We point at

different animals and tell children their names. When we finally reach the unit on animals, children have already mastered most of the words without any effort.

3. The whole brain learning.

The teacher should activate the right hemisphere in the process of learning.
It can be done in the
presentation phase - the material is presented in a dynamic, dramatic fashion by a teacher. Pupils experience the material sensorially, as completely as possible. A teacher can use certain suggestions of associations.
passive phase - repeating material while colouring or cutting out with the cassette at the background; this phase utilizes both hemispheres of the brain in learning

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Dr Alfred Tomatis began his research into ear-voice relations in France in the late 1960's and later developed his system for treating dyslexia and teaching foreign languages.

An interesting aspect of his research involves the analysis of the frequency range of a number of European languages. The human ear is able to perceive frequencies ranging from 20 cycles per second (20 Herz) to 20.000 cycles per second (20.000 Herz). Being brought up in a given linguistical environment, a child's ear gradually gets used to a given range of frequencies, peculiar to this given language. Thus if one is listening say, to English with a French ear, one will not be able to hear and reproduce English accurately. By the same token, a native English speaker can be "deaf" to the subtilities of say, French vowels, which are all packed into a narrow frequency range.

Not surprisingly, since he is an ear specialist, Tomatis lays great stress on the importance of the ear in language training. "On parle avec son oreille" - we speak with our ears (Tomatis, 1970). He favors listening before speaking.

In the classroom - which is an artificial millieu by definition - children must be "integrated" into the sound universe of the foreign language. Unfamiliar or difficult English sounds must be presented in a playful way, often in combination with TPR. Here are some practical and tested examples of introducing A (æ ) - sound, W-sound and a vioceless P-sound, all of which cause many problems to the children, even at the very early age.


We ask the children to produce the sound of the blowing wind "UUUUU" and using TPR, we ask them at the same time to move their hands in tact.

When they have repeated the sound a few times we ask them to say UUUUU-windy.


Presenting nouns like pear or peach, we ask them to whisper the words. In this way we teach them to pronounce the sound "P" as voiceless.


Presenting words like cat, hat etc...we ask the children to hold their chin and press it down with a long AAA (æ ) while pronouncing the words.

Once children learn the gestures accompanying given sounds, it is easy to teach new words with same sound patterns - we just imitate the wind, hold our chins or whisper and children remember what sound it was. It is also great fun!

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It stresses the importance of learning by wholes. Gestalt language consists of prefabricated routines or patterns which are memorized as whole utterances without necessarily understanding single words. The first phrases are introduced right during the first lesson:

Good-bye. See you next Monday. Have a nice week.

Every lesson new phrases are added up and the same phrases are repeated every single lesson. Gestalt speech serves as a short cut to allow social interaction and interpersonal communication with a minimum of linguistic competence. Later a teacher can try to vary the phrases, exchanging single words in the phrases.

e.g. Have a nice SUNDAY.

Children do not have any problems memorizing long utterances. Having memorized the first phrases he feels proud how much English he can speak and also his parents and friends are impressed, which in turn motivates the child to learn more.

With regular repetitions of the same prefabricated language and very often the same gestures, children quickly understand new situations and memorize the language involved. It is very important to create as many natural situations as possible in the classroom so that a child can be confronted with as many prefabricated chunks as possible.

N:B: Where children are not exposed to planned opportunities to acquire prefabricated language, acquisition is slower.

All these above mentioned methods combine and emphasize authority and a sympathetic attitude of the teacher, teacher-student confidence based on authority and the role of the learning and teaching environment, i.e. a classroom. They stress voice intonation and rhythm in presenting material and they try to develop the pupil's personality in a positive environment. The teacher's manner of speaking, eye-contact, use of gesture and stance are very important suggestion.

I assume teaching young learners without the elements of these alternative methods would be extremely difficult, if not impossible. However, students of all age groups can only profit from this holistic approach to teaching and learning.

  Copyright 2001 by Mag. Irena Köstenbauer, Wien