by Irena Köstenbauer

Published 1998 by EL-Gazette, London

When about a decade ago we became confronted with small children as learners, this new experience was fairly frustrating to all of us. All of a sudden practically all the familiar teaching methods have proven to be useless and there were not many alternatives to help us to face this new teaching situation.

What difference does it make to teach young learners? What is it in teaching small children that makes the most qualified teachers shiver with fear before they enter the classroom but makes the others swear there is nothing more rewarding than teaching them?

We should realize that up to that point most of the teachers did not think of most of our mental processes, including learning, in terms of being subconscious and autonomous. They were used to thinking that learning must be connected with stress, conscious doing things, conscious studying, working hard, memorizing vocabulary, writing and reading and learning grammatical rules by heart.

All of a suddend we were confronted with a group of learners who did not respond to these methods of teaching. Children were in pre-school age, they could not read or write, they would not and could not respond to any pattern drills and could not be taught grammar rules. They did not learn the language, they acquired it and, therefore, could not be taught with any conventional methods.

On the one hand they would learn very quickly, but not offerred enough repetitions they would forget everything even more quickly, which was quite frustrating for teachers who found it extremely difficult to come up with enough games, songs, rhymes and other activities to provide enough repetitions for language retention.

Moreover, children`s short attention and concentration span would cause problems with discipline in class and force the teachers to the brisk pace of lessons they were not used to before. Activities had to be changed every 3 - 5 minutes to keep the children busy and interested. Should the teacher not provide enough action in class - the outcome of his teaching efforts was fairly stressfull...kids would just walk away and not pay attention to what´s going in class. What´s even worse, with the frankness characteristic for this age group - they would tell the teacher that they were bored stiff.

Young children learn through what they see, hear and do. The more individual senses are involved during the reception of new information, the more efficiently is that information likely to be retained. New teaching techniques were necessary that would make successful use of multisensory transmission of material and promote multisensory perception of the language. New elements of teaching had to be implanted into the teaching programme without which teaching children is not possible, i.e.. auditory, kinesthetic and visual. Teachers had to use total body response, dance and sing, get used to children running across the classroom rather than sitting motionless at their desks, use their body language , gestures and facial expression, modulate their voice and intonation and ...be a lot of fun! This fairly new approach to teaching left many even experienced teachers insecure and helpless, which was additionally strengthened by scarsity of appropriate teaching materials and methodology.

With the time passing by, alternative methods have been used and adapted to teaching young learners, such as suggestopaedia, Gestalt psychology or Tomatis method, which gave teachers the insight to how children acquire a foreign language and thus helped them teach better and discover great assets of teaching young learners.

Slowly but surely teachers have learned that reading and writing is not the only method of retaining material learned. They have discover that associations, sensations, perceptions and learning can proceed quite on their own provided certain conditions are fulfilled.

They have discovered how rewarding it is to teach pupils who learn with incomparable enthusiasm and joy, play with the language, are extremely eager to learn, not afraid of making mistakes, would parrot any sound with astonishing accuracy and are very imaginative and creative. Morover, they do not carry any negative attitudes left over from previous learning experience at school. There are no strict syllabuses to be followed, no tests and no performance objectives to me met. Teachers have also found out that once the childrens`needs are taken into consideration, they do not pose any discipline in class either. They learn with pleasure and beg for more - not a very common thing in classes full of teenagers.

Teaching young learners is a blessing for teachers who can adapt to these new teaching situations, discover a child in themselves and act accordingly. A curse for the ones who find it difficult to live the children's world and thus fail in reaching them as their audience. As Marshal McLuhan (1982) says : "... those who draw a distinction between education and entertainment, don't know the first thing about either one!" It is particularly true for teachers of young learners.