Teaching English as a foreign language in early years is a particularly challenging undertaking. Unfortunately, in our country this responsibility seems to be taken for granted and is affected negatively by a number of misconceptions which, in the end, may transform it into a missed opportunity.
First of all, there seems to be a problem with the choice of English teachers for young children. When schools choose staff to be in charge of such classes, there is a tendency to select teachers whose proficiency in English is quite limited, perhaps because youngsters are assumed not to understand much. However, it is generally accepted that children aged between ages 4 and 7 are highly sensitive to oral input, and this sensitivity favors their acquiring suprasegmental features such as stress, intonation and accent. Phonological awareness is, therefore, a crucial element of language acquisition from a very early age and should be well-led from the very beginning. Teachers who lack a high command of the language may not be truly aware of such features themselves, and they are likely to be providing poor spoken language models for children.
A second, and perhaps even more important aspect, is that of methodological expertise. School authorities are sometimes unaware of the foundations of language acquisition and may regard teaching English in early years as merely a matter of singing songs, dancing and colouring, as it is frequently considered so simple; the requirements to teach English in kindergarten often overlook a thorough knowledge of language teaching methodology and language acquisition theory. For instance, let us consider the use of songs in the classroom: some teachers play them and just expect a propitious reaction from children (“they love it and start dancing without me telling them”) whilst others carry out comprehensive language work leading to and deriving from the songs: a variety of drills, activities to relate sounds and words, and intensive feedback to foster good pronunciation of very simple items, which can be recycled and re-applied in subsequent lessons. Note that such aspects are related to oral practice, because obviously kindergarten children cannot write yet, but they do understand and produce spoken language. For this reason, activities that involve linguistically unrelated skills, such as drawing, colouring and tracing should be given comparatively less time in class. It can therefore be argued that teachers in charge of early-year language teaching should be the best, since it is their duty to establish good learning habits, such as following instructions, using language to request items, and responding to certain situations – all in English.
In conclusion, the role of English teachers in early-year education should not be underestimated due to its distinctive level of challenge. By guaranteeing that talented and committed professionals are in charge of those classes, we are also guaranteeing that young children will have a successful first encounter with the English language and will definitely be on the way to achieving proficiency.
Pinter, A. (2006). Teaching young language learners. Oxford University Press
Cameron, L. (2011). Teaching languages to young learners. Cambridge University Press
Do you think the tendency of assigning less proficient teachers to instruct small children can be reversed? If so, how should it be carried out?
Mayra Yaranga (1985) has completed Doctorate studies in Education at UNIFÉ; she holds a Master’s Degree in Media, Culture and Identity from Roehampton University (London) revalidated by PUCP, a Bachelor’s Degree in Education from UPCH and the Professional Title of Licenciada from IPNM. Currently she works as Pedagogical Specialist and Member of the Research Area for Universidad del Pacífico Language Centre. She is also Associate Professor at UNIFÉ. She has published papers in the fields of English Language Teaching and Cultural Studies.