Since its conception, education has been in a constant state of evolution regarding not only the content but also the method in which it is to be delivered to a learner. The challenges this curtails become even more obvious once an educator is assigned a class of young learners with little to no knowledge of the target material.
One such case is teaching a foreign language to students who at the tender age of primary level, must live up to the challenge by effectively learning how to use said language, even without having mastered their own yet.
ELT (English Language Teaching) has incorporated a variety of techniques and methods throughout the years, adapting to the needs and desires of each generation. In this age of social and professional competitiveness, one must not be daunted by the impersonal nature it presents. On the contrary, it must be used to the educator’s advantage to inspire and help students overcome any fears or doubts of their own abilities in order to shine.
Speaking a foreign language is a skill intricately connected to establishing a sound foundation to mastering it. If neglected, a student’s progress will in most cases be hindered as he advances to the upper levels and finds it difficult or even impossible to comprehend and properly utilize the language moving forward. It goes without saying that striking a successful balance of psychological stimuli as well as implementing the proper teaching methods is key to success.
Being part of a class is the equivalent of belonging to a small community. Relationships of all forms are established, some of which are of a beneficial nature, while others might cause tension amongst students. The same also applies to the relationship between the educator and his young learners. It is essential that an educator build a sense of trust and motivation in class, not an easy task mind you, but one that can be achieved if given time and patience.
A student in many cases looks up to his teacher as a role model, even as a parent. For a specific or unspecified time, both parties become a part of each other’s lives; it is only natural that an educator must first gain the student’s trust. Once this has been established, the student will in turn reciprocate and trust will then lead to motivation and the desire to set goals.
‘What are my students’ family backgrounds? What are their interests? Do they have any hobbies? Do any of my students have special educational needs?’ are only some of the questions an educator must ask himself. Some information can be offered by the director of studies who might be aware of any personal information, necessary to facilitating a more effective channel of communication. Topics that might be sensitive to the learner could be avoided, whereas showing interest in a pastime he enjoys could influence the learner to give it his best.
It’s up to us to show genuine concern with our students’ progress and well-being. Upon achieving this, a prosperous relationship between both parties will be established, reducing any reservations a student may have to participate and become an active member of his class.
Likewise, the relationships among students must be closely monitored. No one said that an educator’s job is easy. Close observation of the interactions of students is highly advised as fear of one’s classmates can lead to underperformance. Giving the wrong answer which might then be followed by contempt and ridicule is a trepidation most of us have experienced as students. A student will not speak and in most cases be terrified if he thinks he will be teased or even bullied.
An educator must set rules in class from day one. No one has the right to taunt or make fun of other classmates and the only one who has the right to correct a student is the teacher. These rules should be put into effect immediately with no exception. Peer work is strongly advised, even between students who are indifferent or fearful of one another. Inspiring team work is an essential element to further stimulating a student’s desire to speak his voice as a student must above all feel safe, confident and happy when attending class.
Once a harmonious atmosphere is achieved, one without any perturbation of being reprimanded, it is time to focus on the educational aspect of inspiring young learners to speak. Having them speak individually is an option that might work effectively with the braver students, but what about the rest of the class? How can you make a timid student with low self-esteem find his own voice?
A preferred and proven educational method is speaking as one voice; having the students speak together as a group first and then focus on individual voices. The merits of applying this educational approach are numerous. Having the whole class repeat key vocabulary and expressions together can build self-esteem. Many students feel that this way, they can speak their voice without being judged. Of course, their individual voices can be heard by the teacher, even if the students think it can’t.
Speaking as a whole can be implemented not only with key vocabulary but by singing a song, reciting rhymes or poems, even when playing competitive games. Split the class into groups, have them speak in turn. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by the potential this instills. Young learners will bond while also having fun and without even realizing it, they practise the language.
This is where things get interesting. After all that practice within a group, are our students ready? Maybe not, but they are definitely more confident and feel more comfortable not only in our presence but as part of a closely knit group of learners.
The most crucial element in this case is encouragement. Praising one’s students for the effort they are making should in no case be neglected. Many students need our approval for every single word they utter. Play along, have them repeat it again a second time. They’ll slowly get out of this habit as they become more confident.
Never interrupt a student while speaking, even if the student makes a mistake. If they are corrected while speaking, they lose focus, panic or want to give up. Correct them after they have finished and urge them to try again. Our tone must be confident, that of trust and inspiring, followed by a smile.
Avoid long or difficult words at first. Stick to CVC words (consonant, vowel, consonant); don’t worry if they can’t pronounce words like ‘cucumber’ or ‘purple’. They’ll eventually get there. Longer words like ‘umbrella’ need to be split into syllables on the board. Have them pronounce one syllable at a time. Remember to be patient and encourage them through every step.
Practicing with words that rhyme is not only an effective but a highly entertaining approach to practising one’s speaking skills. Using words of up to three is a good idea and can be presented as a game in class. Have them practice what they’ve learned throughout the year by coming up with words that rhyme. Who can think of the most?
Focus on their pronunciation mistakes. Have them understand that some words are stressed differently even though they are written exactly the same. Words like ‘present’ or ‘read’ for example have a different pronunciation depending on the use of the word as a noun or a verb, or based on the tense of the verb. Using visual stimulation on the whiteboard, can in each case be a huge asset, as this helps them distinguish the difference more easily.
As for intonation? It is highly advisable to use the proper tone of voice, as well as facial expressions to help students realize that it can completely change the meaning of what we want to express. Use different examples with a different tone of voice. For instance, politely ask them if they cleaned their room, and then use the same example in a strict manner. Students will immediately acknowledge how important their tone of voice can be when asserting an opinion or request.
Critical thinking as well as the rest of the four main ‘C’ skills (collaboration, creativity, communication) should be applied in every educational endeavor. In today’s highly competitive job market, we must help students learn to adapt and become active contributors of society; not passive ones. This can be achieved at a young age, in which their minds are ripe and ready to learn. If not provided with proper stimulation, their potential will be lost and they will not flourish.
Many young learners tend to give simple answers in the form of ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Mechanical tasks as they are known, are of course a necessary component of any language, but will only get a student so far. Communicative tasks which require the speaker to process more information can be then utilized. Problem solving, choosing the best option or expressing personal preference must be encouraged even at the younger ages.
Investing our time in enhancing our students’ capacity to think and judge will facilitate their speaking skills and incorporate elements of the language they are learning. Mechanical tasks are understandably unsuitable to this end as it would be wise not to be practised to a great degree in class.
Inspiration, encouragement, motivation, trust. These are the ingredients to success. As educators we mustn’t disregard the importance of our role in properly educating a young learner in the early, most crucial stages of learning a foreign language. Just remember to be patient, take one step at a time and most importantly, smile; the latter most definitely makes a world of difference.