Originally published in TET blog


Young Learners (YL) aged 5-10 have a strong desire to communicate and if engaged in an activity they will ‘talk their heads off’ (Moon, 2000, 9). However, it is important to remember that YL do not choose to learn a foreign language and are too young to ‘recognise the usefulness’ of it and, therefore, need other motivations and reasons to assist their learning (Ioannou-Georgiou & Pavlou, 2003, 8). For these reasons, course design has a huge role not just in language learning but in the lives of learners.

Motivation and Active Learning

With YL, the teacher’s methods are influential to the learners’ motivations (Moon, 2000). This contrasts with adult and older young learners who have a wider range of extrinsic motivations such as examination pressure and career progression. Some extrinsic motivation will come from parents, and it is important to include them in the learning process where possible. From my experience, learners aged 5-10 are very active and can be totally captivated by fun and ‘hands-on’ activities which contrasts with a lot of adult learners who prefer more formal analytic learning (Pinter, 2006). 5–10 year olds gain a large ‘sense of achievement’ from enjoyable activities that ‘encourage language to stick’ which develops motivation and aids further learning (Phillips, 1997, 8). YL tend to be more enthusiastic and more eager than adolescent learners meaning physical activities utilising Total Physical Response (TPR) should be prevalent in a YL classroom (Moon, 2000). A strong focus for the YL teacher should be to select activities to build confidence, positivity, learner autonomy, and a safe learning environment. Drama activities are useful in developing speaking skills whilst also developing visual, spatial, emotional, and affective skills (Pinter, 2006). Activities including games and songs further promote a positive learning environment and allow for language production without much stress (Reilly & Ward, 2008).

Learning Environment

A positive and supportive learning environment will have a significant impact upon learning in any classroom. Activities are viewed as the environment that develops skills in foreign languages and it is the ‘demands on learners’ and ‘support for learning’ of these activities that are decisive in promoting successful learning for this age range (Van Geert, 1995, as cited in Cameron, 2001, 21). The learning that takes place with 5–10 year olds will set them up to learn for the rest of their lives. In my view, the learning environment (including the activities) has a much greater influence upon this age range than other learner groups. If environments are too demanding, then they will overstress learners whilst under demanding environments may falsely portray the impression of a successful class and hinder learning. It is this balance that is pivotal for YL teachers to get right. To assist with this balance, teachers can use scaffolding in a variety of ways to reduce stress and support learning (Cameron, 2001). One important way of doing this is through Bruner’s notion of ‘formats and routines’ that help to ‘combine the security of the familiar with the new’ especially using stories (Cameron, 2001, 9).


5–10 year olds enjoy fantasy and imagination more than older learners who tend to prioritise real life themes (Pinter, 2006). Stories link fantasy worlds and the imagination with the learner’s real world whilst also ‘forging links between home and school’ (Ellis & Brewster, 2014, 7). When chosen appropriately, stories have a power which when combined with the enthusiasm that 5–10 year olds tend to have are an extremely useful tool for language teachers (Cameron, 2001). Stories also introduce and expose YL to language in memorable contexts that will develop their thinking and ‘gradually enter their own speech’ (Ellis & Brewster, 2014, 7). From my experience, language teaching has placed too much emphasis upon phonics and micro-reading skills at the expense of wider macro-reading skills which aid comprehension. The bottom-up approach may also detract from the enjoyment of stories which hinders motivation and learning in the long term.


The Critical Period Hypothesis is all-important for this age range as it is the idea that YL can learn a language more effectively before adolescence (Cameron, 2001). 5–10 year olds learn from ‘watching and imitating interactions’ between peers, teachers, and learners (Lightbown & Spada, 2013, 32). In my opinion, 5–10 year olds are like ‘sponges’ to language and at a future point will mentally coordinate this uptake and start to speak. The silent period suggests listening is the skill that YL learn first (Phillips, 1997). Therefore, activities should never force students to speak. Course design should factor this in with the focus moving from the receptive to the productive. Imitation, repetition, and recycling in activities such as role plays can provide the learners with support during this transition.

Egocentrism and Collaboration

Piaget explains that 6-7 year olds are moving from the pre-operational stage to the concrete stage (Williams & Burden, 1997). Teachers should embrace the egocentric viewpoint that characterises a five-year-old in the pre-operational stage but also attempt to extend and challenge them through collaboration to ‘make sense of other people’s actions and language’ to ‘construct knowledge’ (Cameron, 2001, 4; Pinter, 2006, 6). Teachers with learners in the concrete stage may need very different materials and methods but collaboration still has an important role. According to Vygotsky, the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) requires collaboration between YL and their more capable peers which will help YL progress (Read, 2011). For example, a learner who is struggling to count the number of stars in a picture can be assisted by another learner providing a ‘visual clue’ (Pinter, 2006, 11). These interactions from collaboration with peers and teachers are crucial in helping learners learn English (Williams, 1999).


Cameron, L. (2001). Teaching Languages to Young Learners. CUP.

Ellis, G. & Brewster, J. (2014). Tell it Again! The Storybook Handbook for Primary English Teachers. British Council.

Ioannou-Georgiou, S. & Pavlou, P. (2003). Assessing Young Learners. OUP.

Lightbown, P. & Spada, N. (2013). How Languages are Learned. OUP.

Moon, J. (2000). Children Learning English. Macmillan.

Phillips, S. (1997). Young Learners. OUP.

Pinter, A. (2006). Teaching Young Language Learners. OUP.

Read, C. (2011). ‘Z is for Zone of Proximal Development.’ https://carolread.wordpress.com/2011/08/08/z-is-for-zone-of-proximal-development/

Reilly, V. & Ward, S. M. (2008). Very Young Learners. OUP.

Williams, M. & Burden, R. (1997). Psychology for Language Teachers. CUP.

Williams, M. (October 1999). Motivation in Language Learning. ETP Issue 13.