What do you mean you don’t remember?!

Working with Very Young Learners can be painfully slow going and frustrating.  With the four year-olds especially, I often find myself wondering, ‘Am I really teaching them anything? Or are we just playing and singing songs?’ It seems like we’ll work with a vocabulary set over and over again.  They’ll even say the words a few times but then immediately forget all of them.  I’ve worked with this age group for over ten years now and I still get discouraged.

Part of the problem is that VYLs are already taking in so much new information on a daily basis.  Take a moment and think about everything they are learning for the very first time every day: how to hold a pencil, that turning the tap on too far means water will go everywhere, how to sit with their legs crossed and not fall over, the words to express what they want and how they’re feeling…are just a few examples.  They are constantly bombarded with new experiences and knowledge about how the world works.  When you take that in mind, it’s understandable that their brains can be a bit overwhelmed and saturated with information.

Something else to consider is that their memory and cognition are completely different from older children and adults.  This seems like an obvious statement but there are plenty of parents as well as teachers who often fail to take this difference into account when dealing with little ones. Coupled with a short attention span, children at this age also have a more limited short-term or working memory.  These two factors make it even harder for them to transfer knowledge to long-term memory.  As we develop (until a certain age), both attention span and memory increase in scope as well as effectiveness.

There are a few mnemonic devices that I’ve found to be useful in the VYL classroom.  The one that stands out above the rest is using music to help learners remember words and chunks of language.  For example, there are times when I’ll try to elicit a vocabulary word that we’ve been working on (over and over again) but none of them can recall it at that moment.  However, if I start singing the song with this vocabulary set and stop just as I get to that word, someone always seems to come up with the word.

I also use chants with classroom language such as instructions.  I normally have learners wait before picking up their pencils and start to work on a worksheet so that everyone is beginning at the same time.  It helps to lessen the time that Fast Finishers are waiting for everyone else. So the routine is that I chant, ‘wait, wait, wait’.  They often chant along with me and this helps them to remember that they should wait for my cue to start without me having to explain it every time.

Another device to help learners commit new words to short-term and later long-term memory is associating a mime with each vocabulary word.  Very Yong Learners love to move need to move, so using variations of Total Physical Response with them is a must.  Generally speaking, the vocabulary we work with at this age is very concrete and lends itself well to using mimes. Some obvious examples are the body, animals and places in the house but with certain sets such as family or food, you may need to get creative.  I’ve found that when learners can attach a mime to a word it serves as what some refer to as memory hook.  In adults this refers to relating a new word to previously gained knowledge but in young learners I think this hook can be created using gestures they’re familiar with.

Working with Very Young Learners and evaluating their progress (or seemingly lackthereof) can be disheartening and requires quite a bit of patience.  My advice (and this serves to remind myself as well) is to expect to feel frustrated at times but cherish the triumphs and celebrate them.  Praise goes a long way to build their confidence, engage their interest and motivate the rest of the class to participate as well.


About careymicaela

I've been teaching Young Learners and Very Young Learners for over ten years now. My degrees are in Psychology and Spanish. I also completed my TEFL certification in Madrid and the Ih Young Learners Course in Seville. I enjoy working with children and sharing those experiences with other teachers. In my free time (when that exists!) I like to read, listen to music, practice yoga and go on long cycling routes.
This entry was posted in Memory, reflections, very young learners, Young Learners and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to What do you mean you don’t remember?!

  1. Great ideas here, Micaela.
    I remember a few years ago, I taught a woman whose son was also attending English classes with us – I think he was about 6 at the time. At the end of the year, she complained to me that she didn’t feel her son’s teacher was doing a particularly good job – her thinking was that she’d started the year with very little English and had made a great improvement, whereas her son, who is supposedly a sponge at that age, had learnt relatively little. I told her at the time that she had been focussed just on learning English whilst her son had all his other subjects too…but I’m not sure she was convinced!

    Liked by 1 person

    • careymicaela says:

      Hi T! Thanks for reading and commenting 🙂
      It’s really hard to gauge what kids that young are learning and acquiring. They are definitely saturated with new information which can be overwhelming and tiring. They are also not very good at recalling and articulating what they’ve learned. A good example is the parent who asks their child, ‘What did you learn at school/English class today?’. The answer invariably is, ‘Nothing’ or ‘I can’t remember’. For teachers and parents, these kind of responses are so frustrating! I try to make it a point to mention to parents that kids’ memories and brains work very differently from our own so patience is part of the process. Some parents understand, some don’t.
      Anyway, thanks again for stopping by. xx


  2. Oladepo Taoheed says:

    You can’t really get the best out of the kiddies learner if you don’t get to understand and comprehend their natures,interest,assimilation power and differences.
    You tend to keep their learning active only when you’re not inactive to their needs and differences.

    Liked by 1 person

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