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.