It is a fascinating thing to be a very young learners (VYL) teacher and trainer these days. The area, one of the most recent additions in the EFL industry, is developing and changing in front of our eyes and today it is not what it used to be five or ten years ago, with the growing number of students and, finally, a rising interest from academia and the publishing world.

One of the current and most pressing issues, from the point of view of a long-time teacher and trainer, is the actual content of what we teach to our youngest students and how we do it. Generally speaking, traditional approaches cannot be used and a new, age-appropriate methodology has to be applied.

Some of the aspects of this methodology have already been established, and even newly qualified teachers are familiar with the idea of using flashcards to introduce and to practise lexis. In my opinion, grammar, or ‘structure’ as I will refer to it in this article, has not yet been given the attention it deserves.

Why even bother with grammar in pre-school?

On the one hand, not focusing on grammar seems to be justified as, indeed, there are some similarities in the way that young children learn their first language and their first foreign language and the teachers can draw on that. VYL courses focus mostly on the development of listening and speaking skills and learning from context, rather than introducing grammar explicitly. Naturally, no traditional approaches applied elsewhere in all the communicative approach classrooms around the world could be used with the students who are very young, pre-literate (in L2 at least) and still developing their cognitive skills and hence unable to analyse such abstract concepts as grammar.

However, what this reasoning seems to have led to in the everyday VYL classroom is that grammar or ‘structure’ has simply been abandoned. Authors as well as teachers have been focusing on teaching words in isolation and expecting production in the form of single words from the students. As a result, instruction turns into memorising and reproducing lists of words and no attempts are made to help children move from the one-word production into phrase- or even sentence-level, which, undoubtedly, is within their capability if appropriate techniques are applied. In my experience, this is possible, even for those of our students who attend classes only twice a week and have a maximum of, for example, 90 minutes of English time a week, and without the exposure that children from bilingual families receive at home.

What about acquisition?

Pre-school students are sometimes likened to ‘little sponges’. While it is true that, at least in some areas, they demonstrate a certain aptitude for learning language, that metaphor also seems to imply that English language exposure alone is enough for the students to start communicating in L2. That certainly is not the case in English classes, with limited input and no out-of-class contact with the language. Kids, no matter how young, will not simply absorb the language from their teacher.

At the same time, there is some room for the acquisition to take place. This approach seems to be especially well-suited for those structures which arise in connection with the everyday classroom procedures and which are used frequently in each lesson, even if, technically, they are of a higher than pre-A1 level, for instance the question ‘Did you do your homework?’

This structure can be introduced early on, as the setting and the checking of homework is a part of the everyday class routine, even with the youngest of students, from the beginning of the course.

Naturally, at no point in the course does the teacher explain the details of past simple questions, but this structure appears in every single lesson. The teacher asks the same question, possibly pointing at the page in the coursebook or showing the handout. It is easy for the students to infer the meaning of the structure from such a context. At the very start, the only answer (or reaction) expected from the students is the kids getting out the handout or opening the coursebook on the particular page.

It is only with time that the children start to reply with a short ‘Yes’ or ‘No’, or ‘Yes, I did’ or ‘No, I didn’t’, and then progress to taking turns to ask the questions. Finally, it becomes obvious that this ‘Did you’ refers to something that happened ‘before’ and the question can be slowly applied to other verbs and, for example, used to talk about the games the children played, the things they ate and so on.

This whole process takes time, and it has to be closely monitored by the teacher but it can be applied to any of the structures or the functional language that constitutes a part of the everyday classroom exchange.

The introduction of grammar (or structure) into the EFL pre-school classroom is, however, not limited to acquisition only. There are some other approaches and resources that can be used effectively for promoting language that goes beyond vocabulary only.

It starts with the teacher

The teacher and the teacher’s language seem to be the first and the most important step in providing a rich language environment in the classroom. The teacher’s own language level is just as crucial in pre-school teaching as with any other age group (Puchta, Elliott, 2017: 7), however, it is equally important that the teacher makes an effort to promote ‘structure’ in an appropriate way and to maximise students’ production.

It starts with analysing the curriculum to ensure that a set of vocabulary items is always accompanied by a structure that goes with this set, for instance, food and I like / I don’t like, toys and I’ve got / I haven’t got, colours and It is / they are, clothes and I am wearing or I wear and so on. Sometimes, this is facilitated by the coursebook curriculum which includes both lexis and structures, however this is not always the case in all coursebooks and in all units, and teachers themselves have to make the decision about the most appropriate and relevant structures for the particular group.

The follow-up of the analysis will be ensuring that the structure is present and used extensively. For example, during the presentation of the new vocabulary with flashcards, a structure can easily be added and instead of saying ‘cat’, ‘dog’, ‘monkey’, ‘fish’ while playing with flashcards, teacher can present these as ‘I can see a cat’ or ‘It is a cat’. This way, from the very beginning, the students will be given an opportunity to interact with the language in context and, as a result, it will be much easier to elicit this language from them, too.

The use of symbols

Symbolic representation is one of the key concepts in the early years development and it reflects the development of cognitive skills and abstract thinking. A symbol, to put it very simply, is something that stands for something else (Bruce, 2005: 105). Some symbols are a property of the world, such as logos of different brands – or the owl that in many cultures is associated with wisdom. Some are local (a red letter M as a symbol of the metro in Moscow) and some can be very personal, too, for example a shell that stands for the best holiday in the world, for one person only. Symbols can be used in the VYL classroom to introduce and to practise such abstract concepts as different grammatical structures.

One of the examples which can also be found in some of the VYL coursebooks, is the idea that preferences, or simply ‘I like’ can be represented with the symbol of a heart and preferences against, or in other words ‘I don’t like’, can be represented with a crossed heart. This way, the whole structure can be visualised with the appropriate pictures which can also be used in their 2D form and given to kids to manipulate physically, for example flashcards and cut-outs of hearts that the children can put on the cards and build sentences (Figure 1). As soon as both elements are on display, they are easier for the children to see, to visualise, to produce and, eventually, to reproduce.

Subsequently, the other structures can also be matched with their own symbols i.e. adjectives represented by emoticons, characters by flashcards, ‘I’ve got’ by a symbol of a house or a bag (depending on the topic, e.g. the house will be a natural association for the topic of family or pets, the school bag will work for school objects) or using an arrow (big and small, or different arrows of different colours) for ‘It is’ and ‘they are’ respectively.

Gestures

Unfortunately, not all structures are equally ‘VYL teacher-friendly’ and easily visualised. However, symbolic representation can also be extended into gestures, which, in a way, are symbolic and might be more appropriate for some of the structures.

Some of the gestures that we use in my lessons are these:

  • Moving the hand along the body and legs for ‘I am wearing’
  • Touching the chest twice and pointing at the eyes once, rhythmically (I – can – see) for ‘I can see’ which can be later extended into other verbs I can (two taps) and a gesture of your choice
  • Raising one finger and waving all five fingers of one hand for ‘one’ and ‘many’
  • Using a certain number of fingers for one of the adverbs of frequency, five fingers for ‘always’, four fingers for ‘usually’, two fingers for ‘sometimes’ and no fingers, a hand in a fist, for ‘never’ (Figure 2).

Like the symbols, these can be gestures that are well-known or gestures created for and used exclusively in our little English bubble. These gestures help to visualise the structure, to support production and to recall it, when necessary.

Colourful semantics

It may come as a surprise but EFL teachers working with young or very young learners and speech therapists have a lot in common as they both try to get the kids to produce the language and there is plenty that we can learn from each other. Take colourful semantics, for instance.

This is an approach created in the 1990s by a UK-based speech therapist Alison Bryan, whose main aim was to facilitate production with the use of specially-prepared colour-coded cards, in which all the elements of the target structure have their own visual representation and colour. This way, children not only remember to include the required number of items, for instance the subject, the verb, the object and the location (‘Mum is reading a book in the park’) but they also get a chance to interact physically with the cards, which is very important for the children.

The example in Figure 3 comes from the lesson on ‘House’ and it was used to describe the location of different animals in the room. This particular visual was used in an online lesson in which all the objects were moved by the teacher but, nonetheless, it helped the students see how the sentence is formed while they were speaking.

Songs are not only for singing

Songs are an integral part of the VYL world and it would be difficult to imagine a lesson without them. Apart from the coursebook songs, designed to revise and to reinforce the unit target language, there are also plenty of songs and chants written for children who are not specifically for EFL learners (e.g. Super Simple Songs).

These are age-appropriate and fun, accompanied by appealing visuals and videos and, something which is especially important for teachers, containing a great variety of structures and a source of rich language. This combination of all these factors makes these songs perfect for the our context and especially suitable for introducing the grammar structures that might be officially deemed as ‘above the pre-A1 CEFR level’ such as ‘What’s your favourite colour?’, ‘I like’, ‘I am trying to sleep’, ‘I like dancing but I don’t like dancing with a bear’, ‘When I grow up, I want to be a firefighter’. These can be used over a series of lessons (Figure 4). First, they are introduced (presentation), then sung and reproduced (controlled practice) and eventually, when students are ready for it, they can be used creatively (freer practice) in games which use the same structure but, at this point, already without the support of the melody. For example, the question – answer ‘What’s your favourite colour?’ ‘I like’ can be easily extended into a whole series of questions about different favourite things.

Storytelling

The greatest benefit of using stories in the EFL classroom is the fact that regardless of the type (traditional stories, storybooks written for children whose L1 is English, or the EFL coursebook stories) is the fact that they are a wonderful source of structures used in context. The adventures of certain characters will help to make this language clear (even if it is above the pre-A1 CEFR level). The repetitive use or, here, telling and retelling of the story, provides opportunities for exposure and practice. Since it is quite likely that there will be quite a few new structures, the teacher can make a decision to focus only on the certain points.

Just like with songs, in the initial stages, stories are introduced and retold but, as the students’ confidence and knowledge of the story grows, they can be actively involved in the process.

Their contribution in the beginning tends to be minimal, for instance, in the game ‘Oops’, kids listen to an already familiar story and correct the mistakes made by the teacher on purpose, e.g.:

Teacher: The girl was very happy.

Kids: Oops! Sad

Storytelling starts with production of single words but it can be extended into phrases, sentences or even parts of the story. In the long run it can also lead to children creating their own stories, only loosely based on the original story (Figure 5).

It is also worth mentioning that stories can be also a wonderful source of language, especially those structures which are natural for telling stories but which are not normally given enough attention in EFL coursebooks, such as the past tense forms, adjectives and adverbs.

The question of accuracy

It seems that as regards the EFL preschoolers, the ultimate goal is fluency. Teachers’ efforts should go towards creating the atmosphere and conditions in which the students want to communicate and providing them with the necessary tools, such as the words and the structures. Error correction and working on accuracy can be, for now, left on the back burner.

Conclusion

Without any doubt, there is no room for explicit grammar instruction in the VYL classroom because of the age of the students and the current level of their cognitive abilities. However, it seems that by redefining the concept of grammar for the needs of the pre-school learners, we will create better opportunities for better quality language learning and, in turn, for better results, too.

References

Bruce T (2005) Early Childhood Education. Oxon: Hodder Arnold

Puchta H & Elliot K (2017) Activities for Very Young Learners. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Super Simple Songs. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/user/supersimplesongs

Anka Zapart is a freelance teacher and teacher trainer. She has taught for more than 15+ in Poland, the UK, Spain, Brazil and Russia. Her professional interests include second language acquisition in pre-schoolers in instructed settings, assessment for VYL and YL, literacy in the early years and material development. She writes about teaching at https://funkysocksanddragons.com/

Email: Anka ankazapart@gmail.com.