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The child as a learner 2

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This is the second of a two-part article which explores techniques to help develop young children's language and how to deal with errors.

The child as a learner 2 - methodology article
Isela Shipton, Alan S. Mackenzie and James Shipton, British Council
  • Involving the whole child
  • Tips to parents
  • Helping children with vocabulary
  • Dealing with mistakes
  • Top ten requests for parents
  • Conclusion

Involving the whole child

Children have highly inquisitive minds and enjoy learning through play and using their imagination by observing and copying, doing things, watching and listening.

Children also learn a lot of their first language by physically responding to their parents' instructions in real and meaningful contexts. The parent says, 'Look at that dog!' or 'Give me the ball!' and the child does so.

  • These interactions between parent and child always have a clear reason for the communication.
  • This is a very different learning situation from asking, 'What is the past tense of 'give'?' The only reason for this question is to test the child's memory. It is not fun and it does not involve the child's senses.

Tips to parents

Parents can help by providing a rich learning environment and placing learning in context. They can help by making English fun to practise at home by using songs, games, drama and drawing. Here are some things you can suggest for them.

  • Create an 'English Corner' by providing materials in English at home such as comics and books, cable TV and Internet (with parental guidance!)
  • Play language-based games in English such as Scrabble and bingo, I-spy, 20 questions, Memory, Simon says etc.
  • Use sticky labels or 'post-it' notes to label objects at home in English. For example, in the kitchen you can label table, chairs, refrigerator, etc.
  • Collect music in English, get the lyrics from the Internet and sing along!
  • Do craft activities in English, for example make puppets and invent a little show in English.
  • Make posters (about their favourite star, sport, etc.) or make picture dictionaries with drawings and cut-outs.
  • Take an 'English adventure outing'. Take your children to a park. Using English only they have to say what they see such as, 'The children are riding their bikes.', 'The man is selling fruit.', 'There are some boats on the lake.' and so on. Other locations where you could do this are the supermarket, an office or a shopping centre.
  • Make reading a habit:
    • Read to your children in English. A short story or a few pages of a book daily creates a life-long habit.
    • You do not have to buy the books, you can join a library or download text from the Internet.
    • If you are concerned with your own pronunciation, there are plenty of materials on the Internet that have the text read to the viewer. Also, there are books that come with cassettes or CDs, so that children can read and listen at the same time. You could do this together.

Helping children with vocabulary

Encouraging children to memorise random vocabulary lists is not very helpful. The more associations you can make between different parts of the language the better. Methods that are likely to help the child are:

  • Grouping words in contexts (foods, occupations, animals) or by meaning (boiling, hot, warm, cool, cold) or opposites (open, closed).
  • Ask the child to say the word out loud, or read a story aloud that contains the new word.
  • Have them write words down.
  • Ask them to draw a picture of the word.
  • Have them listen to new words in context on a tape.
  • Ask them to tell you about other words it sounds like.
  • Have them keep a vocabulary notebook, or word scrap-book. Review it regularly by:
    • Asking your child to tell you about the words in the book
    • Telling a story using the words
    • Reading the words without looking at their vocabulary book
    • Make a story yourself and have the child read or listen to it.

Dealing with mistakes

For children, making mistakes is part of the natural process of learning.

  • A five-year-old speaking his mother tongue may still make grammar mistakes.
  • They will frequently 'invent' their own rules and over-generalisations like 'my car breaks', or 'my friend camed to the party yesterday'. So, learning another language will also involve a lot of mistakes.
  • This is a natural part of learning. In fact, for effective communication it is a good idea to concentrate on learning words, not grammatical accuracy. If a foreigner comes up to you and asks, 'Train station where please?' you can understand and help, even though the grammar is awful. Now, imagine if he says, 'Can you please tell me where to find... uh... er... oh?'
  • There's plenty of time later for learning the grammar; but knowing the words will help your child communicate now, and help them in learning the grammar later.

Repeating, encouraging, praising and building confidence are what is needed to help a child to overcome mistakes. Avoid overtly correcting your child or you might discourage them. Some techniques that you can use are:

  • Don't correct, 'model' the correct form of the language. So if your child says 'The boy wented home,' you can say, 'Yes. The boy went home. What did he do then?'
  • Encourage children to correct themselves, this will build confidence and deepen the learning process. Say 'Almost right, try again…' or show the child where the mistake is but do not give them the answer. Some correction is okay but be careful not to over-correct. A page full of crossing out and corrections can be very demotivating, as is always being told, 'Wrong! Do it again!'
  • Particularly in speech it is much better to let the child develop their ideas and fluency than to keep interrupting with corrections. The ideas are more important than the grammar.
  • Keep their age and level of English in mind. Give lots of praise and encouragement for every effort - they can't know everything.

Top ten requests for parents

Here is a list of advice you can give to parents

  1. Be involved.
    Parent involvement helps students learn and helps teachers work with your child to help them succeed.
  2. Be positive.
    Encourage children to do their best, but don't pressure them by setting goals too high or by scheduling too many activities.
  3. Be a good role model.
    Show your children by your own actions that you believe English is both enjoyable and useful. Read more and use television, videos and game systems creatively for education.
  4. Accept your responsibility as parents.
    Don't expect the school and teachers to take over your obligations as parents. Teach children self-discipline and respect for others at home - don't rely on teachers and schools to teach these basic behaviours and attitudes.
  5. Encourage students to do their best in school.
    Show your children that you believe education is important. Ask about homework, check it has been done. Don't let them miss classes unnecessarily.
  6. Find a balance between schoolwork and outside activities.
    Emphasise your children's progress in developing the knowledge and skills they need to be successful both in school and in life.
  7. Be aware of things that affect classroom performance.
    Try to limit the negative effects of late nights and long hours of extra activities.
  8. Provide resources at home for learning.
    Make sure you have English language books, comics and magazines available in your home.
  9. Understand and support school rules and goals.
    Take care not to undermine school rules, discipline, or goals.
  10. Speak to the teacher!
    As soon as you think there's a problem, contact the school. Don't wait for the end of term or parents' day.


We hope that this article has given you some useful insights into how to make learning more effective and enjoyable for young children and some tools to help you encourage and engage parents in the learning processes of their children.

Further Reading
Children Learning English, Moon. J.
Young Learners, Philips, S.
Very Young Learners, Reilly, V and Ward, S.