The child as a learner 1

This is the first in a two-part article which explores how young children learn languages and what we as teachers can do to help them and their parents to make this process more enjoyable and positive.

The child as a learner - methodology article
Isela Shipton, Alan S. Mackenzie and James Shipton, British Council
  • When to start language learning
  • What stops children from learning
  • How children learn languages
  • Getting parents involved
  • Get to know how your children learn

When to start language learning

Most experts believe that when a child is introduced to a second language at an early age their chances of becoming more proficient in the target language will be higher. However, it is not necessarily true to say 'the earlier the better'. It is suggested that the most efficient time to learn another language is between 6 and 13.

However, children who learn in pre-to-early teens often catch up very quickly with children who learn from an earlier age. Also this does not mean that languages cannot be learnt later in life. The experience and environment at school and how language is taught and practised play a vital role in language acquisition, regardless of how young or old the child is.

Whatever the age, when children learn a second language they develop skills that will help to create opportunities in their future. They acquire the lifelong ability to communicate with others under diverse circumstances. Indeed, regardless of the level of proficiency, learning a second language and learning about different cultures generally broadens a child's outlook on life. It also opens up alternative educational and career opportunities.

What stops children from learning

  • Feeling uncomfortable, distracted or under pressure
  • Feeling confused by abstract concepts of grammar rules and their application which they cannot easily understand
  • Activities which require them to focus attention for a long time
  • Boredom
  • Being over-corrected

Reading the list above, you may be surprised at the number of items that remind you of traditional educational practices. In fact, research does suggest that traditional classroom teaching may have the effect of preventing
rather than helping children to learn better. You cannot force a child to learn. You can only provide a conducive environment, useful resources, and carefully structured input and practice opportunities.

How children learn languages

Children learn by:

  • Having more opportunities to be exposed to the second language
  • Making associations between words, languages, or sentence patterns and putting things into clear, relatable contexts
  • Using all their senses and getting fully involved; by observing and copying, doing things, watching and listening
  • Exploring, experimenting, making mistakes and checking their understanding
  • Repetition and feeling a sense of confidence when they have established routines
  • Being motivated, particularly when their peers are also speaking/learning other languages

Getting parents involved

Children also like their parents to be involved and understand what and how they are learning. Here are some tips and advice you can give to parents to help them support their child as a learner.

How you can help your child to learn another language

  • Get involved with their learning
  • Be interested in what happens in your child's English lessons
  • Even if you do not know any English yourself, there are many things you can do to support your child's learning


1. Talk to the teacher to find out how English is taught at school:

  • Become familiar with the materials used at school.
  • Ask about your child's progress regularly and make sure you attend your child's parents' day / evening.
  • Check what they have to do for homework each day and set up a routine and regular time for doing homework.

2. Learn more about the language yourself:

  • Engage your child in conversations about what they learnt in school and learn along with them.
  • Study English with your child.
  • Have them teach you some new language.

3. Motivate them! Make learning fun and stress free.

Here are some language learning games you can play with your child:

  • Bingo - Use numbers, letters of the alphabet, or word families: furniture, fruits, sports, jobs, colours, actions.
  • Memory - Put ten everyday objects on a tray. Say what they are in English, cover them. Can your child remember what's there and tell you in English? You can also use photos from magazines or newspapers of different word families.
  • Alphabet Game - Say a letter of the alphabet. Can your child find an animal, something to eat, etc. beginning with that letter? Or ask your child to write five words beginning with one letter.
  • I-Spy - Say that you are thinking of something beginning with a letter. Your child has to guess what it is.
    Example: 'I spy with my little eye, something beginning with W.' 'Is it water?' 'No.' 'Is it the window?' 'Yes!'
  • Twenty Questions - Think of an object or animal. Your child has to ask questions to find out what it is.
    Example: 'Is it big?' 'No.' 'Is it very small?' 'Yes.' 'Is it green?' 'No.' 'Is it grey?' 'Yes.' 'Is it a mouse?' 'Yes!'
  • Definition Game - Give your child a definition, they have to guess what you're defining.
    Example: 'It is very big and it has a long nose.' 'Is it an elephant?' 'Yes!'
  • Treasure Hunt - Your child has to find something by following the clues you've written in English.

Get to know how your children learn

Each child has their own way of learning. It is a complex mixture of a number of different personality factors, some of which are explained below. Research shows that all types of learners can be successful second-language learners. Try to evaluate the methods your children are using, and introduce them to different ones if they're not working.

Using what you know about your child try to see which styles below would suit them best.

Dominant Senses

Some prefer using pictures and reading (visual learners), some like listening to explanations and reading aloud (auditory learners), others need some kind of physical activity to help them learn (kinesthetic learners).

Interaction Preferences

Some children are outgoing and sociable and learn a second language quickly because they want to be able to communicate quickly (interpersonal learners). They do not worry about mistakes, and are happy being creative with the limited resources they have acquired.

Other children are more reflective and quiet (intrapersonal learners). They learn by listening and by observing what is happening and being said around them. They may be cautious about making mistakes but can be much more accurate.

Analytical processes

Some children need to have everything clearly explained to them piece by piece so that they can understand how things work (deductive learners). These children like rules and patterns that are easy to apply to the world they live in. They need explicit explanations and often ask 'Why?' a lot.

Others prefer to work out the rules of what they are learning for themselves based on their experience (inductive learners). These children like asking questions and having their answers confirmed or corrected. They are more likely to tell you what they understand to be the truth and then ask you to agree with them.

The second part of this article will deal with how to handle mistakes and how to promote a positive classroom environment.


Submitted by KaraAharon on Thu, 07/30/2015 - 22:18


After years of working informally with young learners this all seems so obvious to me, but I've been in the system enough to know that it doesn't work this way.

Submitted by Ana Bela Carvalho on Sat, 10/31/2015 - 22:26


I totally agree with what is said. We need to respect the different learning rhythms and the personal characteristics of our students. And above all we need to motivate them and make learning fun and stree free.

Submitted by brucorpre on Thu, 12/19/2019 - 14:28


I am looking to improve my practice using evidence-based information, so I would like to ask for references that back the claims made and tips given in the article. Anything that goes beyond anecdotal experiences and subjective perception.

Submitted by Paul Braddock on Sat, 12/28/2019 - 10:16

In reply to by brucorpre


Hi Brucorpe

Unfortunately, as this article was written in 2006, it is not possible now to contact the authors or provide references to support the arguments made.


Paul (TeachingEnglish team)

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