Six misconceptions about teaching young learners of English

I met Anita Kwiatkowska at a teaching conference in Hungary and she made a very good point to me about this blog: why aren’t there more things for teachers of Young Learners? Well, the short answer is because I no longer teach young learners. But Anita was right that there is nowhere near as much ELT blogging going on for Young Learners as there is for Old Learners. Faced with this I answered the only way I could: I asked her to write something for me to begin to redress the balance.

Here are Anita’s six misconceptions about teaching young learners (YLs) of English.

1. Teachers of YLs should be paid less money because the only thing they do is playing games and singing songs

2. Teachers of YLs have lower qualifications that’s why they teach kids (or – They teach kids because their qualifications are not enough to deal with more serious teaching)

3. Teaching children is not REAL teaching (Can’t remember how often I was given a look saying ‘Now what do YOU know about the difference between Present Perfect and Present Perfect Continuous???’) . You also don’t speak REAL English, because if you teach YLs (and are not a native speaker) most probably your level of English is equal to the one of your students’.

4. Teachers of YLs cannot/should not/ are not able to teach adults (This one is interesting – it seems like anyone can get a job teaching kids but if a teacher of kids wants to get a job teaching adults, he or she is immediately rejected)

5. Teaching YLs is a very easy/difficult job (it actually is not, once you get the idea how to do it properly)

6. Teachers of YLs like children (hmm… how to say that… I guess not all of them 🙂

So, what do you think? Are these misconceptions true where you work? Are you a frustrated YL teacher? Are there any others? Please post a comment.

Anita Kwiatkowska is a Polish teacher of young learners currently in Turkey. She is also active in the blogosphere and twittevers and is the person behind the blog l_missbossy’s ELT playground.

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Published in: on December 11, 2009 at 1:44 pm  Comments (15)  
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15 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Hum… I don’t know anyone teaching English to young children, but here in France, the same misconceptions applied (or used to apply) to YL teachers in French “maternelles”, that is, teachers for children from 2 and a half/ 3 years old up to 6 years old. Those teachers have a national qualification and are paid by the state. However, up until a few years ago, they did not have the same status as other teachers. Why? because they did not have exactly the same qualifications. Now, the system changed and the YL’s teachers’ name changed as well : instead of being called “instituteurs” they are now “professeurs des écoles”. I think now there are no more prejudices against YL’s teachers. Moreover, the exam is very difficult to be a YL’s teacher : in fact it’s not an exam, it’s a competition.

    • Thanks Alice for this comment – I have family who teach in France who told me the same. In Spain, teachers of YL English often have more initial training in pedagogy than secondary school teachers – or at least I’ve been told.

      • Primary teachers in Spain have a lot more pedagogy training than secondary teachers here. Until recently (in the process of changing), the only pedagogy training a secondary teacher needed to do was a course called the CAP, which really was about month long joke that people could usually get around by getting an old teacher to sign for them.

        What secondary teachers do have to do is memorize an incredible amount of things in order to pass their competitive exam (oposicion). Primary teachers have to do the same, though less info.

        This is in the public system of course.

  2. Regarding point 2: “Teachers of YLs have lower qualifications that’s why they teach kids” Here in Peru, you see that all the time.
    Being a non-native teacher, to teach YL you just need your FCE (note that many kids in Peru have an FCE by the time they finish school), while teaching adults requires a CAE or CPE. They don’t actually ask you to have any methodology qualification to teach YLs.
    Of course, if you are a native speaker most places don’t ask you for any experience or qualification, but that’s another topic.

    • Susana,

      I agree that too often employers don’t require any teaching qualifications from YL teachers, especially if they are native speakers.

      That is a major problem and let’s hope it’s going to change one day!

  3. First of all, having met Anita I can say that her English is excellent.

    Having taught kids for a long time, I can tell you it’s quite a difficult job and you have to know a lot. I would say that they need to know different things. An adult teacher might explain the Present Perfect more analytically, while a YL teacher has to do it through games and activities. Not any easy task as you can imagine.

    Having never been thought of as a YL teacher I have never experienced these misconceptions though and never held them myself.

    I’ll be interested to hear other’s experiences.

  4. Here in Morocco, primary school teachers do a two-year training after getting their DEUG. And that they get when they succeed their second year at the unversity. That wasn’t the case few years ago, they used to do the initial traing after they get their Baccalauearte. Now , primary school teacher have a higher study level. We have also given them a new name as in France. They are now ‘Primary School Teachers’ (in Arabic : ‘ustad’) and not ‘Instituteurs’ (‘Muaallim’). Still, the picture people usually have of a primary school teacher here is that of a : silly and mean (=not generous) person, and (unfortunately) we have lots of jokes on that.

    Brahim ID BEN DRISS
    EFL teacher
    Safi, Morocco.

  5. I’d say most of these preconceptions exist in the area of Argentina where I work as well -I wasn’t aware of #4 though (does that mean I’ll have to give up one group age next year??)
    Seriously, though, I’ve thought about the issue more than once, and -to me at least- it seems more complicated than it looks at first sight. I’m tempted to disagree loudly with all six statements, but then I look at what’s happening in the classrooms I have access to and I find myself thinking, well…there are various factors involved, so where did it all start and how can I (we)start to untangle the mess (not really the word I’d like to use)?

  6. Yes, I’d certainly agree with #5 – that teaching YLs is commonly thought to be easier than adults or even teens. Quite the opposite, I’d say.

    There are so many things that we Ts take for granted (shared knowledge, ability to comprehend, keep still for 15 minutes) with older students, but the pre-teens just don’t display those characteristics. However, once you establish a routine with them, it does become easier.

    In fact, I think that the best EFL teachers are those who first trained to be primary school teachers. Note that my initial state-sponsored teacher training was to teach adults and those at FE colleges. But that’s irrelevant, I guess…

  7. I agree with Sandy. Some of the best trained teachers I have every met were in the primary sector. I have noticed much more success in primary teachers taking on older students, than the reverse. Seen a few disasters when teachers trained to teach adults said “yeah I can do a YL class” and then saw their red and distressed faces at the end of it all! YL is where it all begins, in EL and in education in general. More focus and investment needed there.

  8. As a glaring representative of misconception #6, I can definitely attest to this. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the vast majority of those teaching in PRIVATE academies in some markets don’t actually like kids, or at least having to teach kids.

    I think a difference needs to be made between the teaching of YL’s in public institutions vs. private ones.

    Here in Spain, absolutely NOTHING is needed to teach kids in private academies. In many instances a pulse, the proper passport and blond hair (at least lightish) can land you a job. Public institutions on the other hand have rules to follow and at least the teacher has some sort of pedagogical background and theoretically knows the cognitive differences between a 4 year old and a 9 year old.

    The most shocking of all has to be #1 though for me. The lion’s share of academies’ income comes from stuffing too many kids into small rooms. To claim that the teacher in that unfortunate situation should be paid less is nothing less than criminal.

    • Hear hear on that last point Troy. You’re right there are some pretty bad private outfits, but also some good ones. Either way, it’s no reason to pay teachers less than what they deserve.

  9. There are a couple of comments that come to mind when going through the list.
    I teach English and German in a Chilean public school as a volunteer for the Chilean Ministry of Education – which basically means I have no qualifications as a teacher whatsoever. Still, language teachers – no matter what grade they are assigned to – enjoy a high social status in this country. Especially with regard to English, many people see native speakers as a gift from heaven and value the education their children receive very highly.
    Furthermore, with respect to the level of quality in the classroom, I find that teaching kids requires more talent than with adults. For the latter you are the teacher, nothing else. But for the kids you are not only a teacher – you are a role model, a person against whom they measure themselves and the people they know, someone who affects their daily lives, someone they can turn to when they have trouble, someone who gives them grades, someone who can motivate them when they’re tired, someone who will never yell at them but calmly explain something over and over again. With adults there are days when you can tell them that you’re exhausted or not in the mood or unprepared…with kids you have to be on edge. Always.

    Apart from that I’d like to refer to the “All English Primary Teachers like kids.” We don’t, not necessarily. At least not in the sense that other people like them. Because we have to find a way to take them seriously yet guide them, to understand their problems yet teach them how to solve them themselves. We have to find the right measure of discipline and fun. We have to show bullies that their behaviour is not accepted, and know-it-alls that their work is appreciated but not necessarily adequate. We don’t like kids as in “they’re cute” – we like them as in “there are some who work hard, who have a great imagination, who think along, who are generally nice human beings easy to work with – but there are also the lazy kind, the dumb kind, the unfocused, the loud, etc…”.
    To clarify things like this – this list is a great device to make people think.

  10. hi.im a teacher from Malaysia.basically, students’ intellectual development is initiated during primary school.so, teachers need to play important role in order to take the challenge of teaching them, as we know, young children are energetic and possess high level of curiosity. Teachers must be well-equipped with sufficient knowledge before entering the class and start teaching.back to education system in my place, all teachers need to be a graduated teacher from qualified teacher training institutions provided by the government.the salary that a primary teacher gains depends on their qualification, which is could reach the same price with those who are teaching the secondary school.yes, it is not easy to handle the pupils as it is seen because a teacher should be skillful in his knowledge and in managing a classroom as well.

    • Thank you Lily for your comment. I agree especially with you on your last sentence.


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