How young children learn

Young children learn in an integrated way and not in neat, tidy compartments. A child making shapes out of plasticine is learning maths (shape) and art (texture, shape, design, colour), building fine motor skills (physical development), and hearing or using language to describe shapes, colour, texture, materials and techniques (English). The activity drives the need to communicate.

Young children will learn a language better when they see a genuine need for communication, which is often the language they are hearing or using while they are doing an activity that they enjoy.

While adults can plan a range a activities to enhance the learning experience, not all of them will be motivating for every child. Children more likely to be motivated if the activity or experience is meaningful to them. Taking time to get to know the children and finding out what they are interested in is essential if you want to motivate them and help them learn.

The interactions you have with a child while they are engaged in an activity help develop language and communication in context, making the language learning more memorable and authentic.

Rhymes, songs and chants help children memorise words and sentence structure, and they also help with pronunciation, expression and the rhythm of sentences. Children learn their home language by playing with language in this way, and it’s a fun way for them to learn another language too!

A good story takes children to an imaginary world filled with characters and events that will make them want to find out what happens in the end, and that they will want to hear again, join in retelling, and even retell in their own words. Illustrations and actions help children understand descriptions of characters and events, because they can connect what they are seeing and doing with the language in the story.

Giving clear, simple instructions in English with accompanying actions, gestures or demonstrations is more likely to result in children understanding. Children love copying – the teacher, their parents, older siblings or friends – and will often join in after observing how something is done. Including routines is also a useful way of helping young children understand what is expected of them (e.g. every time we sit on the mat we will hear a story or sing a song). Children may not understand straight away, but giving instructions in English is an excellent way of reinforcing key language, so in the long run it’s worth the effort.

Children need time to play

Play is fun, all children love playing, and children learn so much through play without even realising it. So we need to give children time to play, not just ten minutes when they finish their ‘work’.

When children play, they are experimenting with ideas, testing hypotheses, mastering skills, using their imaginations and representing their world. If you cut out play when teaching English you are removing a vital step in childhood development.

Here are a few examples of the different types of things children are learning and developing as they play.

  • When playing with plasticine children develop their fine motor skills. Children are working on hand-eye coordination and building up the muscles in their hands and fingers when modelling plasticine. These are valuable pre-writing skills, as good muscle strength and hand-eye coordination will help children hold and use writing tools properly later on. By playing with plasticine, children are also experimenting with things like colour, shape and texture.
  • When playing with dolls and a tub of waterthey are learning about the concepts of wet and dry, floating and sinking, clean and dirty. They are also engaging in sensory play, and experimenting with the way water feels.
  • When playing with musical instrumentschildren are developing sound recognition (the sounds that different instruments make and an understanding of how sounds can change (e.g. high, low, soft, loud, fast slow) and an appreciation of music. These valuable listening skills are transferable to the area of language and communication.
  • When playing with transport toys, children are experimenting with friction and motion, up and down, forwards and backwards, fast and slow.
  • When children are playing with blocks, they are learning about colour, shape and patterns, as well as the concepts of weight, size, height, length, vertical and horizontal.
  • In dramatic play and small world play(acting out scenes from real life, stories and/or imagination created with small figures and objects) children are representing ideas that help them make sense of the world around them. They can also experiment with playing different roles and inventing different scenarios, taking them beyond the real world and developing their imagination.

What do you think?

  • How important do you think it is to give children time to play?
  • How do you think play can help a child’s language development?

© British Council

How can we provide challenge for a child who is learning English

  • Children can really learn a language if they are playing.
  • Never force a child to speak, they will when they are ready.
  • Children learn best when they are interested in something.
  • Children pick up languages best if there is a context and reason to use it.

Young children learn through their senses with a trial and error approach. While gradually learning boundaries and expectations is important, it is totally normal for very young children not to behave in the way that an adult expects. By observing children and really tuning into their interests, we can plan activities and experiences that are age-appropriate and engaging. When children are engaged in motivating and meaningful activities, their ‘behaviour’ is less of an issue.

When we assess a young child, we are asking ourselves “What do my observations tell me about this child?”Assessment is about analysing our observations and understanding the potential of each child.

When a child learns something new or develops a new skill, we often call this a ‘magic’ or a ‘wow’ moment. Observation and really knowing the child are key to recognising these developmental milestones. We can plan the next steps for a child’s learning after we have observed a developmental milestone.

All young children are learning something, and assessment in early childhood means analysing what a child can do. Comparing a child to his or her classmates is not useful, as it doesn’t tell us anything about what individual progress a child has made (what they knew or could do before, what they know and can do now). Assessment in early childhood is about helping children move forward in their learning and development, and labelling a child ‘intelligent’ doesn’t help them make progress in any way. To give a child confidence, it is more useful to comment on a specific thing they have done well, rather than give them a generic label.

Children should be assessed in a genuine situation rather than through a contrived, adult-led test. Asking a child to count is not a reliable way of gathering information, as the child may become anxious when asked to ‘perform’, may not understand why they are being asked to count, or may not feel confident enough to share what they can do, even though they actually do know how to count. By observing the children while they are playing, the teacher sees that, as well as being able to count to five, the child also knows the colours blue and pink. Had the focus of the assessment just been on counting, the teacher might have missed this.

Spending time with children, and observing what they know and can do, will help you provide the right amount of challenge and support. For a child who is learning English, this could be knowing their favourite story or song and encouraging them to join in with key refrains, observing that they understand the words for different toys in English and encouraging them to say some of these words, or modelling key language associated with a particular activity.

© British Council

How children acquire language

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Every child is unique. Children develop different skills and knowledge at their own pace and in different ways. As adults, it is important that we respect and value these different ways and rates of developing and learning.

A child who is not speaking may be actively listening and may need time to process what they are hearing before saying anything. It is important to value listening as well as speaking – non verbal responses from young children are perfectly acceptable. They show that the child has understood the message.

Having fun with the sounds of a language, experimenting with words in rhymes and songs, and saying things over and over again, are all things young children enjoy. When children do these things, they are learning new words, language structures and pronunciation, without even realizing it!

While in some cases translating may be necessary in order to put a child at ease, very young children may not understand even if you say it to them in their home language. Young children acquire language naturally, and this is also true for an additional language. Using mime and gesture, showing the children what you want them to do, and encouraging them to join in, are generally more effective ways of communicating meaning. The more English children hear, the more they will be able to produce in the future.

16-26 months

  • Copies familiar expressions, e.g. Oh dear! All gone!
  • Explores and experiments using senses and whole body.

22-36 months

  • Listens with interest to the noises adults make when they read stories.
  • Is interested in others’ play and is starting to join in.
  • Runs safely on whole foot.
  • Is aware that some actions can hurt or harm others.
  • Repeats words or phrases from familiar stories.
  • Recites some number names in sequence.
  • Experiments with blocks, colors and marks.

30-50 months

  • Responds to simple instructions, e.g. Put your toys away.
  • Can catch a large ball.
  • Notices what adults do, imitating what is observed and then doing it spontaneously when the adult is not there.
  • Can play in a group.
  • Holds books the correct way up and turns pages.

40-60+ months

  • Uses a pencil and holds it effectively.
  • Extends vocabulary by grouping, naming, and exploring the sounds of new words.
  • Writes own name and other things such as labels or captions.
  • Constructs with a purpose in mind, using a variety of resources.

Some advice for parents and educators.

  • A child who is not speaking may be actively listening and may need time to process what they are hearing before saying anything. It is important to value listening as well as speaking by giving the child lots of exposure to the language.
  • Non verbal responses from young children are perfectly acceptable. They show that the child has understood the message.
  • Don’t force a child to speak, they will when they are ready. Forcing a child to speak before they are ready could actually delay language development.
  • Be genuine in your interactions with young children.
  • Use mime and gesture as you would if you were talking to the child in their home language.
  • Value the home language. The skills that children develop while learning their home language are transferable to an additional language.

Want to know more?

If you want to know more about how children learn and how they acquire language, or you have completed the activities with time to spare, have a look at the links and videos below.

  • Read this article on how to help young children learn English as another language.
  • Watch What do babies think? by psychologist Alison Gopnik.
  • Watch The linguistic genius of babies by professor of speech and hearing sciences Dr Patricia Kuhl.
  • Read this article about how talking to babies and young children builds their brains.