After more than 10 years of classroom teaching (mostly to adults, but also young learners, YL), I was pretty fed up with coursebooks. As I mentioned in my last post series about Mini Heroes, I started teaching English to kids at home, in the room I use for my home nursery in the mornings. In addition to my two boy groups, I managed to set up a mini-group with 8-9 year old girls and could start with a very exciting course: a course based on projects. Let me explain to you what it means.
First of all, a short explanation why I wanted to try this type of courses. For years, as a didactic coordinator, I was asked to write ‘standardized long-term plans’ for our courses. We had 7 adult levels, but 9 young learner ones!
Writing a long-term plan practically meant to choose a book that covered most of our centralized syllabus for each level (the school I worked for was a franchise) and insert the missing syllabus points at the end of one or the other chapter (plus adding revision and test lessons and all this based on a given number of lessons). So very early I had to realize that:
1. for young learners there is no internationally acknowledged, standardized syllabus. If we consider the adult levels, practically young learners – until more or less the age of 8 – are supposed to learn the vocabulary and grammar points of the A1 level (CEFR).
2. There are internationally recognized exams (Trinity or Cambridge YLE), but these are available for children between 7 and 12 years. Whether point 1 is the reason or the cause of point 2 is a mystery to me.
3. I went through the available English books for elementary grades 1-3 (Italian school system) and to my surprise, they deal with the same grammar and vocabulary points. They discuss colours, numbers, the alphabet, the -ing form (but often without referring it to the present continuous), some adjectives, classroom objects and every day objects, animals, singular and plural, this/that, possessive articles (my, your, etc., often only the singular forms) and some other points, but nothing else. I remember mothers complaining to me that their kids would learn in year one the numbers and the colours and the year after the numbers and the colours and then again the numbers and guess what… the colours. No real challenge, a lot of repetition. But what can a child do with all this, for example, on a holiday in London?
4. While for adults we have a more or less clear idea what they should be able to do in their every day life (as a tourist or emailing to native and/or non-native colleagues in English, etc.), there is no real list what a child should do at what age. A list for YL should consider toys and contain skills like understanding instructions for a game or even think of international school trips and include asking for help or buying a toy for their little brother/sister. A regards the TV culture, Peppa Pig is a great hero until about 4 years, so this might be another clue for another group of syllabus points: e.g. understanding short episodes of popular cartoons (Peppa Pig offers 5-minute long episodes). Furthermore, there are numerous lists of toys for every age group, so kids from 1 to 3 might need language to play with Duplo, then we can move on to LEGO, dressing up in costumes can be a next stage and there will definitely be a period of dinosaurs for boys, and teddies, dolls, doll houses and mini kitchens for girls, etc. If they meet other kids of their age, they will need this type of language and not the one describing all impossible animals they have never seen. However, I do not know about any attempt to put a syllabus like this together for kids.
5. Kids are often taught by teachers who are not able to conduct a lesson in English, so they use Italian and even the books often fail putting the lexis into grammar structures: for example, knowing lots of adjectives doesn’t make any sense if the students use these after the nouns (*this is a lion big).
6. Parents also have a bit of a false expectation, since they measure the efficacy of a course based on the syllabus points covered and not the skills that might improve and help more in real life situations.
This all meant, that I had to face a lot of very talented young students who had an enormous range of vocabulary and also memorized the grammar, but was not able to ask if he/she could go to the restroom in English. So I understood way before I started with my Tiny Talents Academy, that I won’t follow books, I will write skill-based syllabi for my groups.
(to be continued)