Young children represent a particular category when studying languages. More than anything else, they are curious, and this in itself is motivating. At the same time, their span of attention or concentration is less than that of an adult. This is one of the reasons why children need frequent changes of activity: they need activities that are exciting and stimulate their curiosity, more precisely, they need to be involved in something active.
Usually, the children who study English at the beginner level are about eleven years old. It is an age at which children can think in more abstract terms, they start to reflect, hypothesize, and theorize. It is a period when they start developing cognitive abilities such as comprehension (understanding of facts and ideas), application (need to know rules, principles and procedures), analysis (breaking down concepts into parts), synthesis (putting together information or ideas), evaluation (judging the value of information). Taking all these things into consideration, the best method to learn English is the inductive one. The overt teaching of grammar is pretty much a waste of time at this age because they learn holistically, by learning chunks of language through clear contexts like stories and videos rather than through analysis.
English learners at this level can performs simple tasks in English such as ordering food in a restaurant with the help of visual aids, as well as complete simple transactions in shops. The students can also provide basic explanations about themselves such as stating where they are from, their marital status, their current employment status, etc. Also, the students at this level can respond in many basic situations, but find difficulty in expressing and/ or inquiring about further detail. They have noticeable pronunciation difficulties that can at times hinder their ability to be understood by others and they also find difficult to speak a foreign language.
In Romania, during the English learning teaching, the focus is on the whole text as a unit of meaning, presenting a context within which to study vocabulary and grammar. It is the “path” that most English course books follow.
A good example is WOW a course book for beginners written by Rob Nolasco and published at Oxford University Press, and which represents one of the courses children in Romania are quite familiar with. As the authors claim, it is “a modern course with traditional virtues”. It is modern because it recognizes the importance of using English from the start and traditional because it is a structurally based course. As far as the skills are concerned, the textbook provides important steps in achieving these skills being a proper guide for them. Vocabulary and grammar is integrated through the Presentation – Practice – Production model. Firstly, the learners are given a context taken from real life. Secondly, the teacher writes on the blackboard examples taken from the studied texts or from his/her students’ experiences, giving the necessary explanations. Students are invited to practise, making sentences about each picture given. There is also a vocabulary box or a grammar box, which offers the basic explanations, but it also has some references to some appendices at the end of the textbook. I may say the same things about other beginner textbooks such as Way Ahead, Splash, Set Sail.
At the beginner level, the commonly used techniques are the use of pictures accompanied by sentence patterns. To introduce Past Tense Simple, for example, the teacher shows students pictures representing people doing several things; he makes a statement pointing to one picture and then asks students to do the same for all the other pictures. Text-study represents another technique that is often used at this level. Students are asked to discover new grammar by concentrating on its use in a text. Certainly, drills are of great help at this age. Immediately after the presentation of a new structure, the students need a controlled practice stage in which they have the chance to focus exclusively on the new language and start to familiarise themselves with it. What the student says and how it is said is controlled by this kind of activity and restricts the student to the target item. The lower the level, the more important this stage is. The repetition drill is the simplest and the most controlled as the students do not have to speak spontaneously, which would be quite difficult, taking into consideration their level. The course books also offer a large variety of interaction activities, which make controlled language more meaningful and more enjoyable.
Overall, the beginner level is one that does not involve very complex vocabulary and grammar knowledge. It represents a stage at which children only familiarize with all these issues through the help of games, realia, pictures, songs etc. It is only the beginning of a long but rewarding journey.
Rob Nolasco, Wow, Book 1,Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1996
Mary Bowen, Printha Ellis, Way Ahead (Pupil s Book): A foundation course in English; Macmillan, 2002
Brian Abbs, Anne Worrall, Splash!, Pearson, 1997
Virginia Evans, Elizabeth Gray, Set Sail, Express Publishing, 2010