Characteristics of young learners
This article deals with the most important characteristics of young learners. First, we will consider how age determines the methods we use to teach languages. Then, we will see the characteristics that distinguish young learners from older ones and the implications that these characteristics entail for English language teaching.
Before presenting the characteristics of young learners, it is worthwhile mentioning that by young learners, we mean students that are under twelve years old. Those that are over twelve are considered as teenagers. Adulthood is commonly thought of as beginning at age twenty.
Age as a determining factor in language learning
Age is a very significant factor in language learning. The first fact that teachers should take into consideration is that young learners differ from older ones in the way they learn new languages. First, young learners learn better through play while adults are comfortable with abstract learning and are more analytical. Second, young learners get bored more easily. Generally, they lose interest after ten minutes or so. Young learners are also more egocentric and need individual attention. However, contrary to the common belief, young learners are not better than older ones in language learning. They may be better in imitating the exact pronunciation of their teachers, but they are generally less successful in learning abstract concepts. According to Lightbown and Spada (2006), older learners are not less effective in language learning. They may have difficulty approximating native speakers’ pronunciation, but they are better at reaching high levels of proficiency in second or foreign language learning (Lightbown and Spada, 2006 p 73, cited in Harmer, ).
What are the main characteristics of young learners?
As mentioned above young learners differ from older ones in language learning. what follows is a list of seven of the most important characteristics of young learners.
Before listing these characteristics, it is important to note that these learners are still developing. Many aspects of their cognitive capacities get better while they are growing up.
1. Young learners get bored quickly.
If the activities are not interesting and engaging enough, young learners get bored easily. This is because they have a limited attention span. Generally, after ten minutes, they can get disinterested in the activity at hand, especially if it is taught directly and is devoid of the elements of play.
2. Young learners are meaning-oriented
They may understand what is being said without necessarily understanding every individual word. They may not only guess and interpret what is being uttered but they also respond to it with whatever language resources they have at their disposal.
3. Young learners like to discover things
They are characterized by curiosity and enthusiasm. They like to make sense of the world around them through engaging and motivating activities where they have to discover by themselves rather than being told. They also often learn indirectly from everything around them – not necessarily focusing on the topic being taught.
4. They prefer concrete activities
According to Piaget’s cognitive development theory, young learners are still developing. That is, they are still making their way from concrete to abstract thinking. Unlike adults who are more analytical, they are not yet well equipped to learn abstract concepts such as grammar rules. In addition to that, they are more inclined to understand based not only on explanation but more importantly on what they hear, see and touch (Harmer, 2001 p. 82).
5. They are more egocentric
They prefer to talk about themselves. Activities that focus on their lives are their cup of tea. In addition to that, children under the age of 12 need individual attention and approval from the teacher.
6. They are imaginative
Young learners are imaginative. Activities that are full of imagination is a source of enjoyment for them. It is sometimes difficult for them to distinguish reality from imagination.
7. They imitate
They learn by imitating adults. It is amazing how humans imitate and discover things from a very young age. Children acquire communication skills through social interactions. Consequently, because imitation functions as a learning tool, it is rewarding to use it to teach children new skills and knowledge.
Implications for the teacher
The above characteristics of young learners provide useful insights for teachers. The main implications for language teaching are as follows:
- Activities shouldn’t normally take more than ten minutes to complete. Asking children to make an effort to concentrate more than that is counterproductive. They will get bored and disinterested easily.
- The content should be interesting and motivating. The topics of activities should preferably focus on the students’ lives.
- Praising the children’s performances is of paramount importance.
- Since children try to imitate the teacher, the latter should be a good model of language use and social behaviors. The teacher’s pronunciation, for instance, matters enormously. Children imitate it perfectly well.
- Children respond to meaning and are better at picking up the language through listening and speaking.
- Since children like playing, discovering and using their imagination, the activities that focus on making things, drawing, problem-solving (e.g. riddles), singing, playing games can be very helpful.
- The classroom should be ideally colorful and spacious enough to be able to move around without any problem.
- Children should work in groups and the activities should be taking place in stress and anxiety-free atmosphere.
One of the reasons why teaching young learners requires highly skilled teachers is that these learners have difficulty understanding abstract concepts. Moreover, while teaching them, an appropriate learning atmosphere should be provided, where the children may move and interact in a stress-free environment. Young learners are, however, more imaginative. They also like discovering things, and easily respond to meaning-based activities. Finally, children are also good at imitating the teachers’ language use (e.g.pronunciation) and social behaviors.
Harmer, J. (2001). The practice of English language teaching. Essex, England: Longman.
Lightbown, P., & Spada, N. M. (2006). How languages are learned. Oxford [england: Oxford University Press.
Piaget, J. (1958). The growth of logical thinking from childhood to adolescence. AMC