Member’s Profile: Paul Dickinson

 

With the implementation of English activities into the Japanese elementary school curriculum,we can expect a greater focus on teaching young learners. I would like to share some of my own experiences teaching English to young Japanese learners over the past 7years and reflect on how those experiences have shaped my professional development.

I must admit that I found teaching children very difficult at first. My previous 3 years experience teaching adult EFL and ESL learners in Australia and Japan counted for little when confronted with the multitude of differences involved in teaching young learners. I have learned a lot since those days in various ways and from various people. Most of all, I have learned from my learners. The theme of JALT 2009, “The Teaching Learning Dialogue: An Active Mirror”, has reminded me of just how much my younger learners have taught me. When it comes to teaching children, the teaching learning dialogue can be a very active mirror indeed! 

The differences between teaching children and teaching adults are vast, yet not always appreciated. The teaching of languages to young learners has been undervalued in many countries, including here in Japan. Ithas always intrigued me to see new, often completely untrained teachers thrown into children’s classes from day one, reflecting an attitude that teaching children is somehow less important and less intellectually demanding than teaching adults. If anything, I have found the reverse to be true.

A major difference between teaching children and teaching adults is that feedback from young learners is usually immediate and very direct. From this I learned that getting and maintaining learner interest was the rock on which any teaching and learning success was built. Unfortunately, there is no one magic way of doing this and it sometimes takes a long time to find out exactly what “clicks”with some students and classes. I learned that having a variety of approaches and activities is necessary to cater for the various personalities and learning styles that exist in any one group of children.

The importance of preparation and being organized is another thing I have learned. Of course, this applies to any teaching context, but I have found its importance to be magnified many times over with young learners. Children need the structure, direction,and support that can only come from adequate preparation. If they don’t know what they are expected to do, they will soon find something else—usually much more disruptive—to do.

However, having a well-prepared lesson does not mean having a teacher-centered lesson. Experience has taught me that child-centered approaches ultimately lead to more successful learning outcomes. It is also important never to underestimate what children are capable of and to take on board what younger learners have to offer. For example, many of the games I use today have evolved because one child or another found more exciting ways to play them.

Reflecting on games from a child’s perspective has also taught me that they are an integral part of the learning process, not just a reward for good behaviour or something to do for fun at the end of a lesson. I have seen games used in both these ways, but with little or no actual learning taking place. Implemented effectively, there is no reason why language learning shouldn’t be fun in itself.

Another thing I have learned from teaching young learners is that there are many reasons for discipline problems. Children bring all sorts of emotional baggage with them to the classroom and sometimes they are just plain tired. Misbehaviour can also be due to a child not understanding something and needing some help, but lacking the linguistic means to ask for it. Or it could be that the lesson just isn’t interesting or challenging enough. The knowledge gained from getting to know my learners, seeing things from their perspective, and reflecting on my own practice,has enabled me to prevent or, at the very least, lessen the impact of disruptive disciplinary problems.

My journey from being a teacher who often felt out of depth teaching young learners is far from over, but I have learned many valuable lessons along the way. These lessons have helped me realize that while not every class will run as smoothly as I would like, there are many things I can do that will help make things run as smoothly as they can.

Paul Dickinson teaches adults and young learners in Yamagata. His research interests include formulaic language and the application of corpus linguistics to issues in language learning and discourse analysis. He can be contacted at<paul.dickinson01@gmail.com>.

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