Teaching English to Pre-Primary Children

by Sandie Mourão with Gail Ellis
Delta Publishing 2020

Children across the globe are being introduced to English at increasingly earlier ages. Anyone with access to the internet can find a multitude of activities and ideas requiring little preparation and promising hours of fun, while also teaching young children a new language. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Professionals working with very young children know that this is not the case: in order to teach languages to children, we need to have a very good understanding of how children develop and learn. For specialist language teachers who have not studied childhood development, this can be a daunting prospect. This book will be a goldmine for them, providing step-by-step guidance on how to develop the knowledge and skills needed to ‘teach the whole child through English’, as the authors advocate. At the other end of the spectrum, for experts in childhood development without specialist language training, the book also fills an essential gap in the literature, providing accessible introductions to language acquisition theories and clear guidelines for introducing meaningful and age-appropriate language learning activities into their practice.

For teacher educators like myself, this book could not be more timely. Whether we are delivering training for specialist language teachers or generalist teachers, the message in the book is loud and clear: all educators need to acquire basic knowledge and learn to collaborate together to ensure that early language learning experiences are stimulating and positive. After advancing this universally applicable philosophy, the authors are highly sensitive to the different contexts and realities in which teachers find themselves working – whether in state-funded settings or private language schools – and offer useful advice on how they can contribute to promoting changes and best practice within their own settings.

The ideas are presented with a clarity which belies the complexity of some of the issues covered. This is also helped by the organisation of the book, which follows the same pattern as others within the Delta Teacher Development Series, such as the companion volume, Teaching Children How to Learn, aimed at teachers of primary school children. The organisation of the book into Part A (Encounter), B (Engage) and C (Exploit) is a good strategy, which helps the reader navigate their way through the different parts, while highlighting the interrelatedness between theory and practice at all times.

Part A will be of great use to both teachers and teacher educators alike, providing clear introductions to key theories, bibliographical resources and ideas for further reading, useful developmental tables, and clear links with the classroom context (‘implications for your English sessions’). The section concludes by establishing a set of ten pedagogical principles which ‘underpin a successful first early language-learning experience for children, and which build on and complement their pre-primary education’.

In Part B, teachers will find a wealth of practical ideas and activities for transforming theory into practice, with chapters covering different aspects of child development and prompting teachers to think about a whole series of important questions, before homing in on the details of the activities. This is a great way to ensure that the activities are used for pedagogically sound reasons and not just because they are ‘fun’. Clear, step-by-step instructions are provided, and additional templates and complementary materials are downloadable from the Delta website. Regarding age-appropriateness, specific considerations are provided to help teachers adapt ideas to the age range they work with: effectively reminding us of the different needs and developmental stages of children of three, four and five years old.

Part C takes us back to the key pedagogical principles established in Part A. It explores each principle through activities that could prompt individual reflection for the teacher or could be used within teacher training settings. The activities are based on realistic scenarios, and encourage teachers and trainee teachers to reflect on their present and future practice in a way which brings theory to life and makes it highly relevant to practice. This section could be particularly useful for teacher educators, providing dynamic activities to introduce and explore key pedagogical principles and to stimulate reflection and personal development. Returning to the ‘whole-child’ principle upon which the volume is based, we find interesting activities prompting reflection on aspects such as how we view children, how we can give them effective encouragement, and how we view the use of their home languages, to give just a few examples.

As a teacher educator who has spent years trying to embed English language teaching into general early years education, I was delighted to get hold of this book, and only wish it had been available sooner. The note from the authors tells us that writing began back in 2003. Once we delve into its pages, we appreciate why it took so long to complete, as there is no compromising whatsoever in terms of the quality, scope and depth of its content.

The result is a book which combines depth with accessibility and which will make a real contribution to this field. Personally, I read it from beginning to end and enjoyed every bit of it. Others may choose to dip in and out, focusing on the parts that are of interest to them, and coming back to it time and again as part of a process of personal development (teachers) or as a valuable teaching resource (teachers and teacher educators).

One of the key points running through the book is that the issues covered are of relevance not only to language specialists, but to all educators, many of whom may not be English speakers/readers. On this note, I wonder whether the publishers have considered the possibility of translating the volume into other languages, to make the information as accessible as possible and to help promote the pedagogical principles presented among the global community of pre-primary educators. This could help break down the barriers that have sometimes isolated English language teaching and research from the wider context, and could contribute even further to promoting the pedagogical principles advocated throughout this book.

Julie Waddington Girona, Spain