Teaching Young Learners and VYLs online

The new school year has inevitably, it is 2020 after all, thrown up an array of new challenges which are keeping the PD goals and ever-increasing caffeine addiction of every teacher firmly at the forefront of our teaching. Here in Southern Italy, no sooner had we welcomed back our learners in our new, shiny (well, glistening actually from hand sanitiser and disinfectant) socially-distanced classrooms than we were thrown again into another lockdown. The second wave managed to drown out all our newly celebrated victories like how you simultaneously teach half a group in a classroom while the other half Zoom in from their quarantined bedrooms.

The biggest challenge this time around for me has been my much-loved VYL class. Once the novelty of actually seeing their little faces without their usual huge swamping blue surgical masks had worn off, I suddenly realised that I now had the incredibly daunting feat of teaching a group of lively, enthusiastic 6 year olds who are still learning to read and write and, despite being able to navigate Youtube on mum’s Iphone with their eyes closed, think a mouse is a small furry animal and “click” is a sassy tiktok dance move. The fact we are already online after just a few weeks of tuition and the prospect of potentially eight months of scavenger hunts made me almost break a sweat. Those classroom language phrases we had drilled perfectly now had to be replaced, “I can’t see your screen” proving far more pertinent than “Can I go to the toilet, please?”.

What I have learned on the journey over the past few months is that actually six year old are incredibly resilient, they adapt well to change and as long as choice and variation allow them to engage in the content, lessons are incredibly fun and rewarding for all of us.

If anyone is about to embark on low level, VYL English teaching and like I did are struck by the fear of failure, here are some elements that have worked well for me and that cut down on the many distractions online teaching can present. Here are my top must-haves for a VYL lesson (and for most of my lessons actually regardless of age):

A clearly recognisable structure – in my face to face lessons I would always present a visual checklist on the board, icons for students to follow so they can see where they are in the lesson and get an idea of how we are progressing. Students responded well to this not only because it gave them a sense of satisfaction to see the tasks ticked off as they were completed but it also made them aware of the different stages, helped them realise no stage would last forever and stopped repeated requests for certain activities at inappropriate times. It made something foreign and confusing a little more accessible as well as acting in itself as a talking point, “What is the snake activity?” Online this is slightly harder to achieve but I still try to include it on my starter screen and try to refer back to it throughout the lesson when I can. I hope that this reference to the classroom routine we had put in place helps them feel more settled in this unfamiliar territory. For that reason, we always still start and finish with our ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ songs, copy homework into our homework diaries and reflect on the lesson with an exit ticket.

Visuals – anyone who has made the leap this year into online teaching will know the importance of clear, solid instructions and modelling. It’s the basic bread and butter of teaching which is crucial in the classroom and even more so online. With very little ones, especially those who are at the start of their English journey clear attractive visuals will give support and provide security for students who will probably also be grappling with getting a handle on the technology they are using. I have used bright icons which signpost exactly what students need, what we are doing and when using coursebooks or activity books I post pictures of the book we are using. This cuts down on confusion and helps reduced the panicked L1 pleas for help.

Bitmoji Classroom – These first came to my attention last May when Twitter suddenly started being flooded with animated images of teachers in front of boards. While visually pleasing I couldn’t understand how they would work for me so I guess I’m a bit late getting on board, but after listening to Joe Dale do a fascinating talk on how to harness the power of birmojis, now I’m definitely a convert. The kids squeal with delight at animated Olivia, our classroom is suddenly in their homes and I even use my board to do language presentations as I would if were at school. They love it. Thanks to edutwitter I’m mastering how to make my character dance, run around the classroom and the smiles on my kids faces make me know it’s appreciated. From a practical point of view, it also gives me a context to introduce new vocabulary by placing it in my classroom, and review classroom language and instructions through ‘posters’ on the walls.

Brain breaks – my kids are little and you can feel, see and hear when their attention starts to drift. Just as I wouldn’t expect them to sit down and concentrate for an entire lesson at school, I certainly can’t expect that in an online environment. Games, exercises, mindfulness, dancing competitions – anything that gives the students a chance to switch off, re-energise and regroup is a must-have for me across the board but especially for little ones. It keeps them fresh, engaged and allows them to concentrate fully on the important stuff.

Interactive content – Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that a good lesson necessarily needs flashing lights and lots of tech, but there is no denying the fact that a pacy, visually pleasing game can make even the most boring of subjects (ahem countable and uncountable nouns) engaging. The internet is bursting at the seams it appears with interactive learning sites but some of my favourites for YL lessons are Wordwall, Quizziz, Kahoot, Baamboozle and BookWidgets.

Curiosity – Little brains are constantly growing, exploring and questioning everything around them. This thirst for information, knowledge and understanding is what makes being a YL teacher so rewarding; we are part of their journey of discovery and so it is our duty to make that path as interesting as possible, providing the opportunities for them to develop critical thinking skills. One of the biggest and most exciting benefits about being online is that there are almost no limits to what we can do – let’s visit a zoo in San Diego if we’re learning about animals or let’s introduce a new theme by cracking a code in an escape room! Google Earth means we can go anywhere and see anything so what better way is there to introduce weather vocab than by visiting the north pole and spotting some penguins and then seconds later exploring a beach in the South Pacific. Virtual backgrounds can transform our ‘space’, the camera means we can introduce mystery objects from another perspective, playing around with what’s behind us, showing the view from our windows or simply doing a show and tell with our prized possessions, all can tap into our students’ curiosity and help them to forge meaningful connections with what they are learning.

What I’ve learned is that what was my biggest challenge has, as often is the way, become my most rewarding element of 2020. I am so proud of their continued enthusiasm and excitement and their progress dazzles me every lesson.

What about you? What’s your must-have for YLs? What trick, tip or tool could you not live without? Please share with me so I can try it out!

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