Lessons Learned from Observing Young Learners

Ann Mayeda, Konan Women’s University

What can we learn from observing young language learners? How can we use observation as an aid for raising awareness about language learning in teacher-training programs? There is a good deal of literature on what makes for a successful language learner, much of which centers on cognitive areas such as memory and language processing. But what about the affective reactions to stimuli; such as curiosity, imagination, and attitude? How do factors such as a willingness to communicate, to guess at meaning, to risk being wrong, and to tolerate ambiguity serve as creators of experience and lead to a greater sense of control and autonomy in the learning environment? Some of the ways in which undergraduates in a teaching-training course observe young learners, and how these observations influence their own approaches to language learning, will be briefly explored in this article.

In addition to teaching courses in our Teaching English to Young Learners (TEYL) program, I have always had an interest in learner autonomy and development, self-access learning, and advising. Much of what we do in self-access is to offer our students some choice and provide opportunities to take a more active role in their own language learning. Learner advising, access to a variety of resources and how to use them, opportunities to use English outside of the classroom, and other spaces for agency and responsibility are all part of the autonomy toolkit. In short, the aim is to allow students to (re)learn and (re)discover the gratification of learning. But isn’t this what we already do in YL classrooms, particularly in the pre-primary and primary years? Much of what happens in the YL classroom focuses on getting the children involved in enjoying the learning process. The students enrolled in our TEYL program come into it knowing that, at this age, learning English should be interesting and enjoyable. Their task is to keep it that way. Often, without even being aware of it, the students focus on encouraging and developing particular behaviors in the YLs that promote autonomy. It is through this process of working with children that the student-teacher-learners begin to discover what it means to be self-directed, engaged, and motivated in their own language learning.

In the fall semester of 2017, two class observations were planned for nine second-year students in the TEYL program. We discussed the following list of attributes of successful language learners which the students were tasked with considering when observing the children:

Autonomous learners:

  1. have insights into their learning styles and strategies.
  2. take an active approach to the learning task at hand.
  3. are willing to take risks, that is, to communicate in the target language at all costs.
  4. are good guessers.
  5. have a tolerant and outgoing approach to the target language.

(Ommagio as cited in Wenden, 1998, pp. 41–42)

The first observation took place at a local preschool, where the students organized an English picture book reading event. This was their first opportunity to work with very young learners in the target language and to practice their skills in reading aloud with meaning, emotion, and fluency. The children ranged in age from 3- to 6-years old. The session was video-recorded for more careful analysis later. The event was quite successful, based on the reactions of the children, with requests for more reading events throughout the semester. On the same day, we had a debriefing and feedback session during which the students were asked to think about how the YLs were able to understand the stories without necessarily understanding the language. More specifically, 1) what tools did they as student-teachers use to encourage understanding, and 2) what were the YLs doing in their attempts to understand? They were asked to consider the above list when writing reflections. The following week we discussed their reflections at length and then reviewed the recorded session. For the focus of this article, only the second question will be addressed. The students were able to point out the exact moments where they observed the YLs engaging in the noted behaviors.

The second observation took place in a class of 27 grade three primary school children. The same group of students observed the class that was led by fourth-year student-teachers doing their final practicum training. Following the observation, as above, the students were given the same two questions and asked to submit their reflections the following week.

It is worth noting here that the student-teachers in both the picture book reading event and the practicum session conducted the lessons entirely in English and refrained from resorting to their L1 when communicating with the YLs. The students decided that this was important as they felt that this was expected of them as role models and users of the language. It also served as a powerful incentive to work on their own language skills and to use all the resources at their disposal to engage the children.

The students came to the following conclusions with several examples of each observation gleaned from the video recordings:

  1. Young learners in the pre-primary and early primary years clearly know and express what they want to do, and not want to do as individuals, and without particular regard to the needs of the group. Author’s note: While this is not directly related to metacognitive awareness in the use of strategies, it does point to an awareness of competence as learners generally enjoy what they can do reasonably well and shy away from what they cannot.
  2. They take an active approach to the learning task at hand. They like to experiment and play with the language. They enjoy movement and rhythm that engages their whole body.
  3. They are willing to take risks and are willing to communicate in English even at the expense of being wrong. They seem to enjoy producing the unfamiliar sounds of English loudly and clearly.
  4. They are good guessers of meaning. They do not have a need to understand everything but simply enjoy the parts that they do at that time, pointing to a high tolerance for ambiguity.
  5. They have a tolerant and outgoing approach to English. They are generally not shy about shouting out what they know and sharing this knowledge with their peers.

In the final reflection assignment, students were asked to consider this list in terms of their own language learning. Most responded on how much they needed to improve their English skills if they expect to teach children in the future. Several responded that while they understood the need to “play” with the language in various ways such as using movement, gestures, games, and songs, these approaches were meant for teaching children and felt it was not appropriate for their own learning. They understood that while making mistakes and guessing were important, several indicated their own reluctance to do so. As one student put it, “it is not the Japanese way, we must answer right,” which can be understood to mean that this is discouraged in most formal schooling contexts. Another student also expressed that she, “… must understand sentences completely or feel shame” indicating less tolerance for ambiguity in her own learning due to outside pressure. None of the nine students considered themselves “outgoing.” Rather, they identified as undemonstrative and reluctant users of English, except when working with children. Two students made comments indicating that they did not need to behave like children, but rather should aim to do activities and tasks that promote the attributes of successful learners geared for their age and maturity. One wrote, “when I study new vocabulary, I guess meaning of vocabulary and try. I don’t use dictionary right now.” She seemed to be indicating the use of a strategy (guessing meaning through context) before immediately resorting to looking up meaning in a dictionary. The other student commented, “I must speak like children speak. Don’t be shy, say my opinion each time.” All of the students could clearly observe that the attributes of successful learners aptly applied to young learners. Although the majority could not necessarily see themselves in the same light, due to other socio-
affective factors, the above two students did make this connection, and applied strategies that adjusted for their maturity.

Working towards autonomy is a complex process and it is the teacher’s role to guide learners in understanding it by showing them ways to employ it (Candy, cited in Thanasoulas, 2000). If my student-teachers can observe the success of YLs engaging in some of these strategies or attributes, then they may begin to realize that with just a few changes to accommodate for adult learners, they too can achieve similar success. Such observations and reflections are a step forward in their journey towards self-direction, taking responsibility for their own language learning, and personal development. Observing my students engage with YLs is a constant reminder of the power of learning-by-teaching. I hope it serves as an opportunity to be responsible for self and others, to develop teaching skills, and to increase autonomy in their own language learning.


Thanasoulas, D. (2000). What is learner autonomy and how can it be fostered? The Internet TESL Journal, 6(11). Retrieved October 6, 2018, from <http://iteslj.org/Articles/Thanasoulas-Autonomy.html>

Wenden, A. (1998). Learner strategies for learner autonomy: Planning and implementing learner training for language learners. New York, NY: Prentice Hall.

Ann Mayeda lectures at Konan Women’s University in Kobe. She has worked with young learners for over 20 years and conducts workshops and teacher-training programs for pre- and in-service pre-primary and primary school teachers. She also has an interest in learner development and issues in autonomy as they apply to young learners and young adult learners. Her current research has taken her to Nepal where she has been working with schools in implementing extensive reading programs and conducting in-service teacher training for the past several years. In her free time, she enjoys watching her cacti bloom.