Early English

Young learners and language acquisition

For Tessa Lochowski it just makes sense for teachers to use their knowledge of developmental stages in the early years when targeting effective English language acquisition.

How young children learn

Broadly speaking, we all learn in a very similar way. Whether we are five or fifty-five, we all follow a set pathway to acquiring and retaining information. However, when it comes to learning new languages, adults and children learn very differently.

In a BBC report ‘What is the best age to learn a language’, north London nursery school director, Carmen Rampersad, said that young children ‘don’t learn a language – they acquire it’. The report goes on to stress that as babies, we have a better ear for different sounds; as toddlers, we can pick up native accents with astonishing speed.

What young children excel at is learning implicitly, listening to native speakers and imitating them. However, young children struggle with explicit learning, because they don’t have the cognitive control, attention and memory capabilities. Meanwhile older learners tend to know quite a lot about themselves and the world already and can use this knowledge to process new information.

The bottom line is that ‘young children learn languages in a different way to adults’ and therefore what may seem a sensible teaching pathway for an adult learner will not necessarily be ideal for a child.

Mistakes and repetition

With the British Council forecasting that by 2020, two billion people will be using or learning English, starting with children as young as three years old, there has never been a more important time for teachers to appreciate these differences and understand the best way to support children’s language development.

Richard Branson once famously observed “You don’t learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing, and by falling over.” This is true of children when they acquire language.  Unlike adults, young children generally don’t mind making mistakes and are not embarrassed by trying to verbalise new words (if the learning is delivered correctly and in a fun way). Each mistake builds up their resilience and ability to continue learning.

They are also particularly adept at learning ‘chunks’ of language through repetition. At this stage, a teacher’s role is to ensure every child builds a strong foundation of understanding and that their language development is fun and effective.

Remembering the core attributes of Early Learners

When teaching children of this age to speak English, it is vital to remember their core attributes and build on the foundations of their personal development. They are naturally inquisitive and the things that interest them most are in the world immediately around them: their school, family and friends.

For young children, it is also important to develop their speaking and listening skills as well as their fine motor skills: this will lay the foundation for learning to write at a later stage.

They should also be developing their phonemic awareness and starting to become tuned into letter sounds that pave the way for reading. By consolidating these foundation skills in young leaners, we are providing them with their first building blocks in acquiring the English language.

Graded vocabulary and courses

When teaching new words, it’s helpful to follow a carefully graded vocabulary syllabus, and to group new words thematically (my home, my holiday etc.), to help children to remember them. Providing them with multiple opportunities to practise the new language in a variety of contexts helps to embed the new language.

Such young children respond particularly well to hearing new words in stories, ideally with fun characters that they can relate to. Their energetic nature means that any ‘on their feet’ exercises, will hold their attention for a longer period of time and help to embed learning. Having a wide range of tools including songs, chants, flashcards, games, stories and role-play activities to keep the children active during lessons, and to provide them with a frequent change of focus is therefore important.


All teachers benefit from having supporting resources to hand and of course the more closely they are aligned to the way young children learn, the better. One example of an English language course and resources for international children is Jolly English.

Here the children discover new words and phrases using pictures, songs, games, chants and stories, with the help of Inky Mouse and her friends Bee and Snake. These characters will help motivate children and spark their imagination but more importantly, support the way young children learn languages.

Appropriate pedagogy and resources

As students learning English get younger and younger it is important for teachers in international schools to consider these differences in the way they learn and apply this to their teaching plan; the use of resources designed specifically for this age is paramount.


Tessa Lochowski, is an English Language Teaching (ELT) professional, consultant and author.