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The Most Important Thing to Teach Youngsters

What is the most important thing we can teach young learners? Grammar? Vocab? Well, in my obviously biased opinion, it is the sounds.

After years of teaching at the university level, it is clear who my best students have been. Other than those who have been abroad, the best students are those who studied at conversation schools as kids. But, they were not the best because of their grammar and the size of their vocabularies, although they were probably better and bigger. It was because they could understand me, and I could understand them. Their pronunciation was clearer, their listening ability sharper, which gave them an advantage as well as confidence. And, I would say this ability is the result of exposure. They had more exposure to English, its sounds and its rhythm.

Take Halloween. Why is it such a great opportunity to teach? Because of the vocabulary?  Should every kid know what a vampire or a jack-o-lantern is? No. Halloween is great because the kids are interested, compelled to listen, to get involved. Teaching anything is valuable if it is done in English, but when it has monsters and costumes, and sweets, it is fantastic. They are listening and shouting out answers and that is what is important.

Much of the important stuff is implicit. They are soaking it up. Some things are not being soaked up, however. During their first year of life the kids become experts at the sounds of their language and lose the ability to hear the sounds of other languages. These sounds need to be taught explicitly, and the longer we wait the more difficult they become. There are fun ways to do it. There are communicative ways to do it, but a bit of old-fashioned minimal pairs is also called for – as homework for sure.

Hearing the sounds, being able to distinguish the sounds, is critical for speaking, listening, and reading. It is a fundamental skill, and there are a growing number of apps and online materials, aimed at older students, using High Variability Phonemic Training (minimal pairs on steroids, I call it). There is also, as I pointed out in my last post, an app using this method being developed for very young kids. And, there is, which has been doing it for over a decade. The proven method for teaching young learners the difficult sounds of English …

…that is what b4 does.

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2 Responses to The Most Important Thing to Teach Youngsters

  1. I really interesting to this topic.

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