With an ELT career spanning 20 years, Lou McLaughlin’s best practices stem from her dedication to young learners as a teacher and young learner teacher trainer. According to Lou, teacher cognition, focusing on learner capabilities, and setting realistic expectations are key to success in teaching young learners. I had the great fortune to meet Lou at the SPELT conference last fall where she spoke of teacher cognition in her keynote address. Lou, president of ELT Ireland, shares her practices with TESOL practitioners in this edition of the ELT Best Practices blog series (formerly titled Best Practices in ELT—Context).
Sherry Blok (SB): Lou, after returning to Ireland from living abroad, you founded ELT Ireland, an association for ELT professionals. What inspired you to do so?
Lou McLaughlin (LM): The classroom can be lonely if you don’t have that support network. It is a nice thing to meet up and feel connected to other professionals, knowing other people are in the same situation. ELT Ireland has a small membership, but we are growing all the time. We have our second annual conference coming up; there is such a buzz at these events with people who want to talk and share things after 20 odd years in the field. Creating the association has helped to build these networks.
SB: That is a sentiment I share with you of our time at the SPELT conference in Pakistan. What inspired you to delve more deeply into studying teacher cognition?
LM: While I was doing teacher training, teachers opened up. Some told me that they had to complete a course to get on with their careers. Many of these teacher training courses were more of a “tick the box exercise” instead of focusing on general learning and understanding young learners’ needs.
SB: What are some of the challenges of teaching young learners in an EFL context that perhaps are not being met in some teacher training courses?
LM: I think the main challenge is coping with a mixed-ability class. For example, how does a teacher accommodate students who finish earlier, yet provide support for those who need that extra little bit? Differentiation needs to be addressed in teacher training programs, because schools expect differentiation to occur in the classroom, but teachers aren’t always trained in how to do this.
SB: Your work in teacher cognition blends into your best practices. Lou, how have you tried to integrate your best practices into your teacher training?
Best Practices: 1 – Know your learners
LM: With young learners, teachers need to consider that young learners are still learning how to learn. They are learning their own language and peer interaction. If we don’t factor in things such as attention span or interests—theoretically or practically, it won’t work. Teachers need to consider the stages of development and link those stages to the classroom tasks to consider what their learners can do and not do and choose activities and tasks appropriately.
Best Practices: 2 – Make Classroom Management a Priority
LM: Teacher training courses focus so much on theory, but if you don’t have practical tips or tools, no learning will occur. This is especially true for newly qualified teachers who may find themselves spending more time controlling the classroom than actually teaching. Lack of classroom management skills adds to stress levels and it unfortunately filters through to the young learners in a vicious circle.
SB: Do you have any practical classroom management tips for TESOL readers?
Lou’s 4 Tips to Establish Routines
1. Start each day with routines. Have the same routines at the beginning, middle, and end of the class. For example, at the beginning of the class, students put their things away and play a game or do a vocabulary exercise. Have everyone sit down and look at the board, so they get used to it. After a couple of days, it becomes automatic. With older learners, these strategies are the same, but the routines would differ. Older learners could tell about their weekends or correct each other’s homework.
2. Give the same instructions all the time. Make sure they know them and go over them again and again. Don’t give instructions in the middle of a task. If you need to interrupt, have the students put their hands on their heads and then give the instruction.
3. At the end of the class, look at what they have accomplished and give praise for the work they do to reinforce learning.
Best Practices: 3 – Set Realistic Expectations
LM: Getting students to use English in the classroom is a challenge. You can’t expect a young learner to communicate in English during an hour-long class. Adults can express themselves better, but young learners can’t verbalize.
I train teachers to be realistic in their expectations as it can be surprising the number of inexperienced teachers who expect young learners to get through a whole class without resorting to their L1. Integrate the use of English slowly so it becomes more of a routine. At the beginning, make it into a game. Set a time of 2 minutes to speak in English. Then increase it in increments of 5 minutes. What is important is that learners work at their pace and they are rewarded for their efforts, not punished.
SB: Do you have any last thoughts or a message to leave the readers to reflect on?
LM: This is the first time for children to learn a second language. If it goes well, learners will be encouraged to learn other languages, so it’s is a very influential time. Whatever we do now will influence them and their beliefs about learning a language, language learning, and teaching languages.