Can You Teach a Young Learner?

Written by: Nikolina Tsvetkova, Syana Harizanova

English Language Teaching In The Primary School Survey

Since 2002 foreign language teaching has been officially introduced in the primary curriculum in Bulgaria, which has created a vast demand for teachers of foreign languages to children aged 7-11. Quite often, unfortunately, the teachers who undertake the difficult task to work with young learners are not very competent users of the language themselves, or lack experience with this particular age group. Sometimes their English is sufficient for the job but they have no teaching experience at all. The Ministry of Education and Science recognises these facts and has proclaimed qualification of primary foreign language teachers one of the priority areas in the education reform.

British Council, a major agent of change and a traditional promoter of progressive ideas in education, does a lot to respond to the needs of our English teachers through various partnership projects and numerous other initiatives. One of the projects, Materials and Methodologies for Primary English Teachers, is dedicated particularly to Teaching English to Young Learners and aims at satisfying the needs of a wide audience of newly qualified or re-qualified primary English teachers.

As a result of the first stage of the project (September 2003 – March 2004), over 600 primary English teachers from all over Bulgaria were introduced to varied and relevant classroom practices for teaching English to Young Learners by using Bulgarian folk tales. The seminars were carried out by 23 specially trained teacher trainers.

The second stage of the project (expiring March 2007), aims at offering a more systematic methodological and practical support to English teachers of young learners, covering a wider range of their needs. The final product of the project will be a new Methodology and Materials Resource Pack based on the established good teaching practice and the expertise of local professionals. The Pack will be accompanied by video recorded examples of teaching children English for training needs. The idea is, through active implementation of the methodology guide at in-service and pre-service teacher training levels all over the country, to enhance the improvement in teaching English to young learners in Bulgaria.

The project team for this stage of the project is the following:

Project Managers – Nikolina Tsvetkova, Syana Harizanova

Resource Pack authors – Nikolina Tsvetkova, Syana Harizanova, Rossitsa Milkova, Svetla Tashevska, Valya Angelova, Ilonka Nestorova, Adelina Stoyanova, Deshka Margaritova, Stanislav Bogdanov

Teachers of the video-lessons – Zhivka Babarova, Tanya Ivanova, Maria Ivanova, Maria Dimova

Project consultants – Carol Read (UK), Maria Georgieva, Ph.D. (Sofia University)

The survey

In order to respond to the specific needs of primary teachers of English in Bulgaria and to offer ideas for further development in relevant areas, it was considered appropriate to survey the needs of primary English teachers across the country. The survey was conducted by means of a questionnaire which was compiled by the two project managers, with the active support of the two consultants.

One of the basic aims of the questionnaire was to find out the educational and professional background of practising English teachers at Bulgarian primary school. It was important to create a rough picture of the situation with primary teachers’ qualification. Moreover, the questionnaire helped us to get aware of how confident teachers felt about their own language competence and about their teaching skills. It also revealed in which areas teachers felt they needed help most urgently and which areas they were not particularly interested in. Besides, it identified what forms of further qualification and professional development appeal to teachers most strongly.

The questionnaire was sent to 100 practising teachers of English to young learners across the country. We received back only 53, which is certainly too small a number to allow us to consider the findings representative. Yet, we believe that they reflect the existing situation in the country and can help us to help primary teachers in their work as professionals.

The questionnaire consisted of three main parts: Personal Profile, Professional Expertise and Professional Development. The sum-up of the results has been done along the same lines.

Personal Profile

  • 73.60% of the answers came from the capital and other big cities and towns, and the rest – from small town and villages.
  • 71% of the teachers surveyed teach just English in primary or both primary and secondary school. The rest are either primary class teachers who teach English on top of all/some subjects or are primary teachers retraining to become English teachers of young learners.
  • When asked about their confidence to teach different ages and levels in primary, teachers confess that they feel least confident to teach English to first graders and most confident to teach second graders. This is easy to understand having in mind that teaching first English lessons (preferably in English or with the right proportion of mother tongue) is a specific and extremely challenging task. The successful completion of this task, as a rule, strongly influences the further English language training of the learners. Hence, teachers ‘fright’ of the great responsibility. Moreover, there isn’t a universally recommended coursebook to suit the needs of first graders, who according to the Ministry of Education’s instructions should acquire English just orally. So teachers often have to create their own materials and build their own teaching sequences.
  • In terms of their own language competence, teachers feel more confident with reading and grammar than with speaking and listening. It could be assumed that this is so because of the way they were trained, as well as because of the limited opportunities to practise the language for real communication. Obviously, primary teachers should be more aware of various ways of raising their oral proficiency in the language. Not surprisingly, later in the answers, teachers consider the improvement of their language competence an important area for professional development.
  • While the majority of the teachers (37 out of 53) have a considerable general teaching experience, only 21 have been working as teachers of English for five or more years. These results are reflected in the teachers’ further answers where they say they do not need theory in teaching methodology, but mainly practical teaching skills.

Professional expertise

  • As could be expected from their previous answers, teachers are less confident with general ELT methodology than with primary school teaching methodology and primary ELT methodology.
  • Most teachers feel confident to teach all skills although they are slightly less confident with teaching speaking and pronunciation. This is in unison with the above answers about their own language competence.
  • When asked to rank the frequency with which they use various classroom procedures and activity types, teachers said they didn’t use storytelling, drama or role play very frequently, nor did they include activities with movement or art and craft very often in their teaching. The most often used are songs, language drills, pair work, dialogues and games. Among the teachers’ own additions to this list were project work (4 people), multimedia and the Internet (3 people), computer games (2 people), letter-writing to pen-pals (2 people) and some others.
  • As for integrating other areas into their teaching, teachers think that it is very important to include learning-how-to-learn strategies as well as culture in their teaching of English to children. They don’t think, however, it is worth integrating citizenship education or content from other primary subjects.
  • The most frequently used and, obviously, perceived as most useful resources are coursebooks, tapes, flashcard and posters. Story books for English speaking children are not very popular. The least popular resources are the Internet and interactive CD-ROMs, closely followed by videos and DVDs. It needs to be pointed out, however, that this low rate came as a result of the fact that nearly half of the teachers don’t have the facilities to use CD-ROMs or the Internet blank. Hopefully, with the installation of computers at school all over Bulgaria, teachers will start appreciating these resources more, and will look for ways of using them effectively.
  • Teachers were asked to comment on the positive and negative aspects of the materials they currently use to teach young learners. The answers came in a great variety but some of the reoccurring ones were (on the positive side) that they are adequate to children’s age, address concrete topics, contain many pictures and communicative and amusing activities, stories, cross-curricular links, are graded in difficulty, etc. On the negative side, the main criticisms were that they are expensive and difficult to provide, the flashcards they include are too small, the audio-cassettes – of a bad quality, some activities are inapplicable to large classes, there are too many new words per lesson, there aren’t enough cut-out-and-stick activities, etc.

Professional development

  • Asked to identify the modes of professional development they consider most useful, teachers replied that they don’t want to read books, they want workshops and seminars. They need more practical teaching skills rather than methodology, although quite a few of them think that a more systematic methodology course is quite useful. On-line resources and interactive CD-ROMs are once again not a preferred choice.
  • Ts were free to add other useful modes of professional development. Their additions can be roughly divided into two: forms aimed at improving their language proficiency (refresher English courses, communicating with native speakers, exchange/practical experience in English-speaking countries), and such that would guarantee a higher professionalism in teaching English (British Council-sponsored seminars and summer schools, periodic methodology upgrade, projects involving exchange of experience, on-line presentation of lessons).
  • According to teachers’ answers, what most of them need further development in are the following areas, ranked in order of importance: developing children’s vocabulary, teaching English through English (classroom language), working with mixed-ability groups, developing children’s speaking skills and organising communicative activities in class. (Here again, one can feel the teachers’ comparatively low confidence about their spoken English.)

The least interesting/useful area for further development for the teachers is the difference between adult and young learners. This is not surprising as most of them are qualified primary teachers and feel pretty confident about working with young learners. Planning lessons and managing children effectively does not seem to be a big problem for them either, very probably due to the same reasons.

An interesting addition to the list of useful topic areas for Ts’ professional development was “Taking part in educational projects”, which might be assumed to prove that there are teachers who have personally experienced the benefits of the latter.

  • A separate question aimed at finding out whether primary teachers are members of any professional organisation. Of all 53 teachers only 12 were such: 4 members of BETA, 6 members of OPTIMA, 1 member of both, and 1 member of the Bulgarian Union of Scientists. This comes to indicate that primary teachers are either not aware of the existence of such organisations or are not convinced of the professional benefits from being their members. The relevant conclusions have to be drawn from this finding.

Finally, teachers were invited to add any additional information which would help us in understanding their professional situation and needs.

Here are some of the concerns they expressed:

  • Teaching English to Roma kids is very difficult as this is a third language for them, they do not study at home. Can we do something about it?
  • In a mixed class, Bulgarian children cope with English better than Roma kids.
  • How can we divide the big primary classes so that we work with smaller groups?
  • Should we assess in a different way children who work on their own and children who have private lessons in English?
  • I have difficulties in testing and assessing my students.
  • I live in a small town where it is difficult to get relevant information in time. I would be happy if I can get such.
  • In Kozludui, there are not enough materials for teaching English at pre-primary and primary levels or test and activity books for these levels.
  • I need more teaching materials, especially for the first grade.
  • I need help to get better oriented in the variety of textbooks and teaching materials to be used at state school.
  • How to choose an appropriate set of textbooks which will lead to building on the children’s language at lower secondary?
  • I need advice about teaching English at pre-primary level.
  • Networking among primary English teachers would be great.

And these are some of the positive comments:

  • My experience as a primary English teacher at a state school and at a private institution together with my experience as a mentor helps me a lot.
  • I am very pleased with the quality of the Summer school and the seminars from teachers of English. I find them useful for developing my English language competence as well as my skills as a primary teacher of English.
  • I’m taking part in your needs analysis with pleasure because after the Summer school in Kiten I feel extremely enriched as a professional and inspired as a person.

* * *

The results of this survey were thoroughly analysed and taken into consideration when the project team, together with the consultants, met to plan the content and structure of the Methodology and Materials Resource Pack. It was decided that:

  • The training pack should be content- and reality-oriented.
  • Trainer/ teacher materials should be practice-oriented.
  • There should be balance between theory and practice.
  • There should be a balance between trainer and participant-led tasks and types of outcomes (open-ended/ closed).
  • Materials should reflect needs/ characteristics of grades 1 – 4.
  • The training pack should follow a modular principle.
  • There should be consistency in design.
  • There should be possibility of flexibility in delivery.
  • Support for the trainer should be clear and contain full rationale.
  • The language should be accessible.

We selected 20 relevant topics to be included in the Pack and agreed on a workshop framework along the following principle:

Awareness raising ► Experiencing ► Analysing ► Applying ► Evaluating

The process of writing the draft modules of the pack is under way now. For most of them authors are working in pairs. E-discussions and face-to-face meetings help pairs to exchange ideas and collate the modules. No need to say, it is a very demanding and difficult job, but also very interesting and inspiring. We hope to bring it to a successful end and move on to the next activities in the project in order to achieve the overall aim – to improve teaching of English to young learners in Bulgaria through a good practice methodology support and teacher training.

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