Children Learning English as a Foreign Language

Grammar at the Primary Level
BY NICK DAWSON EFL AUTHOR FOR PEARSON LONGMAN

Anyone who has taught both adults and children will have noticed that they are different. Children learn in different ways from adults and therefore require a different teaching style. Children bring different learning skills and attitudes to language. Children learn through imitation, discovering patterns, singing songs, and playing games. For children, learning a foreign language is not an intellectual exercise, therefore, they do not learn from an intellectual teaching approach. The focus of this article is grammar, termed a convenient fiction1 invented by linguists to describe language. Imagine a Martian watching hundreds of hours of football or baseball. An intelligent Martian will start to notice regular patterns of behavior in the games and may eventually produce a book of rules for football or baseball. Linguists use different models for describing languages. Traditional grammarians started from an understanding of the grammar of Latin and Greek and used the models of these classical languages to describe the features of English. A different model was used by the authors of the Common European Framework of Reference [CEFR]2. The CEFR does not attempt to describe language; rather, it describes the use of language in communicative terms. Sometimes these communicative acts are listed as “can do” statements.

I

Grammar: A Child’s Perspective

Children enter primary school with an understanding of the grammar of their native language [L1]. This is an unconscious understanding demonstrated through their functional ability to operate in their L1. This unconscious understanding has been gradually acquired in babyhood through imitation and interaction with both adults and other children. On page 43 of The Language Web3 , Professor Jean Aitchison illustrates the normal pattern of language acquisition for English native speaker children. There will be similar patterns for children acquiring other languages.

Week 0 Week 6 Week 8 Week 8 Month 12 Month 18 Month 24 Month 26 Month 27 Year 5 Year 10

Crying Cooing [goo-goo] Babbling [ma-ma] Intonation patterns Single words Two-word utterances Word endings Negatives Questions Complex constructions Mature speech patterns

I A Child’s Understanding of Grammar Grammar is an abstract adult concept. Second. Swiss child psychologist Jean Piaget5 noted that children understand the world through concrete operations — what they can see. Two-year-old Sophie used the words broken. She wrongly concluded that English past tenses had an –en ending and invented broughten. children have acquired this linguistic skill independently by understanding the language used by people around them. The child notices that Mommy always puts on her warm coat before they go out. children talk freely using most of the constructions used by adults. Initial attempts may not be correct. though some things. But this meaning is one which the child has noticed and attached to the coat. I Implications There are four basic implications from this evidence. The implication of Piaget’s ideas for English language teachers is very important. etc. fallen. This is the fourth implication for language teachers: Start with understanding then introduce language. By the age of 24 months. In the same way. First. Only after passing through puberty (ages 10-14) can children begin to learn in an adult way — through understanding and application of abstract ideas. but the two-word utterance is a significant step because the baby is combining two words to communicate a single message. the baby starts to use word endings. such as pronouns still cause problems. touchen. The production of this first word produces an explosion of smiles and cuddles from the mother and the baby quickly discovers that repetition of this sound can generate further smiles and cuddles. builden. Video recordings of groups of babies playing have shown that the proto-grammar may be revised every three weeks. wanten. In this way. This produces a link in the child’s brain between the coat and going out. hear. Around three-and-a-half. because they can neither absorb these abstract ideas nor operate them. In essence. This has been described by Stephen Pinker as The Language Instinct. getten. the coat now has a meaning. and smell. this acquisition is not the result of teaching but the result of learning. This illustrates that babies are looking for patterns and systems in language which form a very early proto-grammar. they attach this understanding to language. These will not always reflect conventional word order. touch. it means that presentation of grammatical rules and grammatical explanations to young children is a waste of time. Children try to make sense of their world. or characteristics). there is a rapid development of vocabulary (although the words are essentially labels for objects. The imitation of the first recognizable word occurs in the 12th month. Babies acquire language and develop their proto-grammar through contact with adults.In Professor Aitchison’s table. children utter long sentences. then. They first identify patterns of behavior and assign meanings to those patterns. riden. and taken. By the age of three. the first stages of grammar can be observed in twoword utterances. By 18 months. After the first word is produced. And third. This early proto-grammar is rapidly and regularly revised. children bring meanings to words and patterns in language. 2 . Children understand first. the child’s brain is constantly searching for patterns and 4 systems in language. we can see that after exploring the sounds which the mouth can produce. Don’t start with language and then try to give understanding. the child is already imitating intonation patterns of the L1 after 8 weeks. cutten. but also through contact with other babies who may be a few months older. actions.

She meets strange animals and birds. is that Alice always reacts as a child would react. looks at it and then disappears down a rabbit hole. Alice follows the rabbit down the rabbit hole into a world where strange things happen. Discovery that progress in foreign language learning is achievable. Like Alice. Discovery that foreign language learning can be fun. 3 . an intelligent girl. one sunny afternoon Alice gets bored during a picnic in the countryside. 4. Alice is exploring a world which does not match the world she knows. Development of a deeper understanding of both the L1 and the foreign language. into a strange and foreign world. Then read it again as an adult and as a teacher and you will discover more about children and the ways in which their brains operate than you will find in most methodology books. but in each new situation. But the important point for us.” “Where do you want to go?” Where do we want to go in the English Language classroom? As the cat intelligently points out. “Where do you want to go?” “I don’t know. as teachers. She asks the cat. it doesn’t matter which path you choose. 2. When we take children into the world of English. For those who do not know the story. She often comments on these differences. She finds a drink which makes her grow very tall and then a cake which makes her grow very small. Despite these disadvantages. If you don’t know Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.I Teaching One of the most important methodology books for any teacher of foreign languages to children is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. but fortunately there is a cat sitting in a tree beside the path. like Alice. Discovery that foreign languages are not incomprehensible. Alice doesn’t know which path to take. he had remarkable vision into the mind of a child. “In that case. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was very much in my mind when we were searching for a title for the course which became English Adventure or Wonderland in some parts of the world. “What should be our methodology for in teaching English?” “Well. A white rabbit with pink eyes runs past Alice saying.” Alice replies. For example. Alice. if you don’t know where you want to go. Carroll was a clergyman and a professor of mathematics and logic at Oxford University with no children of his own. it doesn’t really matter which path you take. read and enjoy it as if you were a child. where do you want to go? What are your aims in teaching English at the primary level?” Aims in the primary foreign language classroom The learning aims in the primary foreign language classroom can be listed as follows:1. we are taking them. 3. one afternoon Alice is walking along a path which divides into two paths — one on the left and one on the right. children learn to survive in the strange world of English. Discovery that foreign language use can lead to real communication. Sometimes she likes what she sees and sometimes she is frightened. survives. 5. “Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!” This seems perfectly normal to Alice. “Which path should I take?” The cat answers with a question. even when the rabbit takes a pocket watch out of his waistcoat.

I asked him. the primary level teacher should never see her/himself as the servant of the secondary school teacher. “I want children to know where they live. in which C2 is the level required for foreign students entering a British University. children who want to discover their environment. B1. and their development. • Can introduce him/herself and others and can ask and answer questions about personal details such as where he/she lives. you can’t get a clearer message than that. But. what does this mean in terms of structure? 4 . and the buses. the trees in the forest. we can see that the first three are not concerned with language content or language skills. the work is all within the A1 level. I want children who have investigated and discovered these things. I want them to know the plants in their gardens. the frogs in the pond. Secondary school teachers tend to focus on content and knowledge rather than attitude. and we know that children will continue to learn in secondary school and beyond. I want children who are curious. In English language classes at primary level.It is important to focus on these aims and never allow the primary school to become seen as a preparation for secondary school learning. the town. They are concerned with the child’s attitude to the foreign language.” Well. their enjoyment. I don’t care if they can name the countries where cotton or coffee grow. I want them to know the streets. the train station. When I was working as a primary school teacher. people he/she knows and things he/she has. The primary aim is their pleasure. I referred to the Common European Framework of Reference. “What do you want children to know about geography when they arrive at secondary school?” He replied. Although learning English at the primary level is only the beginning. But. I don’t care if they can name the longest river in the world or the highest mountain. • Can interact in a simple way provided the other person talks slowly and clearly and is prepared to help. The primary level teacher is the servant of the children in her/his class. the fact is that a child who enters secondary school with a positive attitude to foreign languages is much more likely to succeed than a child who enters with a little knowledge but a negative attitude. B2. Secondary school teachers often fail to understand the fundamental aims of primary english language teaching. and C2. Attitudinal aims If we look back at the list of aims. An adult learner at A1: • Can understand and use familiar everyday expressions and very basic phrases aimed at the satisfaction of needs of a concrete type. I met up with my old geography teacher from secondary school. I Linguistic Aims Earlier. This describes development of communicative ability in six steps called A1. A2. C1.

vegetables. her. our. it. you. She took a lot of photos. them. color Describing and identifying objects. Can you see him? Asking who people are and what Who’s in the bath? they are doing Which is Ann? Asking questions about the number What are you doing? of people. she. Possessive forms:/'s/s'/ Talking about ownership ADJECTIVES size. animals and objects Whose house is this? Identifying people. not lemons. It’s a red car. Sally was hungry. Paul’s father goes to work every morning. me. we. what. They're oranges.AI STRUCTURE LIST (DERIVED FROM CAMBRIDGE YOUNG LEARNERS (CYL) STARTER + MOVER SPECIFICATIONS6) The alphabet Writing down spelling That's W-H-I-T-E. The sun is bigger than the moon. those (personal pronouns) I. how old (there) Talking about possessions and relationships 5 . NOUNS singular and plural.that. Jane lives in London. My house is the smallest in the village. you. which. he. It's my brother's birthday. There are three buses. irregular plural forms (Proper Nouns) (Common Nouns) including countable and some uncountable Asking who people are and identifying people Responding to requests for information about objects Talking about people and places Talking about quantities and amounts Are you Bill? It’s Pat. animals and How many children are there in objects your class? There’s a bus in the picture. his. . Can you give me some cakes? What are these? This is a camera. (with countables and uncountables) Talking about uncountables It's a banana. these. her. your. including limited. Who’s eating an egg? Put the tomato on the table. a cup of coffee a glass of water a bottle of lemonade a bowl of soup That’s Ann’s bike. There isn’t any bread on the table. an. us (interrogative) who. He's running. some Identifying objects. people and animals Identifying colors Talking about appearances and feelings Making comparisons between things He’s a small boy. whose. etc. where. Making and responding to requests for information about objects Identifying people Describing people (zero article) any a lot of my. the. Who is your best friend? (Base Forms) (Comparatives and Superlatives) DETERMINERS a. how many. Your face is very dirty. it. age. specified. our. animals. their indirect object (demonstrative pronouns) this. us. him. It’s Sam. they. fruit.

we're. She went to the shops to buy a new dress. He started to laugh. I had to go. I don't want eggs. I eat breakfast in the kitchen. he is. they are. negative.AI STRUCTURE LIST (DERIVED FROM CAMBRIDGE YOUNG LEARNERS (CYL) STARTER + MOVER SPECIFICATIONS6) The alphabet Writing down spelling That's W-H-I-T-E. please. it is it has. Past simple Short answer forms Talking about events in the past Answering yes/no questions Short answer forms Verb complementation VERB + infinitive VERB + -ing form. interrogative and contractions) (to be) am. they're Stand up and read this. Can you play football? Have you got a pen? No. We went to the park yesterday. Can you open the window? Can I have ice cream? You must clean your bedroom. I like walking in the mountains. Talking about activities Go + VERB+ing Like. 6 . VERBS (positive. You mustn’t shout in class. he's. How do you spell 'computer'? I live in Montevideo. have (got) Describing ability and personal possessions Asking someone to do something Making requests must. she's. enjoy VERB+ing Causative “to” Expressing purpose I go fishing on weekends. yourself and others Understanding and giving simple instructions I am. I want to go home. Has your school got any computers? No. is. I’ve got to go. it hasn’t. I'm. Clean the board. I went riding yesterday. Would you like a bowl of soup? Would you like to come with us? I’d like to go home now. mustn’t have got to Obligations would & wouldn’t like Making offers shall (in interrogatives only) Past tense modals could had I could see him. its. I've got a pencil. What are the cats doing? They're sleeping. are (Imperative) (present continuous) do Talking about friends. she is. we are. Asking and answering questions about present actions (Present Simple) Describing what you like or want Asking how to spell a word Saying where you live Talking about habits and facts I like fish. He started laughing. Shall I carry your bags? Modals can. Frogs jump.

Formulas For communication repair 7 . today. when. which. Pardon? Sorry? I don't know.by Conjunctions or.on. What did you say? I didn’t understand you. that Identifying people and objects Emma is the girl who is sitting by the tree. Agent . I like ice cream but I don’t like chocolate. She talks a lot. well. often Manner – quietly. I must do this before Friday. ADVERBS Time – now. We went upstairs quietly. I went home because I was tired. How do you go to school? When does the film start? How much water do you want? How often do you eat cake? Why is he talking to her? Which snowman has Harry made? What is the weather like? what… like (only weather) PREPOSITIONS Time. loudly. Describing how often something happens Describing how you do something She never eats meat. slowly quickly. what kind of.AI STRUCTURE LIST (DERIVED FROM CAMBRIDGE YOUNG LEARNERS (CYL) STARTER + MOVER SPECIFICATIONS6) The alphabet Writing down spelling That's W-H-I-T-E. Degree – a lot Comparative adverbs Interrogatives – how. carefully. how much. He painted the wall with a big brush. which. She plays with her friends after school. how often. NUMBERS Cardinal 1-20 Ordinal 1st to 10th talking about positions in a race CLAUSE Relative clause with relative pronoun – who. yesterday Frequency – always. An envelope is the thing in which we put a letter. where. sometimes never. but because Making a choice Linking Expressing contrast Expressing reasons Is this an apple or a pear? I've got a pen and a pencil. before Talking about dates and time (but not o’clock) She watches TV on Fridays. Asking questions to get information Describing when something happens My aunt caught the plane yesterday. He can read better than his brother. in. The dog always sleeps in the afternoon. what. and. badly. who. why. after.

and then present them using graphs from the mathematics curriculum. the conventions of their home culture are normal. they are not exceptional or unusual. Discovery that foreign language use can lead to real communication. we are less concerned with the number of words or sentence patterns that children learn than with the effect that lessons will have on the learners. and city. I CLIL: Content Language Integrated Learning Cultural development Young children have a very limited outlook on the world. Discovery that foreign language learning can be fun. Children may undertake simple scientific experiments and then report the results in English. and adjectives may also change if the noun is singular or plural. This is limited by their experience of their home. this is to misunderstand the fundamental aims of foreign language lessons in primary schools. it is very likely that. they discover that British children eat cornflakes and boiled eggs. 3. nouns will be marked by gender. Possessive pronouns will change in gender according to the object possessed rather than (as in English) the gender of the possessor. children learn how to describe their own environment in English. collect results.I Grammar: The Teacher’s Perspective For the teacher. 8 . 4. As children gain greater command of basic forms in English. 5. grammar may appear to be central and essential in learning a foreign language. they are not important for children. While it may be “normal” for the children to eat fresh fruit and sweet cakes for breakfast. At the primary level. they learn that “normal” has different meanings in different places. people. For children. Discovery that foreign languages are not incomprehensible. 2. Children undertake surveys. adjectives will be changed to match the noun gender. However. When children learn about a foreign culture. school. English language lessons may also exploit skills from different parts of the curriculum. In this way. we can begin to introduce content which is related to transport. 1. Children may learn about the weather. Foreign language lessons make foreigners less foreign and. For example. broaden the children’s outlook on the world. in the learners’ L1. describing cities and rural areas. and seasons. being an adult. I Developing Understanding of Language In the same way children learn about foreign lifestyles and compare them with their own. The content of the first year of foreign language lessons is focused on situations which are familiar to the learners. animals and products. Broadening the children’s understanding of a foreign language and culture should give them a greater understanding of their own culture. Children will talk about where they live using simple geographical language in English. Development of a deeper understanding of both the L1 and the foreign language. as they learn the patterns of English they can reflect on the patterns in their own language. Discovery that progress in foreign language learning is achievable. These developmental aims are educational spin-offs from classes which are fun. seasons and climate in Britain or other English-speaking countries and make comparisons with their own weather. climate. in this way. Although these developmental aims are very important for parents and curriculum planners.

listening and video skills.coe. learners may feel that their L1 grammar is “better” than English grammar. _____ 1 Tom MacArthur in conversation. teachers’ book. The publications he has helped develop include language tests. Listening with Penguin Readers.cambridgeesol. www. Since 1979 he has led over 2. Nick Dawson has taught general subjects to children and EFL to adults in Britain. learners may also feel uncomfortable with the systems of English grammar. Libya and Italy.000 seminars in more than 60 different countries. CD ROM and IWB activities for Primary.html 2 3 4 5 6 ABOUT THE AUTHOR Since qualifying as a Primary School teacher in 1967. Learning and Teaching English in Scuola Media. Children will be tempted to be judgemental about English grammar. The Language Web Cambridge University Press. 1997 Stephen Pinker.S. As a preparation for future study in secondary school.org/resources/teacher/yle. Secondary and Adult learners. children will learn to accept and use the systems of English grammar without feeling judgemental discomfort. dictionary. The Growth of Understanding in the Young Child.asp Jean Aitchison. Because the grammatical systems of their L1 are familiar and normal. This discomfort is part of the learning experience. grammar practice. Since 2009 he has worked as a writer and academic consultant with Pearson. Teaching on Holiday Courses. As a result of their English language lessons at primary level. He is also the author of English at Primary Level. Penguin Guide to Graded Reading. The Language Instinct. Teachers Guide to Portfolios and the CEFR. this attitudinal change is an enormous step forward. E.Just as learners may feel uncomfortable eating cornflakes and boiled eggs for breakfast rather than their conventional breakfast foods. reading. He has a Postgraduate TEFL Diploma from London University. 1994 Nathan Isaacs. 9 .A 1961 See Cambridge Young Learners Tests Handbook at http://www.int/t/dg4/linguistic/cadre_en.