Posted by: carolread | July 25, 2011

Y is for Young Learners

Young learners is a catch-all term for students who are not yet adults. The term swept into fashion at the beginning of the nineties reflecting the trend to lower the starting age and broaden the access to English language learning to younger people in many countries all over the world.

As a quick google search will show, the term ‘young learners’ is frequently interpreted in different ways.

For some institutions and language providers, the term refers to any student who has not yet reached their majority (most usually at 18) and towards whom, as educators, we have a duty of care. This interpretation reflects the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in which a child is defined as ‘a human being below the age of 18 years unless under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier’.

In this interpretation, the term ‘young learners’ includes the whole range of ages and developmental stages of children from infants, young children and older children, through to adolescents, teenagers and young people.

In other interpretations, ‘young learners’ is a term that is used to refer to children from their first year of formal schooling (usually somewhere between 5-7 years old) to when they are 11-12 years old, or to when they move on from primary to secondary school. This is an interpretation that is often adopted, either implicitly or explicitly, by publishers and exam boards. In this interpretation, a ‘young learner’ grows into being labelled as something else, usually a teenager, at adolescence. In this interpretation there is also often an additional term ‘very young learners’ which is used to refer to pre-primary children aged from approximately 3-6.

In various promotional material for language courses, teaching resources and holiday camps, you can also find the term ‘young learners’ used to encompass a range of different age bands such as 8-16, 4-14, 9-15, 5-16, and so on.

As the above shows, the term ‘young learners’ is wide-ranging but, at the same time, it is also ambiguous and potentially confusing. The term also obscures the enormous physical, emotional, psychological, social and cognitive differences there are in children and young people of different ages, and correspondingly and importantly, the wide range of different skills and methodological approaches that their teachers need to teach them.

As those of us who work with ‘young learners’ know only too well, there is a world of difference in teaching pre-literate and pre-adolescent children. And even with the increased maturity of teenagers, where our approach may more closely resemble that of ELT for adults, there are often crucial aspects, particularly in the areas of motivation, self-esteem and discipline, that need finely attuned sensitivities and highly specialised skills.

Rather than using ‘young learners’ as a blanket, catch-all term, it might be more helpful to specify the age ranges we are talking about in relation to the educational systems to which children belong. We could then refer to, for example, infants, pre-primary, kindergarten or early years, followed by primary, middle school or lower-secondary, secondary and upper-secondary.

This would allow for reference to specific educational contexts. For example, in some contexts children finish primary school and start secondary school at the age of 11, while in other contexts this changeover may be as late as 14. It would also more accurately reflect the extensive knowledge of mainstream pedagogy and applied linguistics, as well as the highly specialised repertoire of skills and attitudes that so-called ‘Young learner teachers‘ need to teach all the different age groups effectively.

Any thoughts on what the term ‘young learners’ means to you?


UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, clause 3

Photo of primary school children by R.K. Singam (Wikimedia Commons)



  1. Hi Carol,

    I think you have raised an important issue with this post. I would consider young learners to mean up to the age of 16, though I believe, as you have pointed out, that it is necessary to sub-catagorise which age group exactly is being referred to. In fact, many books on the subject, for example Teaching Languages to Young Learners, and Teaching English to Children tend to focus on the younger age groups – pre-primary and primary. Teacher training for ‘young learners’ could also be more specific as to which age groups they are aimed at, especially regarding whether the focus is on pre-primary, primary or teenagers.

    I would suggest using pre-primary, primary, pre-teens, early teens and late teens, so as the ‘young learners’ being referred to remains clear.

    Cameron, L. 2001. Teaching Languages to Young Learners. Cambridge: CUP
    Brumfit, C., Moon, J & Tongue, R. 1991. Teaching English to Children: From Practice to Principle. London: Nelson.

    • Hi Michelle

      Many thanks for your contribution. I’m glad you think the post raises an important issue.

      Good point about teacher training courses which are often not specific about the age ranges to be focussed on (apart from perhaps ‘very young learners’). Trainers also don’t always have the skills to train teachers in the whole age range.

      Thanks also for your useful suggestion about possible sub-categories of young learners. I think the most appropriate groupings and labels probably depend on whatever is clearest in specific educational contexts and where the cut-off points between, e.g. primary and pre-teen, are naturally perceived to be. In one language school, I have also seen a category called ‘tweens’ to reflect this age group.

  2. I agree that the term “Young Learner” is too broad to be helpful in educational terms. In my experience it is often used administratively in an EFL context as a way of sharing out responsibilities which would otherwise remain with one person (the DOS) – a “Young Learners’ Department” is created, with a YL co-ordinator or similar title. Here in Italy we tend to classify YLs in terms of their state schools, as “E’s” (Scuola Elementare 6-10) “SM’s” (scuola media 11-13) and “SS’s” (scuola superiore 14-18). Works well as a rough guide to teachers’ preferences and skills (X is great with E’s, doesn’t like SM’s so much)

    • Hi there

      Many thanks for writing. Yes, I think you’re right that the term is often used administratively in an EFL context as a way of taking some of the (often trickier) responsibilities off the DOS.

      Many thanks also for explaining how you classify YLs in terms of their state schools in Italy – a great example of how categories and groupings work clearly in a specific educational context. I like the way that this can also work as a rough guide to the skills and preferences of the teachers – one of the aspects that the use of ‘young learners’ as a blanket term obscures.

  3. […] Young learners is a catch-all term for students who are not yet adults. The term swept into fashion at the beginning of the nineties reflecting the trend to lower the starting age and broaden the access to English language learning to younger people in many countries all over the world. […]


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