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)