I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: the ELT classroom is designed for neurotypical students.
But a lot of what we do in the classroom seems to be geared towards more extroverted, social students under the guise of communicative language teaching. In teacher training, we learn what “successful” communication looks like in the language classroom. We also learn that the young learner classroom is supposed to be “fun”. But fun for who?
Think for a second about the activities you do in your young learner classroom. Have a look at the list below and mentally tick off those that you frequently ask students to do.
- Ask and answer questions in pairs.
- Sing and act out a song or chant.
- Copy vocabulary into a notebook.
- Listen to and read a comic story at the same time.
- Play a card game, e.g. matching pairs
- Complete written progress tests.
- Stick stickers onto a page.
Now think about your students. Are all your students happy when assigned these activities? Are they all able to complete them successfully? Do all your students find games and stickers and singing songs fun?
Now think about your classroom dynamics and rules and think about the following questions:
- How long are students expected to sit at their desks?
- Do students get the opportunity to move around?
- Are there any distractions, e.g. noise or sounds, smells, changes in temperature?
- What time do students come to class? Is it near (before or after) a mealtime? Is it at the beginning or end of a long day?
Do any of your answers affect the success of the previous activities?
Let’s imagine three students in an imaginary class of seven year olds who go to after school English classes in a private language school.
Wilson gets home from a full day of school at 14:30, washes his hands and has lunch. He feels sleepy after lunch but he doesn’t have time for a nap because he has to go to his English class which starts at 4pm. Wilson likes going to English class and he generally finds it easy. He sometimes needs to go to the bathroom in the middle of class but because the class is only an hour long, his teacher rarely lets him go, saying he should go before the lesson. Sometimes Wilson finds it hard to concentrate, especially if he’s got a bit of tummy ache. When this happens, he doesn’t want to stand up and dance or move around.
In the same class is Laura. Laura likes learning English because it’s fun but she finds it difficult to concentrate. She loves singing, dancing and action games because she finds it really hard to sit still. She needs to move to learn. Laura loves stickers but she gets upset because when she tries to place them on the page, they don’t go in the right place. Laura has ADHD and Dyspraxia. Laura remembers all the new words they’re learning but when she has to do a test, she never does very well. In tests, they have to sit at their desks for more than twenty minutes in silence. When it’s silent, Laura hears lots of noises – the sound of Wilson’s pencil scratching the paper, the buzzing of the strip light, the students playing a game in the classroom next to theirs.
Daniel is very quiet in English class. He hasn’t made friends with other students in the class, although he would like to be friends with Wilson. Sometimes, the teacher asks him to do an activity with Laura but Daniel doesn’t enjoy working with her because she talks too much. Daniel prefers to sit alone and get on with his work quietly. Daniel likes reading the comic stories in his book but he reads more quickly than the audio recording. Daniel has read all the stories in the book so that when the teacher plays the audio, he can just pretend to read the story on the page.
The diverse classroom
Three different children with different needs. Wilson is neurotypical but his situation – having class after lunch – can make learning difficult for him. Laura is neurodivergent and has two co-occurring learning differences which affect her classroom experience and learning in different ways. Daniel may also be neurodivergent but undiagnosed. Daniel’s difficulties in the classroom manifest themselves socially rather than academically.
Not all these students actually show their difficulties outwardly. Laura knows she is expected to sit still during tests and she tries her best. Daniel finds his own strategies for dealing with the activities he finds hard. Just because a child appears to be focussed, doesn’t mean they actually are. This is illustrated really well in this post from @neurowild.
Each child has different needs, yet it’s impossible to cater for all these needs in one class. What we can do is be more flexible. We can offer students opportunities to do activities in a different way. Not all the children need to stand up and dance or sing the song. Some students can do an activity in pairs and others individually. Laura can stick the stickers at home before or after the lesson, where she has fewer distractions. Or she can stick them somewhere else, e.g. in her notebook where they don’t have to go inside a frame. Daniel can write or draw his favourite scene from the comic as they listen to the story.
We can also consider using a more flexible teaching approach where students have more agency over what they do individually or in groups. With learner-centred approaches such as inquiry-based learning, different students or groups can choose activity formats that work best for them.
I’ll be writing more about inquiry-based learning over the coming weeks, so stay tuned.