I recently presented three webinars on ‘Learning to Learn Skills’ in the Primary Classroom. Here we collect the questions that could not be answered because of time reasons. Naturally, there were a great number of interesting thoughts that came up, so in this post we’ll reflect upon some of the most common ones.
How to help children concentrate for a longer period of time?
I find this question one of the most important ones, as children’s ability to focus seems to have dramatically decreased in the past 20 years or so. It’s not just me; hundreds of teachers that I work with every year report the same thing. Discussing the cause is beyond the scope of this post, but the consequences are evident in terms of their capacity to learn. More and more psychologists express their concern in this area. One internationally known psychologist, Daniel Goleman (2013), says he is worried about children in particular because their brain continues to mature into their 20s. He worries that if young students fail to build up the neural networks that are required for focused attention, they could have problems with emotional control and empathy.
“…the children’s ability to focus seems to have dramatically decreased in the past 20 years or so…”
So what can we do in our classroom to cultivate the skill of attention? As with all things that we learn, we need to adjust the practice to the current ability of the children. Here are a couple of ideas you can start to experiment with in your classes.
Clapping games that students could do in pairs or with the whole class following a particular rhythm require attentions, games like these help to develop this skill a great deal. Why not combine the game with some vocabulary practise? For example, if you are practising food vocabulary, start the following rhythm with the whole class standing in a circle: Clap-clap, tap (on your lap), tap (on your lap). When you tap your lap say a food item and the child on your right has to say a different food item at the next tap, keeping the rhythm. With each tap the next child on the right continues saying a new food item. If they do not manage to stay in rhythm or they repeat the same word, the cycle starts from the beginning. It is very important that nobody goes out of the game, but with every mistake the cycle is repeated.
In this way, children will want to really pay attention, either because they are getting bored and they want to finish quickly, or – and this is the case most of the time in my experience – they want to prove that they can go around the whole circle without repeating the previous word and staying more or less in rhythm. I highly recommend clapping games combined with vocabulary practice. They are very effective in terms of developing attention, and it is a lot of fun too!
Another idea is to conduct some simple mindfulness activities with your children, especially when they’re not paying attention to you or the material. Ask them to close their eyes and put their heads down on the table for a minute. Then ask them to listen to all the sounds they hear and try to work out what they are. Of course, there are a great number of other activities we could use to help children focus.
How do you motivate children to learn?
This is an extremely broad question, with a seemingly simple answer that I’m sure you all know. Make the experience fun and meaningful for them without expecting children to ‘learn’ as we may do when we are older. What they want to do and can do at this age is to learn through play. One idea is to build your teaching on playful enquiry, encouraging children to explore. You could, for example, use topics in your course book to inspire children to ask their questions, before trying to find the answers to those questions together collaboratively. Project work could be utilised here.
“Make the experience fun and meaningful… [so that they] … learn through play.”
We should focus as much on our teaching content as on the language we use to describe it, as this is the part that keeps children curious and motivated in our lessons. A commonly used and extremely effective idea is to use the use the K/W/L chart. Say you are focusing on wild animals in your lesson, ask the children to write down some things they know about wild animals, and things they want to know on large post-it notes. Place the notes in two separate columns. You can use a class poster for this idea so that the children can see each other’s questions. At the end of the lesson(s), use the third column of this chart to help them reflect on what they have learnt. The post-it notes can then be flexibly moved from one column to the other, say from want to know column to what have I learnt.
What do I know?
What do I want to know?
What have I learnt?
- Can 6-8 year olds become independent learners?
If we mean by “independent learner” someone who has a number of learning strategies to choose from, and is able to opt for the most effective one when they need it, then the answer is ‘no, in most cases’. In my experience, although children at this age are able to, for example, assess themselves and possibly even to self-correct, it doesn’t mean that they are independent learners of English. It is not something that should be expected of them within a language classroom. There are certain techniques and strategies you can use to develop children’s independence, however. For example, by not giving them the answers to their questions instantly, but encouraging them to find a way to work out their own answers – either through getting help from their peer, checking it in their book, checking a dictionary, or asking someone at home.
Another important thing to point out is that the level of independence may vary greatly from one child to another, and this is normal. One child, for example, never forgets to bring their English notebook to class, but another one keeps leaving theirs at home. One child turns to their desk-mate to check their answer immediately after finishing a task, while another looks straight at you, the teacher, with great big eyes, seeking confirmation. We need to treat every child as a special and unique individual, who needs our support and guidance to grow their wings, which will then help them to fly on their own when they are ready.
Erika Osvath is a freelance teacher, teacher trainer, materials writer and co-author of the European Language Award-winning 6-week eLearning programme for language exam preparation. She worked for International House schools in Eastern and Central Europe as a YL co-ordinator, trainer, and Director of Studies. She regularly travels to teach demonstration lessons with local children, and do workshops for teachers. Erika is co–author with Edmund Dudley of Teaching Mixed Ability.
Goleman, D. (2013). Focus: the hidden driver of excellence. Harper: New York.
Erika Osváth is co-author of Mixed-Ability Teaching with Edmund Dudley.