There is a routine at You First: After the welcome song, there are traditional and topic-based games and interactive story telling or singing. Then it is time for table work, which may be a game, craft or something related to Music or Science. All of these activities are consolidated with rhymes and rich teacher-pupil interaction and routines so that real communication goes beyond pointless worksheets or rote learning of isolated words. English comes through play and activity, but behind this, there is some serious preparation and planning.
Age and personality appropriate
Especially with very young learners, we do not pressurise them to speak before they are ready. Instead, they can show they follow with gestures or actions. Moreover, we must respect the rhythm of each child.
Not all children are sponges. Some are more forthcoming; others are shier or more cautious. Our job at You First is to create an environment in which all of them feel secure and confident.
And our job is to make children eager to come back. That’s why it’s not a question of only having native teachers, but rather using professionals with a successful track record in delighting children and maintaining the structure and rhythm of a class. Nor do we want to overwhelm the children with a heavy timetable. We don’t make false promises of immersion; that would be impossible with these kinds of classes, even if pupils came more often. However, we do provide a pleasant first contact with English with an excellent opportunity to develop their ear and learn English in an age-appropriate context.
Use of English
The program is, of course, given in English and this aspect is important to our methodology. However, there are moments when a child is distressed or may be in danger of hurting him- or herself and we use the first languages. Occasionally there may be other reasons for using the Mother Tongues: to help get a complicated game across so that we can play it better or to reflect on what we have learnt. A good professional will know which exceptional circumstances justify using the mother tongue.
Some parents feel that other schools are more “serious”; their pupils have already learnt the alphabet at 1st of Primary or have supposedly mastered a long list of vocabulary items. First of all, we cannot see the logic of learning the alphabet at that age. It is normally not in the school program until 3rd of Primary, when they first start to write independently in English.
Moreover, long lists of out of context vocabulary are learnt fast and forgotten even faster. What counts is knowing how to understand and eventually communicate in the language; individual vocabulary items are just one part of a very big package that includes games, songs, rhymes, routines and stories. At You First the program is topic-based, child-friendly and changes each year.
To use a metaphor, we feel slow cooking with love always produces better, long-term results than fast food.
Consolidating this stage
In terms of their mental development, they are still not ready for abstract grammar, but they can consolidate whole expressions and sentences. We practise these with stories, routines, games, rhymes, drama and songs.
Although our emphasis at You First is oral, we start to show how the spoken is related to the written word. However, we tend to avoid fill-in-the-gap exercises and handouts. Instead, we count on a wealth of material.
Again, we don’t want to strain the family timetable, so don’t insist on twice a week.
However, at this stage, there is greater consolidation with a twice a week program in which we stimulate the pupils’ interest with Sciences, Music, Art and Physical Education.
From Fourth of Primary onwards, pupils can opt for Trinity exams. These internationally recognised exams take the form of an interview with an examiner who comes from Britain.
Although as the exam approaches, we shift the emphasis of the classes, we don’t spend the year teaching to the exam. Here at You First, our emphasis is on real communication, not pure memorisation. Moreover, we never lose sight of the need to keep lessons enjoyable.
Understand and improve
Now that pupils at this stage start to have logic and the capacity for reflection, we use whole sentences within communicative contexts and work on pronunciation and accuracy. At You First we insist on a greater cohesion between what we read and what we say. Gradually pupils develop their own criteria so that they can perceive their own mistakes and start to notice trends in the phonology and grammar of English.
We start slowly and are thorough. Our activities engage the mind. It is normal for pupils at this stage to make silly mistakes as they move from learning by ear to understanding grammar and phonics. We are trying to put things in their place mentally and our goal is to be able to communicate in a fluent and natural way in the future.
Whole texts are within our reach and we are now preparing oral presentations. We start with one about our classmates. Then we move on to contrast a well-prepared presentation with a poorly done one to understand what works. Trinity exams at a higher level highlight this skill.
One of the last areas we cover is academic language. We learn how to describe objects by their shape, size, function, material and parts. We also describe processes and compare and contrast. All of this language will lay the foundations for further studies. They are necessary but can be made deadly boring without the right teacher and that is where we step. At the You First school we aim to keep our students interested.