This week I finished my fourth year working as a native ESL (English as a second language) teacher at a private school in the Izmir, Turkey region.
I spent two years in kindergarten and two years in elementary (1st, 2nd, 3rd & 4th grades), as well as running weekly clubs and vocabulary lessons in 5th grade.
It has been a valuable learning experience.
I was lucky to work directly with a lot of great teachers and interact with some lovely and amazing children.
What has been on my mind in the last week or so, as I reflect, is the different levels of learning-readiness of each student.
They are Turkish and all have parents very eager for them to start learning English with the hope of eventually becoming fluent. There are some who have unhelpfully high expectations.
Many of the students have been participating in regular English lessons since they were 4 years old.
Quite a few have come from other schools (where English lessons either didn’t exist or weren’t that effective) and they have begun their English learning at a later age.
Some newbies come in the 1st, 2nd, 3rd or 4th grade.
As a teacher, it is rewarding to see any child slowly but surely gain confidence with their speaking ability.
But it is extra exciting to see those new children starting from scratch. You see them not understanding much more than “Hello” at the start of the year to being able to converse in full sentences within 12 months.
Here is what I find interesting – a child who has been receiving regular English lessons for longer doesn’t necessarily have an advantage over a newcomer.
In fact, it can often work against them.
If a child was forced to sit in on English lessons before they were ready, they might have developed negative emotions regarding learning English as a 2nd language (and, to a degree, learning in general.)
They get used to not listening & watching what is going on.
They might have been taught too many grammar rules and new vocabulary before they had a handle on previous study.
They might have an extreme fear of making mistakes.
They might be bored.
They might take it for granted.
Any reasons like this can act as a barrier for them to be emotionally ready and open to soaking up what is taught to develop their speaking skills.
On the other hand, a student who comes in fresh might not have any preconceptions or negative past experiences. They still see learning a language as fun, as it should be. So they watch and listen intently.
I witnessed this time and again at all age-levels.
Of course, I also witnessed the complete opposite – that is, kids who had been receiving lessons for years had indeed made the most of their opportunity, and other newcomers who felt overwhelmed were not quite able to gain enough traction with their learning.
My point is that we as teachers and parents shouldn’t expect a child to reach a certain proficiency – whether it’s learning a 2nd language, maths, writing, spelling, whatever – just because they are a certain age.
This idea is difficult for many to accept.
Unfortunately, this overbearing expectation is inevitably felt by the child which only compounds their challenges or negative feelings toward learning.
Child-led homeschooling, or unschooling, recognizes this.
It provides time & space for a child to explore & discover in their own time, when they are ready and actually interested.
And this is when children are most receptive. As John Holt said:
“We learn things when we’re not being forced to learn things.”