In this post I’d like us to take a moment to think about this idea of “belonging” and what that means in early childhood and also why it is so relevant to the context of language teaching in pre-primary and primary contexts.  

To start with, I invite you to think about what your approach to teaching children is.  I recently had to do this for a job I was applying for and it was a bigger challenge than I was expecting.  It made me reflect on the past 2 decades in ELT.  I thought about when I did my Diploma at OxfordTEFL, all the research I’ve read, the people I’ve worked with, the teaching experiences and the students that have influenced and shaped me as a professional.  I reflected on all of this and then I tried to write (in only 200 words!) how I teach English to children.  

Do you know what I realised?  I don’t teach language anymore. 

To be honest, I don’t think I have for a long time now. 

I teach children.  

And I think when I made that shift from teaching language to teaching people, I became a much better version of my professional self.  

As more and more English teachers make this transition, it’s quite possible that you can relate to what I’m saying. But, if you believe your primary goal is to teach English to children, then you might not connect with what I’m going to share in the rest of this post. That’s why I’ve taken the time to explain all this to you.  What I am going to share reflects my personal approach to teaching.  While, the end goal is to have my learners speaking English, it’s certainly not my only goal.  I’d like to think I teach the whole child and speaking in a foreign language is just one of the outcomes.

So why is this sense of belonging so important?

“People feel they belong when they feel others are genuinely interested in them and open to sharing information with them. ‘In early childhood, and throughout life, relationships are crucial to a sense of belonging”

Early Years Learning Framework of Australia

It is integral to our existence to feel a sense of belonging: in your family (whoever that includes for you), the cultural group you identify with, and your wider community. These relationships are what define us and therefore, and especially in early childhood but then all throughout our lives, they are central to forming our identity – who we are, and who we can become.  And this can and MUST happen in our school communities too.  

Educators have an incredibly important role in the lives of their young learners.  We are not just teaching language.  We are teaching children and our work contributes to their developing identities and sense of belonging within our classroom and beyond.  

I haven’t forgotten that we are ALSO language teachers and if you think all this isn’t relevant for you, I invite you to think again!  

You see for many learners, particularly those learning a foreign language for the first time, the English language classroom can be an unfamiliar place that may cause great anxiety and stress.  We’ve all seen this on the faces of new students before.  We’ve all felt this as language learners ourselves!  These feeling can easily have negative repercussions on a student’s willingness and ability to engage in what you are trying to teach them.  When I listen to teachers talk about the problems they are having with their learners, I often hear the same things over and over again.

  • Students who are afraid to speak 
  • Students who feel like they will never learn English
  • Class members who are not open to correction
  • Overly competitive children
  • Negative comments towards others
  • Impatience with others

What all these situations have in common is that they would all improve if the relationships between the students in the group were better.  As a solution to any or all of these problems, I would strongly encourage teachers to being integrating activities into their lessons which have the aim of forming the group and creating a sense of community between the learners.  

Many authors have written on the importance of rapport and relationships in the classroom but it was an article by David Vale talks that had the biggest impact on my teaching.  David quotes Krashen when he refers to the lowering of affective barriers that can impede our ability to learn and he points out the importance of learners feeling comfortable enough with each other to take risks with the language without fear of ridicule or being over corrected. 

Children tend to thrive in classrooms where they feel valued and respected as individuals as well as a sense of belonging within the group.   This leads to more co-operative work and in this kind of supportive environment, new language is processed within the group… greatly facilitating the work of the teacher!!

Reading this was enough to make me rethink a lot of things.   I began to reevaluate what my priorities should be at the start of the school year and set new objectives that focused, first and foremost, on building healthy relationships, not only between the teacher and the students, but also between the students themselves.

I could see it as being a solution to so many of the classroom management challenges I was facing at the time and I began using group formation activities straight away.  The results were so positive that they’re now an integral part of all the courses I design and teach.

There are specific characteristics that make group formation games different from the ice-breakers you might use at the start of a course or games you use in a regular class. 

Here are the guidelines that I use when selecting an appropriate activity.

(adapted from: Vale, D. & A. Feunteun (1995) Teaching Children English. A Training Course for Teachers of English to Children.Cambridge: CUP)

You can download some examples of these types of games Group Formation Games.

I hope that you feel motivated to get into a classroom and try out some of the ideas I have shared here because I believe that relationships and belonging is one of the most important and yet most overlooked elements of young learner teaching. 

If you do try something out, get in contact to let me know how it went!