Early Years and Young Learners in the Emergency Remote Teaching situation – Part I

Let’s begin by talking about the very little ones

Those of you who know me from other arenas, you know I have always been especially worried, but proactively worried about children. All of them, those in the English Language  field we call Young Learners (YL, 6 to 12 years old)  and the Very Young Learners (VYL, 2 to 5 year olds). Therefore, I cannot stay silent in this new teaching and learning situation our children have been -or maybe not only invited but asked – to participate. In this post I will not question if there should be or not an Emergency Remote Teaching (ERT) situation for the very young, but share some ideas and strategies teachers may use to make your remote teaching as fruitful as possible. 

The very little ones

In the case of VYL we need to reflect a bit on why children at those early ages go to Nursery-school or Kindergarten, at least here in Uruguay. There are many reasons,  that may include  from parents needing to find a safe and motivating place where to leave their children while they go to work,  to families looking for an enriching learning experience for  their child. However, I would like to concentrate on the child’s learning and developmental benefits. 

The importance of the community

There is a lovely old African proverb that says “It takes a village to raise a child”, this refers to the importance of the interaction of children with their community. In this interaction they have the chance, to experience and grow in a safe (in most cases) and healthy environment. In this sense, Nursery schools provide this sense of community and allow the children to broaden their interaction with peers and other adults apart from their family members. We know then, that children need this community which provides an enormous variety of visions, of cultural backgrounds and exposure to different contexts. Therefore, one of the main goals we need to try to reach in these times of social distancing because of COVID-19, is to sustain the community we generated when we were still in face-to-face school days. 

So, one effective way to hold together and develop this community is to generate at least two or three video conferences a week with the whole group or if they are too many you can divide them in groups. However, if you divide them, do not make static groups, change the members every week or better, each session. Those amazing video conferences will allow them to see and talk to each other again, talk to you and many times the families will be part of the session, too. Then, my opinion is that you make the most of this situation and use it to develop the child’s communicative competence. Let me then share some hints on how to develop language learning in this new context. 

Designing and planning video conferences for very young learners.

Planning, as usual, is absolutely essential. Plan your sessions taking into consideration that parents will be there, next to the child or even in some cases with the little one on their lap. So, you are having an Open Class every time you have a session. In addition, you need to be prepared to deal with the unexpected, an unstable internet connection, a child going back to play with his/her toys instead of focusing on the screen. 

What to include in the lesson through video conference:

  • Timing: remember parents and children may have difficulties in getting to the session. Problems with the link, the password, late arrivals. So plan the lesson adding some minutes to be sure you cater for all children to join in the session. 
  • Keep your classroom routines or create new routines for the online sessions. Open the lesson with a song or routine, follow the lesson with the ice-breaker or lead in, then go to the development of the session and always round it up.
  • The importance of Story Telling: Stories are huge sources of input for the learners. You have the story itself to discuss and talk about, the characters, the context, the illustrations (something you need to pay special attention to, the art work in the stories you choose). You will find below some links to interesting story telling sites for VYLs.  
  • Children have their toys at hand, so you can bring those toys into the session when planning the lesson. Use their stuffed animals or dolls to describe body parts, use adjectives, action verbs; you can use their construction blocks to work on colours, shapes, teach prepositions of place. Sentence construction by using patterns, as for example “ My teddy bear has two brown eyes” “He has two arms” “ He has…..” .  There are many possibilities where to choose from, thinking outside the box.
  • Verb Tenses: Yes, verb tenses in Nursery School. But not the traditional scheme of teaching: Form, meaning and use. We will be working on Verb Tenses naturally and in a non-linear way. Children will need different tenses to tell you things about their daily routines at home. Teachers, in my opinion, should provide the structure just as that, provide the correct form so the children can keep on talking. So, if we want them to tell us what they did yesterday, they might need some verbs in the past. They might say for example “ I play with my father” so the Teacher will say, “played, you played with your father, well done!” And so on as the different children participate. This will happen one day after the other, and you will see that children will get it. Trust me! Another good idea is to ask them to make  a list of the things they did the day before or even that very same day of the session. In this case,  the learners will need past tenses, present continuous and even future. A good idea, taking advantage that the learners are at home, would be to ask children to collect different pictures of their family members they might have, and place them in a time line, or let’s say, in a proper sequence, following the order “ first, then, after that, and now…” . 
  • Invite the children to cook, to classify fruits and vegetables, to follow guidelines on how to set the table for lunch or tea. 
  • Take advantage of  the learning environments: By learning environments I mean, the learners’ home, that includes each of the rooms in the house  and the activities you carry out in each room, the online sessions with their peers and teacher, possible apps you may suggest them to use. Moreover, some teachers have recorded videos where they show an activity, art work, tell a story, sing a song. Once you share the video with the learners, it becomes a tool with the teacher’s voice where they can practice their listening skills, be exposed to a wide vocabulary, learn grammatical patterns and chunks of language.

Advantages of this new teaching situation.

To round up, as in every moment of our lives and of our history as human beings, in all dark times, there is always a bright side. We just need to focus on that and make the most of this ERT situation. 

Take advantage of the possibility you may have to make your teaching visible to families so they can understand how you work and try to follow your steps at home. Use this sort of Open Class sessions to allow children to bring to the session their favourite toys, stories, their baby brother or sister. Invite them to cook and share images, to design a hut or cabin where to play, ask them to show their bedrooms, describe them, make a map. You have an enormous range of teaching possibilities. You just need to let your mind fly, try to remember what you loved to do when you were little, and bring all that as a resource for your language lesson. Come on, they sky is the limit, or maybe not! 

My next post will be on ERT to the 6 to 12 year olds. 

Stay safe! 

As promised: https://news.sky.com/story/coronavirus-bedtime-stories-with-celebrities-to-comfort-children-stuck-at-home-11964684 


The bright side of Covid-19 pandemia: Time for a long-awaited pedagogical update.

Article for Juliana Tavares, Teach-In Education – MAY 2020

Cecilia Cabrera Martirena

“Let’s not pretend that things will change if we keep doing the same things. A crisis can be a real blessing to any person, to any nation. For all crises bring progress. Creativity is born from anguish, just like the day is born form the dark night. It’s in crisis that inventiveness is born, as well as discoveries made and big strategies. He who overcomes crisis, overcomes himself, without getting overcome…                        


Here we are colleagues, doing our most to keep on teaching our learners in these difficult times of social distancing. Due to this COVID-19 pandemia, we have been forced to develop an emergency remote teaching plan. We have also been exposed to develop the skills to work through online platforms, make videos for our learners, deliver live lessons through platforms as Zoom or Google Meets. We are doing our best but sometimes we find it is not enough to cover the prescribed syllabus. As a consequence, we might feel discouraged and at a loss. However, having in mind Einstein’s words, this is the best time to become creative and decide to accept the challenge to innovate in our teaching. 

Among the different teaching and learning approaches, we may have at hand, the one I find most effective is Project-Based Learning (PBL). It is by far the approach that can be more successfully adapted to either face-to-face or remote lessons.

What makes the  PBL approach ideal for our times?

PBL  fosters the construction of knowledge through the development of higher-order thinking skills, visible learning techniques, and metacognitive processes. The development of language skills (reading, writing, speaking, listening) that enables the consolidation of Communicative Competence is promoted through the whole process of inquiry and creation. Inquiry-Based Projects are the backbone of the course. This means these projects intend to teach significant content. The objectives and goals for student learning are explicitly derived from the syllabus, content standards, and key concepts in each of the disciplines that participate in the project. “Projects are intended to create the need-to-know content and skills, and the opportunity for students to learn them in an authentic context.” Miller (2014). 

The main features of PBL that  make it so suitable for these  Emergency Remote Teaching (ERT) situation that we are having are:

PBL projects promote effective Communication

In this ERT situation, learners have the need and the possibility to communicate

through different means. They are invited to produce many more written texts of

different genres and well planned oral texts. 

Learner Autonomy

PBL projects are learner-driven investigations, where the teacher becomes a guide in the construction of knowledge. In the ERT context, learners need to become much more autonomous with the guidance, again, of the teacher. Autonomy needs to be scaffolded.

Authentic Learning

PBL projects invite learners to be involved in problem-solving, negotiation,  and decision-making processes on real-world matters. This makes learning authentic and much more meaningful to the learner. In an ERT environment, the process of inquiry, questioning, reflection, creation, and collaboration may be enhanced. 

Interdisciplinary work

PBL not only allows but also promotes the interaction and collaboration between different areas of knowledge. In PBL as I mentioned in the previous point, we work with real-world matters, and therefore, in those contexts, the situations we go through are not divided into subject areas or disciplines. Our everyday life is a fantastic effect of the conjunction of facts, emotions, and beings that may be classified in different areas of knowledge.  However, if we study the different areas of knowledge in isolation, we may not be able to grasp how deeply and magically intertwined things are.


PBL projects invite learners to work through different dynamics also in an ERT context. Whole class, teams, or one-on-one meetings can be done with different reliable cloud platforms for video and audio conferencing such as Zoom or Google Meets. 

We may consider that there might be students who cannot work on the internet or do not have a computer. In these cases, PBL may also be a good helper in allowing learners to keep on learning. In the case your learners are in this situation, you could:

Invite learners to do some research through interviews, process data. 

Ask them to read some articles, diagrams of similar research projects or topics, to inform their peers. 

Invite the learners to document the research process the group is going through. 

Design a model, prototype, or draft of the final product that provides the possible solution or solutions to the problem they decided to research into. 

Prepare the videos, written texts or podcasts, PowerPoint presentations the team needs for the final presentation. 

Provide Art-based project books for them to inspire their team members. 

The possibility to teach and learn through PBL has proven to generate the interest of the learners in their learning process. They also become much more aware of their needs to reach the performance standards they are aiming at and become more skillful in describing their learning process.

From my experience as an English teacher in all performance levels and most age groups from 2-year-olds up, I can tell that Enquiry Based Learning through PBL is one of the most effective approaches, with or without COVID-19. It is high time we give it a chance.