Teaching young learners: What’s hot and what’s not!

Whether you are developing ELT materials, designing a syllabus, training teachers or simply planning your next lesson, it’s good to know which way the wind is blowing. Here’s a brief guide to some of the hottest methodology topics for young learners discussed at conferences and on social media this year, and some thoughts on how they might change teaching practice and classroom materials in the years ahead.

Current buzzwords

  1. Life skills

The WHO, UNICEF and UNESCO have identified 10 core life skills which the children of today need most to thrive. ‘Life skills’ is an umbrella term which encompasses a range of skills it’s particularly important we develop in young learners and teens, including issues like self-awareness, and the ability to deal with stress and emotion, as well as developing cognitive skills. We can break these down to think about:

  • Communication skills such as listening actively and understanding instructions.
  • Interpersonal skills such as leading, interacting with others, working effectively as part of a team, resolving conflict and showing empathy.
  • Personal skills such as managing time, critical thinking, creative thinking, problem-solving and decision-making.


hands-565603_1920 source pixabay
Source: Pixabay


As a consequence of these life skills being identified and widely discussed, we will need to see more focus on high-order thinking skills (HOTS) in materials development, and a shift to more of the kind of interdisciplinary, inquiry-based project work which promotes this.  Learning to collaborate effectively needs to be high on the agenda, and projects lend themselves to this, too.  A more systematic approach to developing student creativity should also be a priority, and it will be interesting to see if and how publishers tackle this. Which brings us to our next point…


  1. Creativity and innovation

The robots are coming! No, seriously – they are! The percentage varies a little by country, but around 30% of jobs are likely to be automated by the early 2030s, according to recent analysis by Price Waterhouse Coopers.

Our current education system, by and large, prepares children to regurgitate information. It’s a system that was developed during the Industrial Revolution when what society really required was an army of fairly homogenous workers to power the economy. In the 21st century, though, the ability to recall facts, follow instructions or even translate proficiently isn’t going to equip students adequately for the demands of a rapidly changing jobs market. The skills students need to develop most are the ones which will give them an edge over the robots. The ability to think creatively tops that list.

Creative thinking includes four key elements:

  • fluency (generating new ideas)
  • flexibility (shifting perspective easily)
  • originality (conceiving of something new)
  • elaboration (building on other ideas)

Creativity, we’re often told, is like a muscle that improves with regular exercise. Perhaps our lesson planning for young learners should be reassessed in the light of this. For example:

  • Are we doing enough to prioritise developing creativity as a learning objective in its own right?
  • Can we build in more open-ended activities with no right or wrong answers?
  • Which creative thinking skills are we working on today?
source pixabay robot-2027195_1280
Source: Pixabay
  1. Social values education

Teaching social values links closely to ‘life skills’, and is gaining a lot of traction in ELT. This topic was taken as theme of the day by the YLT SIG pre-conference event at IATEFL 2017, and we’ve seen that over the last five years or so, the incorporation of a values syllabus has become a standard feature of many primary ELT coursebooks. Whatever we may think of the treatment of values in the coursebooks we know, I suspect few of us would dispute the importance of raising awareness of issues like fairness, justice and empathy. At primary level, teachers are never ‘just’ language teachers, after all, and this is nothing new. I’d argue that the importance of taking a holistic view is becoming more widely acknowledged in English language teaching, though. Publishers, authors and conference presenters are beginning to talk more about meaningful ways of putting values education into practice. One of the most powerful vehicles for these messages, of course, is stories.

(You can read more about social values education, including lots of practical ideas, here.)


And finally …

Buzzing off

Learning styles

This neuromyth is the widely held belief that children learn better when they receive information in their preferred format: auditory, visual or kinaesthetic. In March 2017, thirty top academics wrote an open letter clearly stating the lack of empirical evidence justifying ‘learning styles’ methodology, and urging educationalists to focus on evidence-based practices instead. How long it will take for this change to be reflected in teacher training courses and coursebook publishing remains to be seen.  Trinity College London has removed the reference to learning styles from its TESOL assessment criteria and Cambridge English have pledged to do the same for the CELTA and DELTA syllabus.  We can probably expect a very slow transition away from this approach. While recently conducting research into pre-school courses, for example, I was struck that a majority of international publishers continue to make reference to ‘learning styles’ in their online marketing, since many courses still make prominent claims to cater to a range of learning preferences.

For the full letter debunking ‘learning styles’ methodology, see the link here.


Over to you

What other hot topics for teaching young learners have you picked up on recently? And how do you think we should promote creativity and build in life skills training? How can classroom time and everyday activities be maximised to work on these essential skills?

I’d love to hear from you in the comments.






8 thoughts on “Teaching young learners: What’s hot and what’s not!

  1. Love the title!
    In “defence of learning skills” although I can hardly bring myself to write that phrase I think it’s fair to say they did at least encourage teachers to use a variety of techniques and methods. I also believe we all learn differently so maybe they helped teachers take that into account.
    It’s very interesting to see these trends on a global scale – I have colleagues who started this school year all fluster having just discovered learning styles, will have to share your post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re right, of course – variety is essential! And I certainly don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater by putting teachers off incorporating movement or music, for example. That would be awful! But it says quite a lot about the publishing industry and prestigious ELT training courses that we’ve all been hung up on something that has no empirical basis, but still forms a central part of a lot of coursebook marketing campaigns. It’s kind of bonkers…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for another great post, Emily. For those of us who haven’t attended big conferences in a while, it’s extremely useful to have the ‘hot’ methodology topics listed like this and take a step back to look at the bigger picture. Would you say that self-evaluation and self-assessment also belong on the list? I suppose they’d fall under the critical thinking skills category.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Katie! Re: assessment – yes, I absolutely would include self-evaluation as a hot topic. In fact, I’d thought about having a section on Assessment for Learning here, but decided it was a big enough topic to merit a post of its own! I’ll have to get round to writing that…
      Am really glad you found the post helpful. If, like many people, you’re not able to get to conferences, it’s useful to keep track of what events they’re making available online. Quite a lot more than I’d realised til recently! IATEFL had a free online YL SIG day online a few months ago which was great, for example. There are also loads of videoed talks from IATEFL available through their website and some of the sponsoring publishers (details available in my blog here if you haven’t seen it http://wp.me/p8cLqo-mD)
      And thanks for commenting – it’s lovely to hear back from readers!


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  4. I agree and have agreed for many years! I’m devoting my retirement to training ELTTeachers to become empowered to include these traits in their classes through using Educational Drama strategies. I’m a trained dramatist and have developed my own personal pedagogy combining practical Ed Drama techniques with SLA theory. I talk about the SPICE of ELT and train teachers to include Social, Physical, Intellectual, Creative and Emotional developmental activities in every class in a holistic way. The results (in SEN Sts too) are striking. I’ve published a book and am now on my 4 iteration of an on-line course “Teaching English through Drama” where I’ve trained 100+ teachers from 23 countries. Neither are free but costs are low and I feel I’m making a difference. If I may (?) I’ll put them up on the Women in ELT site. I love your blog!
    Thank you!
    Susan Hillyard


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