Teaching Very Young Learners: the more you know, the more you can help!

You walk into class and your students are already there waiting for you.  There are happy yells of “Teacher!” when you walk in, but Jo is crying because someone moved her school bag and Rae and Kim are pushing each other to be at the front of the line you are trying to form.  Later, you must keep calling Lin’s name to get her to pay attention to the book you are reading together in class, and then Lea has an “oops!” moment and the whole class needs to line up to go to the bathroom.  But at the end, you feel today was a good day: everyone traced letters A-F well, and everyone practiced sharing our things with each other. 

Welcome to very young learner (VYL) teaching!  While there are numerous challenges, many experienced VYL teachers I talk with say that they really enjoy working with their 3 to 5-year-old students because of the ways they see them grow – and the understanding that they as teachers played a big part in this development.  Perhaps more than any other age group, teaching VYLs leaves a lifelong impact on the children we teach.  Given that, we want to do the best job we can!  So what can we do?

Be knowledgeable about early childhood education

Early childhood education is about far more than learning language, even if that is what your school’s name might imply.  VYLs are developing physically, socially, emotionally and cognitively as well as in their language use (in both their first and other languages), and they need models and assistance to help them learn how to grow up to be ‘big people’. 

Many books and online resources, such as the USA CDC website, contain information on early childhood development which can help us understand what our VYLs are (or should be) capable of, and good ideas for helping them grow and develop.  The basic milestones* can be found on the CDC site at: https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/actearly/milestones/index.html

and there is a PDF download of these “ages and stages”* at: https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/actearly/pdf/checklists/Checklists-with-Tips_Reader_508.pdf

Most VYL programs, such as National Geographic Learning’s Welcome to Our World and Look and See, utilize these ideas in their student materials – and describe them in much more detail in their Teacher’s Guides – to help you do your best in addressing all the areas of your YVLs’ development. 

But the more you can personally know, the better you can adapt and build and develop ideas that will help you do the right amount of the right things with the right ages, to get great outcomes from your VYL classes.  As a VYL teacher, you are well served if you invest time in your own development by looking at these kinds of resources, and by sharing with and learning from other teachers.

‘Best practice’ comes from practice!

On that note, other VYL teachers can help supplement the best way to get good at VYL teaching – through practice.  As in many things, the more you do, the better you get.  But you can also draw on the experience of other VYL teachers and borrow their ideas.  The one thing that is true about VYLs is that, no matter where they are in the world, they are all going through the same stages of development and you can use ideas from any VYL teacher anywhere to add ideas to your own classes.

Together with that, your own time spent in class is invaluable in teaching you what will work and what will not work with VYLs.  Most ‘old hands’ like myself started out as naïve beginners and we all had our issues to deal with and failures along the way.  Maybe it’s that time we planned the ‘perfect’ craft activity, but we made it too hard and ended up doing a lot of the work ourselves.  Or maybe we were struggling to get our students to work well with each other, without arguments breaking out.  It’s from these experiences that we learn such things as:

  • modeling activities physically several times for VYLs before they can do tasks;
  • putting yourself in your VYL’s place by trying to do your crafts with your ‘off hand’ (e.g., left-handed) to see just how hard it will be for them to complete it;
  • setting up routines to provide an emotional ‘safety net’ for VYLs, as well as making most things much more efficient when we do them;
  • finding what kinds of rewards and positive reinforcement work best for your own class of VYLs;
  • finding the right balance between teacher-led activities and student-centered activities, based on the age and abilities of your VYL class;

and many more.  There is a saying that “practice makes you (more) perfect” and I do believe this applies to VYL teaching.

Aiding parents by being a VYL expert

Finally, it’s worth thinking about the other people in the VYL equation as well – their parents.  Parents can be your allies in helping VYLs to learn, but it is worth realizing that typically parents may not know as much as you do about early childhood development and education.  Parents deal with one or two or three children, while you deal with dozens, or hundreds!  Many times, I have found that parents need the guidance and support of good VYL teachers to help their children develop in the most appropriate ways, and this again is how we play a big part in having a lifelong impact on the children we teach.  Be the VYL expert.  We can listen to parents, we can share with them, and we can educate them.  As we build these relationships, we can help the children more and it can help everyone in your organization or community become more successful.

Sometimes interesting, often challenging, but always rewarding, I believe that being a VYL teacher is a very honorable profession.  As a parent and a teacher, I heartily salute all of you who are working with VYLs and wish you (and your learners!) all the success that you can achieve.

Watch the full recording of Andrew Tiffany’s webinar ‘Scissors and Crayons and Glue – Oh My! Leading Very Young Learners Through Classes and Projects‘.

* At stated in the CDC site, this information is adapted from two main sources:

  • CARING FOR YOUR BABY AND YOUNG CHILD: BIRTH TO AGE 5, Fifth Edition, edited by Steven Shelov and Tanya Remer Altmann © 1991, 1993, 1998, 2004, 2009 by the American Academy of Pediatrics

BRIGHT FUTURES: GUIDELINES FOR HEALTH SUPERVISION OF INFANTS, CHILDREN, AND ADOLESCENTS, Third Edition, edited by Joseph Hagan, Jr., Judith S. Shaw, and Paula M. Duncan, 2008, Elk Grove Village, IL: American A

Author: Andrew Tiffany

Andrew Tiffany is a Teacher Trainer for National Geographic Learning currently based in Taipei. Andrew’s degrees are in physics and he has been working in education his entire adult life, beginning as a teacher of physics and math at university. Later, he taught EFL and ELA for preschool, primary and high school students, and has worked over 10 years as trainer at schools and businesses in Asia. He has worked with or trained thousands of teachers and likes to do so because, through them, he can help even more students around the world. When possible, he still teaches school students in his free time.


  1. Excellent article, it’s amazing to notice how much support you guys receive in your country. It is truth, all VYL teachers no matter where they are; they all have the same issues at teaching but they all want a excellent development for their students.

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