Students of All Ages: A Look at Cognitive Development
In between the lesson structures of teaching a five-year-old how to ride a horse and a 20-year-old did I first witness the relationship between age and abilities, attention spans, and structural needs of the different students. As German riding schools would follow a structured pyramid system to train a horse and rider from the ground up, so can teachers of a first or secondary language. Questions to discuss in this essay are, “What is early childhood development? What comes next?” and “How can a teacher encourage students through the different stages of development?”.
This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Kate S. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.
According to the World Health Organization, students up to the age of 8 are still in the early childhood development stage of their life. They are more sensitive, developing and growing at a rapid rate second to that in infancy. As the foundation for the rest of their education and growth, this age is an ideal time to introduce a second language. Simple games, songs, and projects that get the students stimulated, attentive and learning are ideal for teaching very young students.
At this age they greatly use the mentors around them to develop, so strong examples of grammar use and correctness are essential to a well-rounded teacher and role model. Pictures are anyways an essential tool for language development, foreign or secondary, but at this stage students greatly need pictures, colors, games, and activities that keep their small attention span activated. By the time middle schoolers are the demographic, they have energy with new, often hormonal distractions, but with minds flexible and quick to learn new things.
Adolescent development is said to have three different stages: early, middle and late adolescence. Some theories about this age group categorize the way they develop; focusing on physical, cognitive, emotional, social, sexual and moral development. Uniquely different to each other's development, adolescents, between the ages of 10 and 21 will be a unique age group to teach. Development is occurring rapidly, mentally and physically, and some students may experience stress or anxieties about their physical, and hormonal development. Relationships are changing and fluctuating, forming strong 'clicks' between different students. New curiosities develop as their brain's frontal lobe grows, encouraging complex decision making, abstract thinking and impulse control. The creative, imaginative young student develops cognitively, shifting thoughts from what they would think as a child, to an adult. Students will appreciate praise (as they did in early childhood development), support and respect for their individuality.
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Adult students are different from adolescents and children because they have studied, worked and potentially have started families by the time they are in the classroom to learn a second language. At this point, they are the most cognitively aware of their surroundings, tuned to their learning habits (good or bad) and not apt for childish teaching methods (i.e. rhymes, drawing projects, etc.). They will need to work hard on their own to establish a secondary language as their matured brain has developed a hard foundation at this point in their native language or languages. Word development should be introduced naturally instead of drilling the information into them as they will lose interest in the class quickly.
Like all students, variety and guidance will motivate adult students, but with their language skills already developed, it is often difficult to introduce new linguistic concepts, like dropping masculine, feminine and neutral nouns, or a new structure to sentence building. Luckily, longer explanations can be absorbed in this age group to get a difficult point across, but it is not encouraged to speak frequently or at length in their native language.
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Students of all ages can learn a secondary language, but the approach needs to be altered for each age group. A lesson plan designed for an 8-year-old student will not look the same as a beginner adult, although the same words and phrases may be introduced. Teachers need to be aware that through each stage of development, some students will develop quicker than others, too. These variables can be intimidating, but understanding the basics of cognitive development differences between early childhood, adolescence, and adulthood will provide structure to any teacher's lesson.
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