Characteristics of Young Learners according to the area of development and the implication in teaching them

I have been working on teaching young learners a lot in these past months, mostly due to a new project we are implementing in our school, so I really thought about sharing some of the views I have been studying which definitely impact the teaching of these students.

Cognitive development

According to McKay (2006:6-14) children are in constant gradual development, continuing to learn through concrete experience, what can be called ‘learn through doing’ . Their thinking develops in knowledge and intellectual skills, but not yet able to use meta-language, the ability to use language, to describe language.

She also describes them regarding their writing ability which at this age is hoped by the use of drawings. Writing is gradually taught and improved together with their abilities to remember the words and their spelling. When children are 7-8, she also mentions they start to self-correct and to be able to convey meaning only though writing itself – when at school, obviously.

As per Pinter (2011:9) explaining Piaget’s theory, at 6-7 years of age, children are at their pre-operational stage of cognitive development, meaning that they are already able to understand concepts like counting, classifying according to similarity. They have an idea of past, present and future but focused on their present. Still not able to abstract concepts. At the age of 7, though, they demonstrate an ‘intellectual revolution’ when they start thinking in a more logical way.

Children at 7-8 are at what he called the concrete operational stage of cognitive development, a critical turning point as it marks the beginning of logical or operational thinking, when the child starts working things out ‘in the head’. They are able to start seeing from different points of view not only their own lives. Some organised, logical thoughts are now evident, although, they still need the concrete reality. ‘Concrete operations, involves the systematic manipulation, physical or mental, of concrete objects’, Voyat (1982:21).

Children from 6 to 8 are in what Pinter (2011:9) called ‘stage three’ in which they have the ‘ability to think in a logical fashion – but difficulties and coping with formal logic in decontextualised situations; Using analogy competently; Development of hierarchical classification’. She also discussed Vygotsky’s child development theory which he does not break into stages, but proposes a continuous development with social environment playing crucial role and specially the role of experts providing quality assistance to their learners.

Brewster, Ellis & Girard (2002:27-28) present a feature of these children cognitive stage of development that has to do with taking sometime for the children to learn, but calling the attention to how quickly they forget things. They also mention the short concentration span, a characteristic also spoken of by McKay (2006), Cameron (2006), Roth (1998) and Shin and Crandall (2014).

Pinter (2011:9) states that ‘attention increases overtime’  and that a ‘linear and steep rise in memory store development alternate between the ages of 6 to 11’. ‘Children’s memories strategies become more effective with age but they can rehearse only with help’, complements Pinter (2011:27). She also states that ‘by the age of six and seven children can recall the important features of the story, and they can combine information into a coherent story and reorder the sequence of events to make it more logical (Mandler 1984)’. Pinter (2011:32) also says that ‘knowledge about memory increases between the age of 4 and 12’,  but ‘children younger than eight do not have a well-developed sense of self and inability to self evaluate’ (Harter 1998).

From 6 to 8, children try to ‘construct meaning’ and ‘foreign language learning depends on what they experience’, says Cameron (2006:6). They have an ability to ‘learn through instruction in mediation’, explaining Vygotsky’s theory of learning that children move forward into a step further in learning with the help of adults or experienced peers be seen as internalising knowledge from social interaction. This means that they are able to learn through concrete experience together with their peers and teachers in a social environment.

Although children at this age range are still attached to fantasy, they are gradually becoming more realistic and rational, Roth(1998:8). They start distinguishing between fantasy and reality, as explained by Shin and Crandall (2014:32), reaching the concrete operational stage. Learning is ‘heavily contextualised in concrete situations’ confirm Brewster, Ellis & Girard (2002:27-28). Roth (1998:9) describes them as able to discover ‘coincidences’ and ‘more open to the outside world’, but not to abstractions.

Lightbown and Spada (2010:31) describe these learners as ‘willing to use the language even with quite limited proficiency’. Roth (1998:8) says that they may use the tenses – past – present – future – correctly if well practiced, but will only understand the concept after 8 or 9 years of age. Brewster, Ellis & Girard (2002:28) claim they are still developing literacy in their mother language which may corroborate with their ability to make most with little language proficiency, but as McKay(2006:13) states, their ability to engage in extended talk is increasing, which ‘requires greater cognitive and linguistic abilities and then conversational interaction, specially when a supportive interlocutor is usually present’.

Social development

Children are still egocentric but learning to socialise, share and cooperate, taking turns with others, McKay (2006:8-9).  Roth (1998:8) says they ‘have a good relationship with peers’ at this age so they can work in teams, but they ‘alternate a lot of talking with silence’.

Cameron (2001:218) shows the ‘Vygotskyan perspective on learning’ that emphasises that ‘learning occurs in social contexts and through interaction with helpful adults or other children’. So, as Pinter (2011:9) affirms ‘social environment plays crucial role’ in the learning process. Children benefit more when in contact with other children to experiment and learn.

Emotional development

Some authors are united in preaching that children at this age need to ‘experience overall success’ and sense of progression, as McKay (2006:14) and Shin and Crandall (2014:255). Brewster, Ellis & Girard (2002:27-28) state they ‘have different emotional needs’, but yet, they need to feel secure, which success gives.

Cameron(2001:4) children also ‘seek out intentions and purposes in what they see other people doing bringing their knowledge and experience to their attempts to make sense of other people’s actions and language’. They benefit from having models and seek  for appreciation in what they do. They need support and scaffolding – the term is used to describe ‘interactional support that is given to learners while their language system is under construction. It enables them to perform a task at a level beyond their present competence’, Thornbury(2006:201)

They get bored easily, and tasks must be varied and short to keep interest in them, Brewster, Ellis & Girard (2002), Cameron (2006), Shin and Crandall (2014), McKay (2006). One of scaffolding features that helps coping with this characteristic is to keep children aware of the purpose and goals of the tasks.

Physical growth

Children have a lot of physical energy with a need to be physically engaged in tasks, as Brewster, Ellis & Girard (2002:27-28) and Shin and Crandall(2014:25) describe.

This development is characterised by ‘children’s gross and fine motor-skills development as explained by McKay(2006:11). They are getting more body control with time as claims Roth(1998:8).


Children are participative, spontaneous and curious. They prefer to play in ‘same-sex groups’ and admire their teachers. Points raised by McKay (2006), Cameron (2006), Brewster, Ellis and Girard (2002), Roth (1998) and Sin and Crandall(2014).

General overview of the implications in teaching

Regarding cognitive stage of development, lessons should cater for ‘learn though doing’, providing lots of exposure and practice with tasks centred in concreteness to help learners’ understanding, but a mix of fantasy and reality is to be used.

Tasks should be short and varied to keep their interest and to make most of their concentration, as they cannot concentrate for long periods. Rehearsing language, chunks can be done with the help of the teachers.

Scaffolding should always be present, providing tasks that increase in levels of demand as they grow older and more at ease with the language. This is also applicable to writing, a relatively new linguistic skill for them, as they are also learning that in their mother language.

Working with tasks that allow classifying, finding the odd one, ranking vocabulary items are well seen by these age learners.

As for their social developmental stage, teachers should keep in mind having the learners working in groups and interacting with peers. This would overlap with their emotional stage, providing a sense of security.

Focusing on their physical development, tasks should make use of their bodies, providing movement as to allow them to burn their energy positively and learning.


I hope that this piece of information may help you in your lessons as providing knowledge when choosing the approach and activities to use. Of course, not all children are the same, and teachers should teach their learners and not exactly only go through the book they have adopted.

This is just food for thought… There is so much more to study and learn and this has no intention to be a final word… Just a quick overview.

Beatriz Meneguetti

Mª Beatriz Magalhães Silva Meneguetti Teacher, teacher trainer, school director and sworn translator with over 30 years’ experience, graduated in English, post graduated in methodology, linguistics, school management and marketing. Holder of major proficiency certificates from Cambridge and Michigan Universities and holder of the DELTA and MA in Professional Development for Language Education from Chichester University. Academic director of ABCI - Brazilian Association of Culturas Inglesas.

  • Patrick Lehmann
    Posted at 13:51h, 01 março Responder

    very useful article, thank you. Could you please also provide the references, the detailed bibliography ? thank you!

    Posted at 12:55h, 03 agosto Responder

    The middle school founders (e.g., William Alexander, Donald Eichhorn, John Lounsbury, Gordon Vars) emphasized the need to consider young adolescents when developing education environmental and organizational structures. The desire for developmental responsiveness was what set the middle school apart from its predecessor, the junior high. Today’s educators and policymakers need to continue their support of initiatives that afford young adolescents with developmentally appropriate learning experiences and environments.

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