Integrating soft skills into materials for early years

This week will see the end of our run of summaries from the Forum on Research informing materials writing at the MaWSIG Showcase at IATEFL in Liverpool 2019. In this penultimate post, MaWSIG’s own Jen Dobson explains why soft skills are essential in materials for pre-primary pupils.

‘Openness’: illustration by Julia Mena Dobson @DobsonMena

What are the children doing in this image? Playing in the sea? Having fun? Let’s take a moment to think about what they’re learning.

The discovery of their bare feet sinking into the sand as the sea flows back and forth? The excitement of jumping over the waves and the sensation of the water trickling through their hands as they splash it in the air? Perhaps their shrieks of excitement and smiles of encouragement to their friends are ways they’re beginning to express themselves. They might hold hands to help each other get in and out of the water. They may even be putting on brave faces whilst overcoming their fears. The soft skills involved in any learning, including learning a language, run deep, and we should not underestimate their importance.

I think most early childhood teachers instinctively understand the value of these social and emotional skills and how to nurture them. Yet how do we make sure we actively integrate them into the materials we develop for our early years ELT programmes, whether supplementing existing ones or writing our own?

Madeleine Bunting’s article in the Guardian, ‘Why character skills are crucial in early years education’, looks at Nobel prize winner James Heckman’s research into the importance of the benefits of concentrating on character over cognitive skills. As the definition of these skills varies, I’ve chosen to use the same handy OCEAN model acronym cited in Bunting’s article to consider what the significance of these are for our early childhood language learners. I then suggest where and when we might include these in our materials.

O

pennness

For our early years children, I’d equate this with adventure. Our materials can help stimulate the natural curiosity and sense of wonder the children have when exploring the immediate world around them and the wider one beyond. Our core materials should reflect the local realities of children’s lives, yet also have outward-looking global perspectives. When writing briefs for art and audio, we need to ensure that our materials embrace diversity and are as inclusive as possible.

Circle time is an ideal moment for sharing, reflecting and explaining. Just as the children will bring in their own treasures to discover and discuss, our teacher’s notes can include suggestions as to how we can use realia to bring the outside world (such as elements from nature, festivals, photos, etc.) into the classroom.

C

onscientiousness

Fomenting focus is an essential part of early childhood education. In briefing materials, attention to small fun details in all the audiovisual, pencil, craft, oral and aural comprehension activities, and those involving refining fine motor skills, will all help to catch their attention while developing observation and early literacy skills.

The security these young children find in following clear routines is fundamental to concentration and learning. Clear aural and visual clues in the forms of songs, posters or gestures will help indicate the transitions. Teaching notes should provide essential training and support on the importance of these, including how to set them up safely and effectively to ensure their successful implementation.

E

xtraversion

Helping children learn how to express themselves and giving them the freedom to do so, will raise self-esteem as they feel their opinion is valued and worth sharing.

Including meaningful TPR (Total Physical Response) actions in songs will help reinforce the meaning of the language while encouraging non-verbal expression. These and other games involving gross motor skills will help the children learn how to understand their own bodies in relation to the physical space around them, and how their use of this space might affect others.

Teacher’s notes should show how to provide many opportunities for expressive play (such as pretend and dramatic play), offering flexibility for children to play in groups, pairs or individually.

A

greeableness

Values such as helping, sharing and empathy are just some examples of the many ways in which the children are learning how to start forming successful relationships. Fun, engaging stories that include these, especially when focused around their central course characters, will make them meaningful. Circle time is a good moment in class to discuss these values using first languages when needed.

Providing badges or stickers for class helpers adds a fun element to the act of taking responsibility to help in the class tasks. Similarly, the introduction of simple, non-competitive games and projects involving interaction with friends will enhance skills of cooperation.

N

euroticism 

Emotional literacy involves understanding our feelings and emotions while learning self-regulation and control.

The class puppet is a perfect vehicle to help the children understand tolerance and selflessness. As children at these young age groups experience ‘animism’, believing that the puppet is truly real, they have a huge sense of personal identification with the character and its feelings; through interacting with it they will reflect on their own emotions. The puppet should therefore play as large a role as possible throughout all the course components and stories, with supporting guidance for teachers to gain confidence in its use. The puppet can also be used as one of several tools to praise models of good behaviour and positive reinforcement.

Where possible, materials that can be taken home can help foster a productive home–school link. Ideas for these and additional guidance with classroom management tips are, once again, where the teacher’s notes provide invaluable support.

We should integrate these soft skills into our early language materials to help the child’s growth, both in and out of the classroom. Combining this with writing that is full of magic, fun and humour will inspire creativity and instil a true joy for learning in the children. To quote the great María Montessori: ‘Play is the work of the child.’

References
https://heckmanequation.org
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/may/20/character-skills-early-years-education
https://positivepsychologyprogram.com/big-five-personality-theory/

Jen Dobson is the technology and social media coordinator for MaWSIG. She started her career as a youth worker in inner-city London before moving to Spain to work as a teacher, teacher trainer and writer. Since the publication of her first early-years book in 2003, she’s contributed to many children’s publications, including OUP’s Mouse and Me, winner of an ESU award in 2018. She is also the lead author for OUP’s new pre-primary series for Spain, Archie’s World (the name having been chosen before that of the UK’s latest royal baby).

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