Vanessa Reilly
a teacher, author and teacher trainer, has been working in Spain for over 20 years. She has an M.A. in English Language Teaching specializing in very young learners. She currently runs courses for Primary teachers all over Spain and from around the world, and also teaches children from the ages of 3 to 12. She is author of various OUP titles, including Three in a Tree A & B, Surprise! 1, 2 & 5, and the brand-new series for Pre-primary, Oxford Splash.
You’ve been working with very young learners for a number of years. What is the best part about working with this age group? I’ve been working with Infantil children for nearly 20 years now and I think my favourite aspect of working with the very young is the sense of fun they bring to the classroom. Anyone with experience of very young children knows that they don’t need much encouragement to play. For them everything is fun and exciting and learning through play is a crucial element of learning English at this age.  A quote I really like about teaching children but have never been able to find who said it is: “A child reminds us that playtime is an essential part of our daily routine.


What are some of the challenges teachers face with very young learners?

You have to understand how very young children think.  They need everything to be very transparent and visual and you have to model everything you want them to do. This can mean a lot of preparation and planning. Young children need a lot of support in their learning until they can do things unaided, so each stage has to be carefully planned.  Managing a large group of very young children can be difficult.  For this reason I think it’s important to establish routines. Young children don’t have a very long attention span and can be easily bored so it’s essential be aware of when their attention is wandering and move on to a new activity. If they are making something it’s essential to prepare a sample beforehand so that you can show them what a finished one looks like. You may also have to repeat the instructions many times!

Are there any resources you ‘can’t live without’ in the classroom?

The most important thing for very young learners is play.  To facilitate this and make the English transparent to them I couldn’t live without action songs, stories, flashcards and puppets.

Songs imply fun and they’re easily adapted to include actions and mime. Children like listening to music and they like making music, so singing in English is fun and it helps them to memorise English words and phrases at the same time.

There are few resources that can give as much pleasure as sharing a good book with the children. Stories are a most valuable resource.  A well-chosen story can provide language in context, in fun situations and with the repetition required to help the children internalize the language. A story can be enjoyed over and over.

Flashcards can be used in so many ways to make the language visual and fun. They are an essential teaching resource as they show the child the exact meaning of a word and can then be used in an endless list of fun games.

Puppets are a versatile resource with many uses. They can enhance a story, help with discipline, give out resources, reinforce language, help play games and even become the teacher.  They don’t have to be expensive commercial puppets to be effective; even little sock puppets can enhance any lesson and of course children will often engage with a puppet when they won’t talk to you!

How does Oxford Splash cater to the needs of very young learners?

Children enjoy variety and are also very egocentric.   Oxford Splash is very child-centered and works on topics that interest the children like their family, their pets, their favourite food or toys.  It enables you to teach the children through carefully written stories, songs, games and activities that are planned to provide sufficient repetition of the key language whilst at the same time having fun. The course encourages children to start using language to communicate their feelings and preferences.


What is the difference between Oxford Splash and Oxford Splash Plus?

Oxford Splash Plus extends the children’s knowledge of topics and language in Oxford Splash using projects which review and extend the language in new contexts.

Oxford Splash Plus has even more materials – CLIL photographic flashcards, beautiful project posters and an ideas bank of extra games and activities.


What does the ‘whole child approach’ refer to?

Oxford Splash and Oxford Splash Plus aim not only to teach the children English but also key in with the children’s general curriculum, so that they are learning knowledge and understanding of the world but in English, for example, a story about food looks at healthy eating and also where vegetables grow, above the ground, under the ground or on a plant.  The children sing a song about this and play games to reinforce this information.

The idea is that you are teaching the child life skills not just English.


How does the introduction of phonics with very young learners help them develop reading skills?

Children need a number of strategies in order to read English words.

Phonics is a strategy which enables children to break down (decode) English words into parts as they read. By learning the sounds (phonemes) that written letters and groups of letters make, children learn to read words. Phonics skills once learned can be applied to many new words.   Learning phonics also has to be fun, so it’s important to include some meaningful phonics games.

I say ‘many new words’, however, as many English words cannot be ‘sounded out’ and can only be learned by a method of word recognition known as sight reading or ‘look and say’. For such words, the children must learn the shape of the word and learn that it says, for example, ‘night’.

It therefore makes sense for children to be offered both so that phonics and sight-reading become integrated skills.

Oxford Splash includes lots of stories.  In your opinion, what are the qualities of a ‘good story’ for very young learners?

It is important to remember that although we want the children to have fun, we are here to teach them English, so any story we choose needs to provide for both of these factors. Any story which provides the children with useful language through attractive and accurate illustrations which help the children understand the English is a great asset in the classroom.

For very young children, the pictures need to mirror the text, as the children will use the pictures for clues to the meaning.  It’s also important that there are key words and phrases that the children can understand and repeat.  Children love to be able to join in and act out a story, so any repetition of key words or phrases makes this possible.

I am often asked what we can expect from reading a story with young children. I think three main expectations would be:

– that they understand the gist of the story

– that they begin to understand and use some of the language from the story

– that they start to relate to the story thinking about how the characters are feeling, choosing their favourite character, recognizing words they know in the story


Anything else you’d like to share with us?

Yes.  Make the most of what I call the ‘Again Phase’.  Repetition is very important in language learning and learning in general.  Very small children love to do the same song, story or game, over and over again.  We have to be prepared to not always stick rigidly to our lesson plan.  If the children are enjoying a story and they want to hear it again, make the most of this even if it means sacrificing another activity you have prepared.  You can always move that activity to the next class. Children grow out of the ‘Again phase’ so use it to you advantage whilst you can!

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