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How do children learn? Ideas we need to know for teaching young learners

how children learn, learning theories and children

Chances are that at some point in your teaching career, you will teach or will have taught children. I had the classic scenario of starting with adults and slowly but surely being given classes with younger and younger students, until one day I realised that I was almost entirely a young learner teacher. Thing is, I never got any clear guidance in all that time as to how that should have been affecting my teaching. How do children learn? Were there any learning theories I should know about?

So, what is a young learner? Young learners are generally placed into three age groups. We have the very young learner, who are aged approximately 3-5, the young learner aged from 6 – 11 and then finally the older young learner and teen. If you are working with young learners it is key that you have some understanding of how children learn. We’re going to have a look now at how young learners learn through the research of three amazing psychologists, Vygotsky, Bruner and Piaget. We’ll also make use of a reflective technique that you can apply in your YL classroom and a few extra links if you’d like to find out more.

Being Effective

In order to be an effective teacher of young learners it is key that you have some understanding of how children learn. We’re going to look at some of the most well-known child development theories that have major implications for teachers in the classroom. These ideas underpin the best practices in education and will inform us about the way(s) we create the optimal conditions for learning.

Activity 3: KWL Chart

K-W-L chart ELTcampus1. Grab some paper, draw a chart like the one you see here.

2. Let’s go back into our own childhood. Think back to a time in your childhood when you were learning something. It could be a second language, origami, riding a bicycle or swimming. What things did you enjoy during the process and what made you succeed?

What parallels can you draw between your positive learning experience and what you already know about how YLs learn? All these thoughts would fit in the K column: “What I already know about the topic”.

3. Next, think about what you want to find out about how children learn.

This would go under the W column: “What I would like to know about the topic”.

Let’s now watch the video to see if any of our ideas are covered and if the questions you have written down have been answered.

Gaining an Understanding of How Young Learners Learn: Video Transcript

Learning is an active process. I’m sure you’ve all observed how kids can be completely engaged in something when they are interested. Around the 1960s Piaget led the Constructivist Movement, believing that learning and mental development is a result of constructing personal knowledge from experiences.

The Learning Theory of Piaget

Piaget developed the idea that children learn by actively doing which helps them make sense of their environment. He suggests children ‘make sense’ of the world by exploring, discovering and play and it is through these actions that learning occurs. Piaget believed that as the child progresses, action is internalised or carried out mentally in the imagination. This is the way thinking develops. His theory defines distinctive ‘stages’ of development from birth to the onset of puberty.

Vygotsky and Social Learning

Vygotsky highlighted that besides Piaget’s biological basis of development, the social environment is a major source of learning and development. His ideas are also referred to as Social Constructivism. Vygotsky noticed the importance of social interaction. He saw how development and learning actually take place, with the support and collaboration of others such as teachers and parents. This formed the basis of what he termed ‘The Zone of Proximal Development’ (ZPD).

Vygotsky recognised that a child not only had an ‘actual developmental level’ but also a ‘potential level of development’. He referred to this area between the two as the ZPD. When left to their own devices, children achieve far less than when given guidance and assistance by an experienced other. Such social interaction would help a child develop their cognitive abilities beyond what they already can do and move forward in the learning process.

Bruner’s Scaffolding

Bruner’s Theory of Scaffolding emerged around 1976 as a part of Social Constructivist Theory. It built on Piaget’s theory but was particularly influenced by the work of Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky. Bruner believed that when children start to learn new concepts, that yes, they need indeed social interaction with teachers and other adults as Vygotsky stated. However, Bruner added to this that children need help, they need a form of active support he called scaffolding.

To begin with, children are dependent on their adult support, but as they become more independent in their thinking and acquire new skills and knowledge, this support can be gradually faded. This form of structured interaction between the child and the adult resembles the scaffolding that supports the construction of a building. It is gradually dismantled as the work is completed. This meaningful support takes place in the ZPD and is carefully adjusted to what the child needs are, based on their new level of actual development.


4. Now let’s return to your KWL Chart. Were your ideas right? And were any of your questions answered about how children learn?

It’s now time to complete the L column: “What you have learned” from this short presentation on learning theories and the young learner classroom.


Apply this idea in your classroom. ELTCampusKWL Chart

The KWL-chart is another popular tool for teaching YLs. You can use it with thematic topics to activate students’ prior knowledge. It makes students become curious about what’s coming next. Having their own questions in mind will engage them more fully in the learning process. It also develops their questioning skills, a key strategy for learning in the 21st century. If you want to find out more about KWL-charts check the link below.


This has been an example of the kind of content you’ll find in the Teaching English to Young Learners Series on ELTCampus.


Further Reading

Learn more about KWL-charts: 

Social Constructivism:

The Zone of Proximal Development’ (ZPD):

Constructivist Movement:

Bruner’s Theory of Scaffolding: