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How children learn

Learning is essential to our survival! If you think of a newborn baby, it has needs for food, warmth and sleep. Babies are pretty good at letting us know when they need something – determining what exactly they need can sometimes be difficult! However, the baby quickly learns how to get attention in order to have needs met. As the baby grows, he or she will start exploring the environment and through daily experiences will learn about how to survive and enjoy the surrounding world. Children are naturally curious and will quickly learn what to do in order to have good experiences rather than bad. Touching a hot pan will result in a hasty recoil and a learning experience which says beware of pans! Finding that it is fun to knock a tower of bricks down encourages the child to build.

The following principles, put together by Hampshire Inspection and Advisory Support Service (1992) are fundamental statements about learning and are true for all children.

Ways in which children learn

Children learn primarily through practical first-hand experiences.


* Children learn through their senses (with the rare exception of children who have severe sensory impairment).
* Children develop their understanding through talking.
* Children have preferred learning styles and learn at different rates.
* Children may move across subject boundaries as they learn.
* Children learn best when they can make sense of what they do through involvement in planning and reflection.
* Children learn through purposeful repetition, practice and reinforcement.
* Children learn best when there is care, tolerance, security, praise and high expectations, associated with clear learning goals.

Let’s take a closer look at these principles to understand the development of the numerous skills.

Children learn primarily through practical first-hand experiences

Young children find opportunities to play and through play they begin to recognize objects and how they work. Manipulating sand, playing with water, sorting stones or shells and playing with commercially produced toys enables the child to develop basic concepts. Usually this starts with ideas of object permanence at around eight months when young children will look for object that is covered up, getting the idea of objects being there even though not seen. Words such as “all gone” start to have meaning. Basic ideas of colour and shape are learned concepts such as up/down, in/out, big/little, are among the first to develop in children. If adults around them provide the language to support and guide play and to describe what the child is doing then this helps children to learn at a faster rate.

This use of language is very important in enabling the child to learn, because effective understanding and use of language are crucial to later development of literacy and numeracy.

There are important early concepts which support children’s understanding of number.
Ideas of same and different, more and less, bigger and smaller are basic concepts which help our understanding of numbers.

The skill of classification, i.e. sorting into groups those items with similar characteristics, is an important skill in the development of both literacy and numeracy.

So we can see how practical first-hand experiences enable learning but this is not just at an early stage. It is always helpful to use equipment when introducing new ideas to older children. Many of them lose the need for those props to learning as they become more able to use written words and numbers, but for children who find it difficult then the use of practical toys, apparatus and equipment will aid understanding.

Children learn through all their senses

We have five senses, sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste. We have already seen how young children use touch, sight and hearing to develop new ideas. Young children are also quite good at exploring their environment through taste and smell, particularly in relation to their feeding behaviour! The senses of sight, hearing and touch are important for early language development. As the child becomes more proficient the senses of sight and hearing are the two main senses used in literacy and numeracy. If the child shows some difficulties in learning how to read, write or learn numbers, then a ‘multi-sensory’ approach is often recommended, which means using more than one channel to support learning.

Children make sense of new experiences by relating to previous learning

The renowned child psychologist, Jean Piaget, developed a theory of children’s learning which includes the notions of assimilation and accommodation. Assimilation is when a child takes in some information from the environment, stores it and uses it as the need arises. Through play the child assimilates or ‘gathers in’ a great deal of information.

Accommodation is when a ‘correction’ has to be applied to the original concept or ideas a result of new experience, and a modification or change made to a previous view. So children, as they learn new things, build on previous learning experiences. To give an example, if a child wanted a biscuit and the parent had decided to move the place where the biscuits were kept, then the child, not knowing this, would search in the cupboard where, from previous experience, he had learned the biscuits would be. Not finding them, he might give up or, depending on how hungry he was, search other cupboards on the principle that the biscuits would be kept in a similar place. On finding the biscuits he would learn the new location and probably remember it the next time he was wanting a biscuit.

Children who are learning to read are constantly revising their word knowledge. A Child who knows the word ‘bend’ might then apply their learning and be able to recognize ‘mend’. A child who knows the word ‘cough’ might logically pronounce the word ‘bough’ as ‘boff’ but would then have to learn that there are a number of ways to pronounce the group of letters ‘ough’ (i.e. cough, bough, enough, ought)

In learning what numbers are, there is a sequence of prerequisite skills and ideas which need to be in place before the child can do this effectively, e.g. in knowing what ‘two’ means a child must know it is more than one and less than three and the word ‘two’ can be used with ant objects where there are two of that object together, i.e. two elephants, two sweets.

In all our learning we build on what we already know. Therefore, in any new learning it is important to gain a knowledge of what the child already knows so that the next step can be taught. This raises the importance of the task presented to a child being at the right level. ‘If the tasks and activities in which the learner is engaged are not matched to the learner’s capabilities, or are not understood by the learner, then learning difficulties are likely to occur’ (Ainscow and Tweddle 1988), so it is very important to match the activity to the ability of the child so that a successful learning experience takes place.

Children develop their understanding through talking

If you ever watched a young child at play you will notice that he or she uses quite a lot of noise and occasionally words alongside their action – it seems to be a natural thing to do. Their play seems first to affect language as children ‘commentate’ on their actions and then as they grow older language starts to affect play. Much has been written over the years both by philosophers and psychologists about the important relationship between thought and language.

Questions have been asked about how thought affects language and how language guides thoughts and perceptions. It is said, for instance, that the Inuit population have nine different words for ‘snow’, each of which describes a different sort of snow. Does knowing those words then affect the way they observe and experience snow? If we had the words too, would our perception of snow be enhanced? Both interesting questions. There is undoubtedly a link between understanding language and being able to structure and make sense of our environment and there is evidence that good language structures enable faster and more effective processing of information.

An experiment is described in which young children were presented with a wooden board with holes into which cylinders of different sizes are designed to fit. The experimenters found that children who understood concepts and knew the words for tall/short, fat/thin, wide/narrow, were quicker at doing the task than were children who did not seem to understand the words which describe size. The children with the understanding of several size concepts, fat/thin, tall/short, wide/narrow were quicker too than children who understood only big/little as description of size.

These examples demonstrate hoe language provides a structure for effective thinking. The child who develops language skills without difficulty is likely to go on to learn to read without difficulty. It is often the children who find it hard to grasp the structure and meaning of language who struggle later with the development of literacy and numeracy skills.

You will note in your work that, for children who do seem to find it harder, a number of them will have been seen by a speech and language therapist at earlier stage or parents will report that they appeared slow to develop language skills. For some reason, possibly linked to genetic factors, boys are more affected than girls. Many more boys than girls have slow language development in the early years and there are more boys than girls in our school who require additional support in the area of literacy.

This influence of language on thought processes has considerable implications for your work, as it demonstrates how the need for understanding of basic language skills and concepts have to be in place before the child can learn to read or manipulate numbers. For young children you can check which concepts and ideas they already know and help identify the gaps in their knowledge.

For older, again you will need to check understanding and not make assumptions that the language concepts necessary for learning a new task are in place.

Children have preferred learning styles and learn at different rates

If you have children of your own, you will be aware that, even for children from similar genetic backgrounds, there are quite marked differences in the ways children develop and learn. Each child has their own personality and predisposition to learning, each for their own particular strengths and weaknesses. There is from time to time a debate about the relative influences on our development of ‘nature’, i.e. what we are born with and ‘nurture’, i.e. the effects of our families and environment. Most writers accept that it seems to be a combination of both which guides the way we grow, think and learn.

Some of these individual characteristics, especially physical characteristics, appear fixed, e.g. shape of ear, adult shoe size, but some can be influenced by family experience, e.g. a child from non-nurturing family background may become emotionally disturbed and this will have an effect on how they learn as children who are unsettled in their home lives seem to also find it difficult to ‘settle’ to learning.

As part of these individual differences, it is recognized that there are different ‘learning styles’ and by this we mean that there are several channels of communication into the child’s mind and we need to determine which one is best for them.

The idea cross references with multi-sensory learning and, in order to identify a child’s preferred ‘learning style’, it is necessary to find out, by observation, trial and error what works best for each child.

Children may move across subject boundaries as they learn

Just because literacy is taught in the daily Literacy Hour and numeracy in the daily maths lesson, it does not mean that these skills are not being taught through other subjects or other times in the child’s day. Indeed you can make links and help children see that, for example, the key words in a history topic are similar to other words used in other lessons, that sentence constructions, layout of work, etc., are common across many subjects.

Similarly, ideas of shape, weight, size can be recognized in subjects other than maths and the general skill of classification, useful for all learning, occurs right across the curriculum.

Children learn best when they can make sense of what they do through involvement in planning and reflection

Everyone likes to be involved in planning activities which will affect them. If you were planning an extension to your house you would want to have your views taken into account when planning was being done because you know what will and what wont work and ‘fit’ with your style of living. It is the same with learning. Children are much more likely to get the best ‘fit’ with their learning if you can involve them in planning the work. If they feel they have some over what they can do then they are far more likely to become engaged with the task. Even a simple choice like ‘which task shall we do firs?’ is helpful because the pupil does not feel passive in the process of learning.

This is especially important for pupils experiencing literacy or numeracy difficulties as it is all too easy to ‘take a back seat” and let the assistant do it for you. The Literacy Hour, in fact includes a time for reflection, the plenary session, at the end.

The process of reflection on work done, i.e. ‘How well did I do it?’, ‘How might I have done it better?’ is also crucial in enabling the pupil to learn. Your role in this is to provide feedback and doing this can be quite a skilled job if the pupil’s self-esteem is to be maintained. Children who find literacy and numeracy difficult may be uncertain about their ability to do well, so require plenty of encouragement and reassurance. So it is always important in giving feedback to find something positive to say before asking the child to self-correct their work. If they cannot see what is wrong you will need to point it out using phrases such as ‘Jack, you’re doing well with this, try putting another ‘p’ in here, that will make it right’.

Looking at examples of how others have presented work can also be helpful, although it can be de-motivating if the pupil sees work of a standard they think they could never attain!

Children learn through purposeful repetition, practice and reinforcement

If you drive a car, you will recall that there was a time when you could not do it. An intensive period of learning new skills was necessary in order to get to the point where you were ready to drive independently. As you were learning, there was a need for lots of practice, repetition and reinforcement, the ‘making stronger’ of the correct actions and thinking which combine together to make you into a successful driver. There is also a time element which is significant. If your lessons were six months apart then you would forget a good deal between lessons and would have to start from scratch again. Most learner drivers have lessons at least once a week so that skills can be practiced, learned and reinforced. This relates to the way our memories work.

It is acknowledged that there are two types of memory, short-term and long-term, and that, for true learning to take place, information must pass from short term memory into our long-term memory and if there is too great a time lapse then this does not happen and learning does not take place.

So it is the learning of reading, writing, spelling and number skills. Children need to practice these skills often if they are to learn effectively. For children who learn at a slower pace than others this is even more important and much repetition is required for the information to ‘stick’.

Take the skill of learning to read, which, as we will see later, requires a combination of sub-skills. The majority of children learn to read using a pattern of practice and reinforcement which seems to work. However, there are some children who are subjected to the same ‘treatment’ who fail to make progress. What is happening? Why don’t they learn?

A recent project in Essex, called the ‘Early reading research’ project has attempted to change patterns of instruction for children and has shown that certain ways of using repetition, practice and reinforcement can be particular effective with all children, including children who previously might have had difficulties in learning to read. This particular project has shown that significant improvements in children’s reading can be made using a number of principles which works.

* Distributed practice – the researchers found that ‘little and often’ works much better than longer periods of work at more widely spaced intervals. For children learning to read, short periods of daily practice or even twice daily practice is better than longer periods of work once or twice a week. This is because information in the child’s short-term memory is reinforced before it is ‘lost’ and is therefore more likely to pass into the long-term memory.

* Interleaved practice – the researchers also found that learning new words alongside words already learned was more effective than just learning new words alone. This technique seems to help children to remember material so the child would, for example, learn 10 words, then another 3, than practice all 13, learn 3 more, practice all 16, etc.

Children learn best when there are care, tolerance, security, praise and high expectations associated with clear learning goals

Picture a scene in which a young child is starting to walk. There may be parents or relatives around smiling, clapping, cheering and urging the child on. When the child manages to take the first few hesitant steps, there are celebrations and approval and the child get big smiles from the ‘audience’. ‘Good boy, now walk to daddy.’ If the child were to fall after a step or two, no-one would dream of saying ‘No, that’s wrong’, or ‘Get up you lazy boy and do as I say!’ So, most adults start off brilliant as carers and encouragers of children, setting clear expectations of the next step, in this case quite literally! What we need to remember is that children of all ages are learning new skills all the time and they need encouragement at every stage.

Unfortunately, this positive approach seems to fall away for some children as they grow. This sometimes happens as the child becomes more difficult to control or when the adult gets frustrated because the child won’t do as he or she is asked. This can happen with learning to read, particularly if the adult working with the child expects too much. It is easy to blame the child sometimes rather than the task or the teacher.

When negative messages are given to a child at an early stage then an unhealthy cycle of ‘can’t do, won’t do’ seems to emerge. The child finds it hard to read, the adults give a negative message to the child, the child then thinks negatively of themselves in relation to reading and starts to dislike the experience of reading, viewing themselves as unsuccessful in the task.

The first years at school are important for all children. For those who may be ‘at risk’ of finding literacy and numeracy difficult, e.g. those who have some language difficulties at a preschool stage, they are especially important. Particular attention needs to be paid to ensuring that these children do not start to see themselves as failures.

Patience, tolerance and positive regard for children are key qualities of teachers and assistants especially at this important stage of development. You will need to remember that children constantly need approval and thrive on praise. This can be demonstrated in a number of ways and can be non-verbal, using positive comments about learning behaviour which you observe. Visual feedback is also valuable, particularly for children with poor memories! Tokens of approval such as stars on a chart, ‘smiley face’ stickers or positive notes home or to the teacher or head teacher can be really effective in motivating the child to learn.

What stops children from learning?

As we have just seen, negative messages to children can hinder their learning by lowering confidence. There are usually several factors which interact to prevent effective learning.

These might be:

* negative feedback;
* frequent absence from school;
* limited preschool experience;
* poor language development;
* poor teaching method;
* expectations too high;
* distracting learning environment;
* effect of peer group;
* poor timing of teaching input;
* no recognition of child’s preferred learning style.

We see then there are many components to effective learning and interacting factors which need to be considered. In more detail the factors are:

* what the child brings – attitude, abilities, prior learning, etc.;
* the nature of the task presented;
* the way the task is taught;
* the learning environment – arrangement of class, peer group, etc.

Consider the barriers to success and how to remove them:

As you will note, the task would have been much easier if some preparations had been made so that the conditions were right for you to be successful. What is also clear in this kind of learning is that a demonstration of how to do this, step by step, would have been particularly helpful.

Consider too how you would feel if you were making the soufflé in the same room with others who had more success than you. You may feel annoyed or frustrated that others could do this while you could not.

This teaches us that, for learning to be effective: and this applies to all learners:

* Task should be demonstrated (have a go yourselves).
* The correct tools for the job need to be prepared.
* Visual prompts can be very useful.
* The preferred learning style should be used.
* Sticking points should be anticipated.
* The rate or pace of learning should be taken into account – allow enough time for success.
* Repetition and practice are needed – work our how much and when.
* Encouragement is essential – we all need it.
* The effects of the environment and peer group need to be considered. Read more ...

Tennis vs. English

As a young child you were taught the alphabet, phonetics and simple language skills. As you got older your mastery of the English language also improved. Your sentence construction became more and more detailed and interesting. Your vocabulary became larger and your use of descriptive words (adjectives and adverbs) increased. Thus, your sentence structure improved, your paragraphs became more solid and your writing in general got better. Your reports became informative and interesting.

Apply this to your tennis. In tennis, you start with the fundamentals (footwork, ground strokes, serve, volley, etc.). Once you acquire the basics, you can start mixing shots together. Then you can start composing points. Once you can construct points then you can construct games, sets, matches and then tournaments.

You certainly would not enjoy reading a dull book. Think of your tennis as an exciting book. Mix up your shots. Add direction, height, spin and shot selection. Make it fun for someone to watch you play. As in English where you improve your vocabulary, in tennis improve your shot selection. Do not get into the trap of hitting the same shots over and over. Make your game exciting like reading a great book.