The world we live in today is fast-paced and transforming rapidly in light of technological advances. This fact is evident in the daily life of online ESL tutors; in many ways, we have been ahead of educational trends by leading the way in developing best teaching practices for learning online, which is now a normative mode of delivering education in 2020. While learning online is innovative and exciting, it can come with its own particular challenges, especially for preschool and kindergarten-aged ESL learners. However, ESL tutors can overcome these challenges without over-complication, unnecessary frills, or strife: Consistency is the best teaching practice for ESL tutors when teaching preschool-aged and kindergarten-aged ESL learners when teaching online.
ALO7 places a great emphasis on tutor consistency and reliability as part of its best teaching practices. From a business standpoint, ALO7’s partner schools and parents need tutors who can commit to weekly 25-minute or 55-minute sessions during our peak time slots to assure schools, parents, and students that our students can rely on us. Part of the reason for this is because it is simply good business practice. Still, the benefits to young online learners are immeasurable. Regarding teacher consistency and continuity, child and family therapist Michele Kambolis says, “It can be inordinately difficult for children, particularly young children, when there is a lot of change and disruption. And we know that for children to feel as though they can to focus and learn and process information, they need to feel emotionally safe.” 1
In my personal experience conducting interviews as a recruiter with ALO7 and talking to my colleagues, I often hear ESL tutors prefer to teach students at an intermediate level. This is often because it is easier for students to understand their ESL teachers at this level. For myself, it was initially very challenging to help preschool and kindergarten-aged students stay focused and successfully reach learning goals during 25-minute sessions with one to three students sitting at their computers or iPads. However, as I taught more lessons with preschoolers and tried different strategies, I noticed that consistency helped keep young ESL learners’ attention and assist them in making the most progress. I first learned this myself as a child when I began my technologically fueled educational journey with none other than Mr. Fred Rogers of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood.
Fred Rogers’ educational program, Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, was the height of technological education when I was a preschooler in the early 1990s; despite the fact it was on television, not on any video streaming services, and I was at the mercy of the preordained Public Broadcasting Service schedule (how the times change!). While some of his educational show’s content may be somewhat dated for the world we live in today, his approaches to teaching are extremely relevant to ESL teachers. During 30 minute segments of his program Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, he displayed many teaching strategies that were informed by years of research and expert advice. Mr. Rogers’ excellence in consistency can help us assure our own students’ success if we implement these same approaches in the online classroom since we are similarly subject to technology. A screen is a screen, no matter if it’s a television or an iPad, but we can still make just as tangible of an impact as if we were in person if best teaching practices are implemented carefully.
In his educational program, Mr. Rogers showed examples we can follow that exemplify effective consistency in tutor tendency skills, instruction and guidance skills, and teaching skills. All skills which ALO7 ESL tutors are regularly evaluated on. ALO7. Fred Rogers did not act these skills out on accident; his scripts and planning of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood was thoroughly reviewed by his mentor, Dr. Margaret McFarland. Fred Rogers’ careful and consistent choice of words and his setting of the Neighborhood were never arrived at by happenstance, for ratings or by accident, and the same careful and thoughtful planning must be applied to our actions as a teacher and the learning environment we create.
One of the first and most essential strategies evident in Mr. Roger’s work is how he communicates with young learners; this would be akin to tutor tendency, and instruction and guidance. Even in their own native language, young learners need carefully chosen words to help understand and retain new information. Fred Rogers knew this by his education and guidance from Dr. Margaret McFarland.2 We do not have time to review scripts before our live sessions with students. Still, following examples of how Mr. Rogers crafted his language in the show can help us regularly think in this mindset in order to communicate effectively while teaching. For our students to learn from us most effectively, we need to be as careful, if not more careful with our choice of words in English.
Mr. Rogers was careful to use just the right words and not too many when speaking to young learners. To follow this example for ESL tutors, a best teaching practice for instructing young ESL learners would be to use precise wording and rid of our speech of extemporaneous words: “His words, while focused and simple, were also precise. The choices he made in the words he used were carefully considered. He was not vague in the nouns he chose, he avoided using unnecessary verbs, and each word supported the message.”3
For myself, I try not to go beyond three to five-word sentences and keep it limited to one noun, one verb, and use only the most necessary articles. Here are examples of simple and precise phrases I often use while teaching young ESL learners:
“I say, you say!” (Repeat the phrase).
“One more time!” (Along with gestures, such as pointing to your wrist as if you’re looking at a watch, meaning try again).
“Good job!” (Along with a thumbs up gesture).
Fred Rogers’ colleagues coined a specific and fun term for the way he would write his scripts for young learners. This specialized language and grammar structure was called “Freddish,” and applying “Freddish” to the way we communicate as ESL tutors can help us be more consistent for our students:4
“State the idea you want to express as clearly as possible.”5
For ESL tutors, this would mean to speak to your students simply and clearly; try to use the present tense and the simplest verb tense. Try to say phrases such as: I eat apples, as opposed to I am eating an apple. I read books, as opposed to I am reading books. I sleep at night, as opposed to I go to sleep at night.
“Rephrase the idea in a positive manner.”6
A consistently positive learning environment for our ESL learners helps to create a safe environment in which to grow. It helps our students to know our demeanor and encouragement will not change from session to session, nor will our positive regard for their learning journey. If our language reflects this consistent conveyance of support, our students will begin to feel safe in taking risks when creating their own sentences and trying new words they may not be comfortable with at first.
“Add a simple motivational idea that gives preschoolers a reason to follow your advice…”7
Using language to consistently motivate our young ESL learners can help them to know that their hard work will yield fruit. Young ESL learners may struggle to put together even a simple sentence at first, but letting our young students know that they make their teachers and parents happy by trying can motivate them to keep going. And, showing some fun props and giving laughs and smiles is a great motivational idea as well!
While tutor stability and consistent language are two of the most critical elements of consistency that help ensure success for young ESL learners, there are two smaller yet still significant details that help ESL learners succeed. Fred Rogers was also careful to use similarly consistent gestures (akin to TPR for ESL tutors) and educational enhancements (props and green screens for ESL tutors) to create an engaging learning environment. While these elements may have some entertainment value, their true value was in enhancing a child’s learning experience and consistently supporting learning goals.
On The Neighborhood, there were frequent uses of puppets and even simple props such as hanging wall pictures and home scenes. For ESL tutors, props should hold meaning for the students, so I suggest using props that they can easily identify. Use items they might also use in their everyday lives and frequently use the same ones rather than constantly changing them. I have had preschoolers giggle and laugh the most over a simple blue box put on my head as they called me “box monster!” My young ESL learners often ask for familiar props again and again so they can use their imagination to practice the new vocabulary until it becomes familiar and comfortable.
Mr. Rogers also created consistency in his teaching practices through his introduction of the show. His gestures, pacing, and movement in the show were carefully chosen to help preschool-aged learners not be overwhelmed and retain what they were learning. Similarly, ESL teachers should be careful to have a consistent routine in introducing the lessons to our students, speaking slowly and carefully, and above all, demonstrating immeasurable patience as we help our students try new concepts.
Fred Rogers wrote his iconic A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood song to consistently introduce children to the beginning of the educational program. Then, as he entered the set and sang the song, he always changed into his sweater and from his outdoor shoes to his tennis shoes as the song concluded. This practice created a consistent routine that young learners would come to expect each episode and not be confused with a new or unfamiliar or distracting new habit. Similarly, as ESL tutors, we can think of our own unique yet consistent introduction to our lessons. Personally, for myself, I keep it simple and greet my students with a warm smile, and ask if they are happy. I then introduce them to a simple prop they may be familiar with in their daily lives and ask them more questions each session about the object.
For example, for an early class, I may introduce my students to an apple. Then the next class, I will use the apple again and ask them what color the apple is; and for the following class, ask what the apple’s shape is. They don’t have to spend each class session identifying what a new prop is, and instead focus on new vocabulary related to the object they already know. By building on what these young learners know from class to class, they will learn to trust the routine and start each class feeling safe knowing what to expect from their regular online ESL teacher.
Although it may not seem apparent at first glance due to rapidly changing technology, Mr. Rogers shared more in common with online ESL tutors today than differences. We can apply his effective methods at the time of his show’s production to help ESL tutors today. While we are adapting to new technologies daily, one truth remains and always will: at the heart of best teaching practices for young ESL learners is consistency. A young learner needs to know that you are always there to support their educational journey as much as possible to begin their path to success. You can show your consistency in more ways than just showing up. You can enact best teaching practices for your young ESL learners by showing consistency in the words you choose, the gestures you make and the props you share with them; a simple yet powerful example shared with us by the carefully developed teaching practices of Fred Rogers and Mr. Rogers Neighborhood.
Citations for “Best Practices in Teaching Young Online Students: Mr. Roger’s Legacy Holds Secrets for Today’s Teachers”
1 Lloyd, M. (2017, October 24). Classroom continuity is key, says a therapist as BC’s teacher shortage continues. Retrieved August 16, 2020, from https://www.citynews1130.com/2017/10/24/classroom-continuity-teacher-shortage/
2 King, M. (2018). 12. Language and Meaning. In The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers (p. 181-183). New York: Abrams Press.
3 Strayer, J. (2018, August 07). Mr. Rogers: Five Essential Truths of His Communication. Retrieved July 30, 2020, from https://instituteforpr.org/mr-rogers-five-essential-truths-of-his-communication/
4 King, M. (2020, January 02). Mister Rogers Had a Simple Set of Rules for Talking to Children. Retrieved July 30, 2020, from https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2018/06/mr-rogers-neighborhood-talking-to-kids/562352/
Annette Nagle is a native of Altoona, Pennsylvania and works as an independent musician, music teacher and language teacher. Annette has a Bachelor of Arts in Letters, Arts and Sciences from Penn State, with honors from the Schreyer Honors College. She is a classically trained pianist and opera singer (lyric coloratura mezzo-soprano). Previously, Annette has sang with her college choir in Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center and St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, Austria. She has previously taught introductory music at Penn Highlands Community College for several semesters. Annette has been working with ALO7 since February 2018, and was selected as ALO7’s Online Teacher of the Year in 2019. In addition to teaching ESL, she does secondary work with the company as a member of the academic team, video production team, and is part of the recruitment team during hiring periods as well. In addition to working with ALO7, Annette currently teaches piano and voice privately, and is a freelance organist, pianist and choir director for local churches and music groups.