As a middle grades education major, the thought of teaching English to young learners absolutely terrified me. I had plenty of experience corralling a bunch of hormonal and restless teenagers, but wasn’t sure how I would even be able to capture the attention of a little child, let alone several of them!
With a middle or high schooler, a teacher can explain the importance of learning another language and how it may help them in their future. A preschool child has absolutely no concept of their future except that they may want to be an astronaut, fireman, and marry their mother or father. Young children will often mimic the languages taught to them but have very little understanding of what they are saying since they are often times learning to dominate their own language as well.
Because of the students’ lack of intrinsic motivation, it is important to motivate them to want to do the activities through exterior means. We need to make our classes very enjoyable and invite them to participate in the activities, incorporating fun play and physical movements. I have now been teaching online for eighteen months and also was the director of an EFL preschool program in Latin America. Here are some tips I’ve learned while teaching English to young learners.
Establish clear classroom rules
Classroom rules are essential as well as expectations. Younger students especially need to know their boundaries in order to feel secure in the classroom. Teach them the rules by using hand signals so they can understand by just looking at your hands what you are expecting. In my classes, I will put my fingers over my mouth in an “x” to signal they must be quiet. I will raise my hand to teach them to wait their turn and to raise theirs when they want to speak. Also, they know I want them to repeat when I cup my hand to my ear. These rules and motions are important for them to know what I am expecting as well as what they must do.
Keep it short and sweet
Keep the class moving along. Young students have an attention span of 3-5 minutes. Be familiar with your lesson and even have extra activities ready in case something you have prepared isn’t successful with your class. I will often have singalong videos queued from the ALO7 website in case my students have extra time or seem unable to understand the activity I have planned.
Balance loud and rowdy with calm and quiet
There is a time and a place for everything, and I believe that getting my students moving and loud is part of them enjoying the class. They will quiet down, though, if I am clear about moving on to the next part of the lesson as well as using my motions and rule TPR– Total Physical Response. Make sure to be secure in your authority as a teacher so they will obey and move on along with you.
Don’t expect too much actual reading when teaching English to young learners because many of these students may not even be reading in their native language yet. Focus instead on identifying pictures and letters. We want these young learners to comprehend the words they are learning. They may be able to speak in short sentences and answer questions using rote memory, but definitely focus on the basics, not making it too complicated.
Don’t be afraid to sing
Music and chants are key! Think back to your preschool years and the songs you learned in early education. Young children are developing language, and songs such as the “ABCs” and “Itsy Bitsy Spider” tend to stay with them for life along with any motions they learn. ALO7 has some wonderful singalong videos as well as a TPR dictionary to help with developing this in your young learner’s classroom.
Incorporate movement activities
When teaching English to young learners it is essential to get the students to move. Dr. Maria Montessori suggested that young children are not able to learn unless they are also able to move. In addition, involving the whole body in language learning is a useful teaching method. The more language learners move, the better and faster they understand what you are teaching and the more easily they can retain the information.¹
Visuals and props also excite and interest young learners. Try using puppets, dolls, and items from the vocabulary list to help the students comprehend what is happening in the lesson. It also helps to ask the students to include their own props. I will sometimes ask my students to show me something of a certain color, “Everyone go get something RED,” and they get very excited to run as quickly as they can to show the class what they have.
Relax and have fun. When we are nervous as teachers, the students sense that and often feel nervous as well. I would suggest relaxing and being silly with the kids. Have lots of fun and the young children will have fun as well.
Young learners are little sponges that seem to absorb everything we teach them quickly and then spout them back to us. Enjoy the process and don’t be afraid to try new things and to release your inner child along with them.
Do you have any suggestions for games or activities to enhance teaching English to young learners? Please comment below!
1 Verner, Susan. “How to Teach English to Children: 3 Powerful Strategies for Impressive Results.” FluentU Spanish Educator Blog. August 05, 2018. Accessed February 19, 2019. https://www.fluentu.com/blog/educator-english/how-to-teach-english-to-children/.
Jan Millsaps has been an advocate for the improvement of education models in Latin America for the last fifteen years. She is making a difference one classroom at a time. Jan became an online tutor with ALO7 in late summer of 2017 to help pay off medical bills and to provide for future retirement, if there ever will be such a thing in her life.
Jan has a B.S. in Education, concentrating in Reading (K-12) and Math (6-9). However, she has taught every subject and grade level throughout her 25-year career. The last fifteen years have been dedicated to teaching ESL the majority of the time. She also continues to teach math and reading.
Jan believes education is the key to societal development and works hard to make a difference in the lives of her students both online and offline. She is passionate that her students reach their full potential and become world changers.