Are you daunted by the prospect of teaching English to very young children? Sheona Gilmour, lead educator on our new online course for teachers and parents, offers a few tips.
Teaching English to very young children can be challenging, especially if you haven't done any training for the early years classroom. The first time I walked into a kindergarten, I didn’t want to go back the next day. I came from a background of teaching older children, who sat at desks and whose attention I could hold more easily. So the new environment, full of young children with much shorter attention spans, felt overwhelming. This is a common reaction among teachers new to classrooms of children ranging from two to six years old.
But if you take on board a few essentials, there's a good chance you'll end up cherishing the experience. Here are five tips that helped me when I started out.
1. Build your understanding of how young children learn
It is vital to get the approach right for children of this age. You soon realise that children learn and develop at different rates and in different ways. If we don’t understand the age group, we can end up doing more damage than good.
You need to understand what to expect from the children and make sure that what you do in class reflects where they are in their development. For example, in a total physical response activity, don’t get them to hop if they can’t yet balance on one leg, and don’t ask them to write if they can’t hold a pencil.
As Tina Bruce outlines in her book Early Childhood Education, we can’t separate learning into compartments with this age group because there’s so much going on. Children are all developing socially, emotionally, physically and linguistically as they try to understand the world around them.
Understanding this is essential and it helps us recognise that changing and mixing activities is the best way to keep children motivated. Conversely, expecting young children to pay attention for extended periods in a teacher-centred lesson only leads to frustration and behavioural issues. So plan your classes, but be prepared to let go and adapt activities based on the needs of the children.
2. Understand how play stimulates a child’s natural curiosity to learn
In their early years, children are full of curiosity and keen to learn about everything and anything. This intrinsic motivation is your best ally. Identify what interests them, and you will be able to grab and hold their attention.
For example, if there’s a cartoon character the class loves, you can make up stories or scenarios with them. Invent stories about what the character does at the weekend. Do they play football or paint pictures? What do they eat for lunch – apples or hamburgers? There are numerous opportunities to introduce new language into this kind of activity, especially as the context and characters will be familiar to the children. Each of them can come up with their own ideas about the world around them, which stimulates creativity.
You can also introduce language into the child’s world using toys, costumes, plasticine, dolls, cars, blocks, etc. You could even revisit the scenarios created in your character stories by encouraging children to make the things the character ate for lunch out of plasticine. This will provide opportunities and reasons for children to hear and say new words and become familiar with them. Learning through play in this way offers a meaningful way for children to have fun as they learn and develop.
3. Talk to the children and encourage them
Once you motivate children and get their full attention, the linguistic opportunities are vast. This is where you can model (i.e., give examples of) the target language by asking questions, describing what you are doing, showing interest in what they are doing, and so on.
Make sure you encourage children so they feel confident. Praise their perseverance when they find something difficult, so they don’t give up. This will help encourage their growth mindset – that is, their willingness to embrace learning.
4. Tune in to the child and empathise with them
You can really build strong relationships with children by putting yourself in their shoes, and entering their world. Physically crouching down and being at their eye level will help you connect with children. But you will learn the most about them by joining in with their play. This allows you to establish a relationship with the child based on something they are enthusiastic about. It will help you understand what they like and what they are interested in.
Building relationships is really important in the classroom. It will help provide a safe environment, which is essential for effective learning. Establishing this will mean you can watch children grow in confidence, and you should begin to notice that even the more reserved children are prepared to have a go and try things out.
It also gives children an opportunity to deal with their feelings, and encourages sharing, turn-taking, and being a good friend. For example, you can get the class to build an obstacle course in the classroom. This will encourage them to work together and communicate with each other, offering them situations where they can make friends and grow as individuals. This can be a great opportunity for you to observe the class and level of development of each child.
Just as important is keeping in touch with the child's other teachers and regularly communicating with parents. Gaining an understanding of what is going on at home and in the kindergarten allows you to recognise how everyday events are affecting the children and their learning.
5. Observe and challenge at the right level for the individual child
Observe children when they are playing and learning, to see where they are in their development. It is important to remember not to isolate skills but to consider the child’s entire learning. This information is vital in planning your classes and allows you to build on what children know, and increase the challenge at an appropriate rate.
Challenge keeps children motivated. Activities such as inventing stories not only improve their English language skills, but develop their creative skills at the same time. For example, you could ask them to adapt the words to songs or rhymes, giving them a chance to experiment with words and sounds. Supporting a child’s development through memorable challenges like this will allow them to develop a positive attitude towards learning English that they will take into later life.
Teachers, do you want to learn new techniques and methods from experts in early-years teaching? Sign up for our free online course English in Early Childhood: Language Learning and Development today.