As the British Council opens a new Learning Time with Shaun & Timmy centre in Mexico for two- to six-year-olds, senior teacher Sarah Reid offers some useful tips for supporting your child’s learning at home.
More and more parents want their children to learn English from a young age. I often meet parents of children as young as two or three who say that proficiency in speaking English will help their child 'get ahead in a globalised world'. In other words, the sooner their children get started, the better.
The single most important factor in a child’s success with English is their parents' interest and encouragement, no matter what their child’s age. So what can parents do at home to support their learning? Here are our teachers’ top ten tips.
1. Learn English yourself
To build a positive attitude towards learning, and towards English as a language, the best place to start is with yourself. If you send your child to an English class, why not join one too? Learning English together is a great way to spend time with your kids and create a positive attitude towards learning and speaking another language.
The British Council recently polled 2,000 adults from the UK and found that 40 per cent of them were nervous about speaking in a foreign language when on holiday. This sort of anxiety – often accompanied by negative memories of learning another language at school – can easily rub off on your little ones.
By learning English yourself, you can show your kids that ‘having a go’ and making a mistake is better than only speaking when you have the perfect sentence prepared.
2. Play in English
Children will naturally learn everything around them without any adult intervention. They do this through playful experimentation and making many mistakes along the way. To help your child get ahead with English learning, get them to play in the language.
At home, try playing dress-up games, hide-and-seek and other popular games, in English. In other words, get them to learn English in the same way they are learning their first language.
3. Read bedtime storybooks in English
It’s easy to get storybooks in any language now, especially online or by swapping books with other parents. Very young children won’t question the language that you are reading to them in – they're more concerned about the ritual of bedtime stories. This provides a great opportunity to sneak in some extra English time in a memorable way.
We all remember our favourite books from when we were little, and in some cases, we can still remember phrases from books we haven’t seen or read in years. Stories provide powerful language-learning opportunities, so we should use them.
Reading illustrated storybooks to your child is a great way to develop language, as every page is supported by visual clues. The language is simplified, repetitive, and introduces features such as rhyme. It widens vocabulary and encourages children to ask questions about character and plot.
A great alternative is to use audio books or online stories if you are less confident about reading out loud to your child in English.
4. Tune in to a UK radio station and leave it on in the background
There is a huge difference between being exposed to a language and learning a language. Traditionally, when we think about learning a language, we think of our grammar classes in school, repeating verbs and turning the pages in a textbook. However, early-years learning should begin with exposure to the sounds and rhythm of another language instead of explicit instruction.
As children learn their first language, they go through an incredible process in the brain of listening to everything around them, piecing together the information, and then using it. A child doesn’t imitate the word ‘teddy’ the first time she hears it, but instead will have heard this word said numerous times, by many different people, before attempting the word themselves.
The radio offers the chance to hear another language spoken by lots of different speakers with various accents. All you have to do is switch it on while you make dinner.
5. Experiment with sound
In some cases, if we are not exposed to certain information at an early age – for example, specific sounds of a foreign language like the rolling 'r' in Italian or Spanish – then it can be really difficult to identify them and learn to use them like a native speaker at a later age. That's why exposure to the sounds from a young age is crucial to mastering the language later on.
This is the reason why language institutions worldwide have introduced the phonics programmes that has become increasingly popular in the British education system over the last ten years. Phonics programmes were originally designed to support reading and writing through practising sounds and identifying the symbol (letters) that go with it. Children then start to blend sounds to make words and this practice becomes the foundation for reading confidently and writing later on.
We can learn a lot about helping children develop sounds, which may be different to the child’s first language, through phonics activities based on a lot of repetition. Children’s TV shows like Sesame Street have included such activities for nearly 46 years: ‘Today’s letter is the letter B – bat, ball, boy, beach’.
You can easily replicate activities like this at home. Sound out new words for children so they can hear the individual sounds: b-a-t, bat. Go on a treasure hunt and look for things beginning with ‘b’. Sound out simple three-letter words with fridge magnets and then change initial or ending letters, so bat becomes cat, sat or mat. Play hopscotch with letters instead of numbers in the boxes. Practise tongue twisters with children who already understand some English. Lastly, try making letters out of different materials such as pipe cleaners or plasticine and the practising sounds so they can recognise the form of the letter before they start to write.
6. Get crafty!
Kids love any opportunity to get messy; they love sticking, glueing, cutting, painting and baking things. So, encourage it ... in English. The activity doesn't have to be about English, but should instead use English to complete the task or activity:
‘Could you pass me the glue, please?’;
‘Why don’t you paint a picture?’
‘Can you help me tidy up?’
These sorts of phrases are the most helpful language you can introduce to your child. If you don’t speak a lot of English yourself, you could simply follow audio or written recipe instructions as you bake cupcakes together. In the process, you are using everyday English that teachers use in the classroom. You are therefore preparing them for the sort of thing they will hear at school.
7. Sing songs together (or get YouTube to help if you can’t sing)
After a few listens to a song or nursery rhyme, children quickly start to hum, sing along to the chorus and eventually put together more and more words. Music and rhyme help children to use full sentences, intonation, pitch, and rhythm, as well as simply building confidence, in a way that we can’t achieve if we were trying to explicitly teach these language features.
We can also introduce children to quite difficult language structures through song. Take, for example, ‘If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands’. It includes a really complex grammatical structure that a young child would find too challenging to learn from being taught. The song, on the other hand, does everything for us with no pressure, and provides an easily recognisable context for children.