By Gail Ellis

29 March 2016 - 09:29

Young boy standing up with his hands on his head.
'Physical activities are enjoyable and help develop children’s vocabulary and memory skills.' Photo ©

Mat Wright.

Children's language lessons today often look very different from the ones their parents remember having. The British Council's Gail Ellis looks at the approach teachers take in today's classrooms.

English language teaching to pre-primary and primary-aged children in both state and private schools is growing rapidly. This is partly a result of parental pressure. According to a recent (unpublished) British Council study, parents sending their children to out-of-school classes at the British Council view English as a basic life skill. They believe it will improve their child's career prospects in a world that is quite different from the one in which the parents themselves grew up.

Teaching approaches for young children usually emphasise oral communication, and teachers use a range of resources to present language and convey meaning, such as verbal instructions, songs, chants, rhymes, DVDs, flashcards, sound effects, objects, actions, gestures, expressions, etc. In this way, teachers stimulate many senses at once and give children a number of ways to make connections and learn concepts. For example, some children prefer information they hear, while others may prefer to learn by seeing something. Children can also respond in a variety of ways (orally, physically, by drawing a picture, etc), so it builds on their strengths in these areas.

These approaches may differ from the way parents themselves learned a foreign language, and from the way children are taught other subjects at school. Parents may perceive some teaching techniques as ‘less formal’, ‘not serious enough’, or ‘less disciplined’, and, as a result, may question their value. It is important to dispel such misconceptions by helping parents understand how children learn, and the rationale behind certain teaching techniques. This will help parents understand what is going on in the classroom, and help build on these classroom activities by supporting their child's learning at home.

The early years of childhood are the period when children can most naturally apply the mechanisms through which they acquire their home language to the learning of another language. Children learn by doing and by actively involving themselves in the learning process.

Here are some relevant activities teachers use, and the reason they use them.

Songs, rhymes and chants

Children love songs, rhymes and chants, and their repetitive nature and rhythm make them ideal for language learning. They allow new language to be introduced and phrases to be reinforced and recycled through repetition. They are motivating and build a child’s confidence. They develop concentration, memory and co-ordination. Many songs, rhymes and chants are from traditional children’s lore and can develop intercultural awareness. Finally, singing and chanting together is a shared experience and develops social skills.


Children enjoy constructive play and games. They are motivating and give children the opportunity to practise a foreign language in a relaxed, enjoyable and purposeful way. They help improve attention span, concentration and memory. Children also learn important social skills such as sharing, turn-taking, collaboration and co-operation.


Using picturebooks and storytelling techniques can create rich and naturally contextualised learning opportunities. Children enjoy listening to stories over and over again, and this frequent repetition allows certain language items to be acquired while reinforcing others. Storytelling develops children’s learning strategies such as listening for general understanding, predicting, guessing meaning and hypothesising. In particular, they develop a child’s listening skills. The high-quality illustrations support children’s understanding as they relate what they hear to what they see. Listening to stories in class provokes a shared response of laughter, sadness, excitement and anticipation. This helps develop a child’s confidence and encourages social and emotional development.

Physical activities

These activities are often referred to as ‘total physical response’ as they help children improve their listening by following instructions and showing their understanding through actions and movement. A well-known example is Simon says. Physical activities are enjoyable and help develop children’s vocabulary and memory skills.

The teacher’s role

Teachers should inform children about the aims and purpose of language-learning activities, so they are aware of what they are learning, why they are learning it, and the reasons they are learning it in a particular way. The teacher’s role is very much one of a facilitator, whose responsibility is to create a positive classroom environment. They also need to remain in touch with parents or carers to encourage understanding and involvement from home.

Gail Ellis is Adviser Young Learners and Quality for the British Council in Paris and the author of Tell it Again!, and Teaching children how to learn, co-authored with Nayr Ibrahim.

Find out about courses for bilingual children and teenagers at the British Council in France.

Read this article in French.

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