Teaching English in any context can involve a lot of fun and games, but possibly never more so than when the learners are in the early childhood years!
This article is focused on English teaching methods for working with children between the ages of 2 and 6 years, focusing on their developmental stage in relation to language and the practical uses of language at that stage of life.
Your English teaching strategies will need to be suited to the different contexts in which you might be teaching English. These might include:
Overseas English programs run by private organisations, in countries where English is not the language of the surrounding community. English as a Foreign Language (EFL) classes for young children are common in countries such as Japan and Korea.
International schools using English as the teaching medium are often initially established to service the educational needs of expatriate workers in countries where English is not the local language. English may or may not be the first language of the students. These schools often expand to include children of wealthier local families who can afford to pay ‘international rates’ for education.
English as a Second Language (ESL) childcare groups, formed to care for children whose mothers are studying ESL. This situation occurs most often as an adjunct to adult ESL programs where mainstream childcare options are inaccessible.
Non-English Speaking Background (NESB) learners in mainstream childcare groups, where children from NESB are included in kindergarten and pre-school classes conducted completely in English, which is also the language of the surrounding community. This is a complex learning situation, which includes children whose first language is English alongside children who use another language at home and may have used English very little.
In NESB situations, teachers must be aware of theory and practice regarding children developing bilingually, and the need for cooperation with parents and carers, which supports the continued development of the first language at home. Bilingualism is recognised as a strength in social, personal and cognitive development. At the same time, parents and carers are needed to support the child’s English language development in order to give a good foundation for starting school if their education is going to be conducted in English.
“A good grasp of language is synonymous with a sound ability to think. In other words language and thought are inseparable.” (Vygotsky, cited in Clarke, 2009).
‘Finding your place in the world’ is a significant aspect of lifespan development, and language competence plays a major role in children’s cognitive development as well as social development and sense of wellbeing in their community setting. Positive self-esteem is encouraged through acknowledgement, acceptance and appreciation of the whole individual, including their race, class, ethnicity, religion, language, and ability. In a multicultural mainstream childcare and education program, diversity must be overtly valued. This can be done through sharing items and themes of cultural variety to which children will be able to relate. Every class and group is different, and the learning contexts described above are quite distinct from each other, creating different dynamics and requiring some adaptation of teaching strategies. The first category listed above, EFL programs in overseas language institutes, will possibly see children enrolled for weekly classes of an hour or two. In this situation, all or most activities will be teacher-led and changes in activities will be frequent. Some teachers in this situation describe lesson plans in which they change to a different activity as often as every 5 minutes! The final category, where a learner from NESB with little or no prior use of English is included in a mainstream childcare group, will see students immersed in an English speaking group for 6 hours a day, up to five days a week. In this situation, the group leader must accommodate the ESL needs of one child or a few children within the general learning program at the appropriate age level. For these children from NESB, Tabors (1997) describes language acquisition as generally following this sequence:
The child continues to use first language in the second language classroom until the child realizes that first language is not effective in this situation.
The child enters a silent period while he gathers information about the second language, through listening and watching, and may experiment with second language use.
The child begins to use words and phrases in second language.
The child’s use of second language for meaningful communication increases in range and effectiveness.
It is important that the teacher is aware of these stages and accommodates the silent period without pressuring the child to communicate before they feel ready. This silent period can vary in length with cases documented that report as little as a few weeks to 2½ years (Tabors, 1997). There is evidently a correlation between age and length of the silent period; the younger the child, the longer the silent period. It is also noted that during this stage, children are still usually attempting to communicate non-verbally. Every child is different, with different interests, different levels of independence, different feelings about being separated from mother and home, different rates of development, and different levels of ability and confidence in first language use. Every child however, enters the program with some skills and knowledge, and should be regarded as competent and capable for the task of acquiring lots of new skills and knowledge. Children learn best:
when they feel secure and have a sense of belonging;
by interacting with others;
by using language in meaningful ways;
by engaging in active learning experiences;
when they see a clear model of how to do something;
when they receive positive reinforcement; and
when others relate to them as an individual with unique needs and interests.
Tips for teaching English to young children: Some general hints for teaching English to 2-6 year old learners include:
Keep the atmosphere relaxed and friendly.
Provide variety in the pace of activities: use lively games and action songs to use up extra energy, and have some deliberately quiet, settled and restful activities.
Use brightly coloured real items as much as possible. Very young children do not yet cope with abstract notions.
Use movement in as many activities as possible. Learning, particularly at this stage of development, will be enhanced by kinaesthetic memory triggers. Songs and chants with movement and action provide this.
Songs and rhymes provide repetition of vocabulary and phrases, increasing retention.
Use puppets and teddy bears to animate conversations and stories.
Repeat and review often.
Focus on talking (about anything and everything under the sun) as well as listening to stories told by the children.
Model everything (e.g. line up, clean up).
Praise, praise, praise. Use positive reinforcement to encourage acceptable behaviour.
Be firm but kind.
Example English games: Some examples of games that work well with young learners are:
Spread out cards with pictures of recently learnt vocabulary, the teacher calls a word, and students select the picture card and hold it up. Children who don’t remember the words will quickly begin to copy others, so the activity will still be good for learning, if you follow up each instruction with question and answer, or everyone repeating a sentence using the word. This can be done individually or in pairs with sets of small cards, or it can be made a team game using A4 size laminated pictures, with students lining up on one side of the room and racing to pick up the nominated item from the floor on the other side of the room.
‘Simon says’ is basically Total Physical Response (TPR) with a condition added. Use this game to practise classroom instructions, everyday actions, parts of the body, colours (touch something red), shapes (point to something square), and so on.
Laminate a picture showing the outline of a body. Laminate and cut up pieces of clothing to fit the body using different colours and patterns. Students take turns selecting the item of clothing nominated by the teacher (a red skirt, a blue shirt). They are then blindfolded and positioned in front of the ‘body’. The class guides their placement of the item of clothing with phrases like, “Go up, go down, go left, go right.”
The teacher calls out, “Make groups of...”, and children form groups, as quickly as possible, according to the characteristic (number of people, same colour of clothes/hair/eyes, length of hair, etc.)
Without the children seeing, put an item in a soft bag with a drawstring at the opening. Pass the bag around, for each person to feel, and try to name the object in the bag.
Stem sentences: “I’m going to the park to...” Children each say an activity and try to repeat the ones that have gone before, so that each child is listing all the activities already mentioned. This game can be altered to any theme: “I went to the doctor because I had a sore...” “I’m going to the supermarket to buy...”
Songs have been written about most topics: days of the week, months of the year, numbers, ABC, shapes, patterns, and colours. What hasn’t been written can easily be written by changing the words to familiar tunes. Songs are fun and easy to remember if they are kept simple and repetitive.
Remember that every song and game can be a language learning activity! It should involve using some English, either reviewing phrases or vocabulary learned previously, or practising language introduced in today’s lesson. Teaching English as an additional language, to very young children, is going to involve lots of play-like activities – exactly what these children would be doing in a childcare, kindergarten or pre-school class. The added dynamic is an intentional focus on developing the language that goes along with each activity. Language acquisition in this stage happens naturally, as long as input of an appropriate level is provided within a positive, safe and supportive environment. Recall is promoted by using movement, rhythm and melody. And the whole process should be lots of fun!
(Source: TESOL Textbook: TESOL Made Practical For All Situations written by Paula Withers)