7 recommendations for teaching English to children

teaching English to children (2)Hands up at the back, fellow TEFL teachers, if you’ve ever found yourself in a foreign classroom with a gaggle of overexcited little children getting gradually out of control. You’re at the board trying to get them to pay attention, they’re climbing all over one another and doing everything but speaking English. Teaching kids, while very often a great deal of fun and incredibly rewarding, is one of the most challenging types of EFL class to execute successfully. Nevertheless, it’s a part of the job that’s increasingly called for by many schools and academies. Today we offer 7 recommendations for teaching English to children to help ensure that your lessons work smoothly both for you and for them.

Recommendations for teaching English to children:

  1. Routines, routines, routines

Children, especially little children, like the security of knowing what’s expected of them, what’s going to happen in class and in what order, and that means a great deal of consistency in how you structure your lessons. Build routines from day one, and stick to them, even if it takes a while before they start to run automatically.

English language practice can easily be built into such routines. For example, you might have an activity for taking the register that involves students asking each other what they did at the weekend rather than you simply calling out names. Later, they can check their homework together in pairs with language you have provided (‘What did you put for number 1?’ etc.). Another might simply involve regular and coordinated transitions between table time and circle time (see below). The end of the class is another prime time for routines. Once everyone has put their things away, you can finish the class by having the children take turns to say goodbye to a classmate; not until everyone has wished and been wished a good weekend can they finally fly from the room.

  1. Teach classroom English from the get-go

Ideally, you want the lesson to run as much as possible, if not entirely, in English, and even with beginners there is absolutely no reason why it should not – but it helps to provide them with the necessary classroom language from the outset. Examples of this are:

  • How do you say X in English?
  • Can I borrow a pen/pencil/ruler, please?
  • What do we have to do?
  • I don’t understand.
  • How do you spell X?
  • Can you help me, please?
  • Can I tell you/ask you something in (Spanish, Japanese, Polish etc.)?
  1. Table time and circle time

It’s vital when teaching children that the lesson runs at a lively pace and that you have a variety of activities to keep them engaged, but that doesn’t mean there should not be structure to the variety. A very basic division of class time should be between ‘circle time’, when the children are sat with you (preferably on the floor in a circle) and you are leading the lesson, and ‘table time’, when they are working at their desks either individually, in pairs, or in groups, while you monitor. This can be said to loosely correlate with language-input and language-output times, and can be repeated as often as necessary. It also helps counter restlessness.

  1. Speak in English, but don’t speak about it.

Your target language might well be the present perfect for experience, but don’t start boarding ‘auxiliary + past participle’. Even though children are adept at acquiring new language and working out meaning from context – after all, they already inhabit a world in which they don’t even understand everything adults are saying in their mother tongue – they’re unlikely to understand the metalanguage used to talk about grammar and syntax. Demonstrate, illustrate and practice – don’t explain.

  1. Let them play

Children learn through play, so build it into your lesson. Adapt well-known children’s game to the EFL classroom – Simon Says to teach imperatives, for instance, or Hangman to practice spelling. Have vocabulary competitions – Stop the Bus, for example. And don’t shy away from drama and song, either. These can be great activities for honing pronunciation and intonation skills.

  1. Establish classroom rules and stick to them

teaching English to children (1)Another one of our recommendations for teaching English to children has to do with classroom rules. Children expect boundaries to be set as to what is and isn’t acceptable in class, and you should establish rules from the very outset that make it clear what you expect of them, what the consequences of breaking the rules are, and why those rules and consequences are important.

Rules can range from something simple like not interrupting each other (so that everyone’s voice is heard) to ensuring they are respectful of others. Rules go hand in hand with a point system, whereby either individual students or groups of students gain and lose points according to good and bad behaviour. Be firm with such a system, but be fair – children have a highly attuned sense of justice and will pull you up on any inconsistency you show.

  1. Remember, they’re people, not just children

This might sound obvious but it encompasses a great many ideas. For a start, it means treating your students with the same respect you expect of them for you. It also means responding to their individuality and ensuring that not only do you do your best to accommodate their learning styles – visual activities for the visual learners, lots of movement for the kinaesthetic ones – but that you engage with what they have to tell you and what they bring to class. Listening to little Juan or Akiko or Lidia tell you every last detail about their pet dog might not be the most exciting conversation you’re going to have that day, but remember that to the child in question it’s of great importance, else they wouldn’t want to be telling you, and it’s an ideal opportunity for genuine communication.

Never forget either, that even though you’re nominally the teacher, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing they can’t teach you. After all, part of the fun of teaching is everything you learn.

You might also be interested in…

– 7 tips for teaching English to beginners

– 10 tricks for keeping the attention of primary-age children

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