Teaching children, especially when you are new to it, can be incredibly daunting, not least because they are so full of energy and can be so easily distracted. Yet it can also be a wonderfully satisfying teaching experience, and with the growth of EFL for younger learners, is increasingly one that English language teachers need to be prepared for. If that rings true for you, then to help you out we’ve put together 10 tricks for keeping the attention of primary-age children in class.
10 tricks for keeping the attention of primary-age children
1. Lots of variety and a varied pace
Teaching children requires not only a great deal of energy on the part of the teacher, but also a lot of variety in terms of the types of activities you use and the pace at which you run the class. Ensure you build into your lessons a mixture of individual work, pair work and group work, along with a range of controlled language exercises, free practice, language games and even songs. Never let activities run for too long or children will start to get restless. 10 to 15 minutes should be the maximum, and always make sure you have extra exercises prepared for the early finishers. Using a coursebook series such as Islands that already incorporates a wide range of dynamic language activities is an ideal way to ensure you’re never stuck for ideas and that your lessons are engaging and move at a brisk pace throughout.
2. Change the seating plan regularly
A great way to keep your charges on their toes, as it were, is to decide the seating plan yourself and to vary it each lesson. Not only does this create a better whole-class dynamic, it helps ward off some of the potential problems that can arise when children choose who to sit next to and where, or when they always sit with the same friends.
3. Hands on heads for quiet times
If the children are being noisy it doesn’t necessarily mean that things are out of control. It may well be the case that they’re simply getting on with an activity with energy and enthusiasm, which is always to be encouraged. But there will likely be times when things begin to get out of hand or when, for whatever reason, you need to interrupt an activity and have everyone settle down and pay attention. Rather than asking the children to be quiet – which might end up with you raising your voice, or worse, being ignored – establish early on a way of signally that you want silence.
One that works well is simply to put your hands quietly on your head. As soon as you do this, the children have to do the same – hands on their heads and no more talking. It will take a few moments for everyone to realise it’s time to be quiet, but it works. You can even make a game of it – or build it into any penalty/reward scheme you use (see below) – especially if you have the children working in groups, by either awarding plus points to the group whose members all become quiet first or else (though carrots are always better than sticks) by doling out penalty points to the group that’s last. Alternatively, you can count slowly backwards from 10 to zero, during which time everyone has to become silent (with points and penalties as above). It will take a few lessons at the beginning of the course to familiarise the children with these kinds of signal routines, but if done well, they more than pay off in the long-term.
4. Keep desks and tables clear
A very simple way to ensure that the children do not get unduly distracted is by making sure they only have on their desks or their tables exactly what they need at any one time. Have them keep their bags under their tables, behind their chairs or at the back of the room, depending on the layout of your classroom. Only the most essential items should be taken out – usually coursebooks, notebooks and pencil cases, and even these can be put away when not in use.
5. Use realia
Realia have many uses in the language classroom and children will always be naturally curious about things you bring in to show them and to use as part of the lesson. For example, when teaching adjectives to describe shape, size, texture and so on, fill a dark bag with a number of miscellaneous objects (a knitted pencil case, a toy dinosaur, an orange, a sock, a bracelet etc.). Without looking inside the bag, the children take turns to put their hands in the bag, select an object and describe it to the class. Everyone tries to guess what it might be.
6. Use CLIL
In Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL), an increasingly popular and very effective language teaching methodology, different topics such as science, geography and history are taught in the EFL classroom so that the content becomes the main focus and English the medium of instruction. This has numerous benefits; it allows the class to cover a wide range of topics, often through project work, it draws attention away from the language itself to what can be done with the language, and it ties in with subjects that children will be learning at school in a meaningful, relevant way. Islands is an excellent example of a coursebook series for children that includes lots of engaging CLIL work, from barrier reefs and the environment to nutrition and the food pyramid.
7. Table time and circle time
A well-established way of keeping the attention of primary-age children is to alternate activities between circle time, when everyone is seated at the front with the teacher, preferably on the floor in a circle – for instance, for a storytelling session – and table time, when the children are seated at their desks working individually, in pairs or in groups with their coursebooks, workbooks or other materials. A mixture of circle time and table time should be built in to all lessons along with other routines, especially as it allows the children to discharge some of the inevitable restlessness that would otherwise come with sitting in one place for an entire lesson.
8. Games and quizzes
Children learn naturally through play. Games are a great way to practice vocabulary and grammatical structures, especially when there’s an element of competition involved. Early on in a course, it pays to familiarise students with a number of games that can be easily adapted to different target language areas so that you can set them up quickly whenever you need to without having to waste valuable class time demonstrating rules and giving instructions. Islands includes plenty of games and quizzes that practice, review and recycle the content the children have been learning and systemise language in relevant contexts.
9. Marbles and monsters
Inevitably, you will have to deal with occasional behaviour issues in class. Equally, you will want to praise hard work and good behaviour. A tried-and-tested method for systemising your approach is to have a points system, whereby students, either individually or in groups, are awarded points or have points taken away according to rules and criteria that are established from the outset, with either some kind of award for the students who finish the class with the most points or some kind of penalty for those who finish with the least. Of course, as mentioned above, carrots are always better than sticks. Rewards need not be physical objects; it could simply be that when everyone lines up to leave the room at the end of class, the ‘winning’ students get to go to the front of the line. Many teachers use stickers or ticks on a wallchart to keep track of points, but an alternative is to use marbles that you put into or remove from a container on each group’s table (taking them out or playing with them loses the group a marble!). Another method is to use an online classroom management system such as Class Dojo that, among many other features, lets you assign monster avatars to each of your students.
10. Move around
This is a simple but effective trick. Avoid always standing at the front of the class by the whiteboard when teaching. By moving around the classroom not only will you be more easily able to hold the children’s attention, as well as keep an eye on potential disruption, it will help to reassure the children that you are including everyone in the lesson and not only those at the front, which can sometimes seem the case.
We hope you find these tips and tricks useful. To find out more about the six-level Islands course, which combines ELT methodologies with games-based learningand offers solid preparation for Cambridge Young Learners English Testing (CYLET), KET and Trinity Exams, click here.
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