English proficiency is an important indicator of social status in China, so many Chinese parents want their children to start learning as early as possible.
Students as young as two and three usually begin with some basic English in kindergarten.
If you’re new to teaching ESL or have little experience with this age group, here are seven tips for teaching English to very young children.
1. Make and follow a clear lesson plan
Whether you’re teaching business English to adults or very basic English to kindergarten students, every ESL lesson requires planning.
This is doubly important when teaching English to very young learners, as children, especially young children, need routine.
Always start and end your lesson in the same way.
You could start with a “hello” song and end with a “goodbye” song, or perhaps start by asking each student to say their English name (if they have one).
This in itself may be challenging for very young children so it’s worth repeating each lesson.
You could also start by having students respond to some basic instructions such as “stand up”, “sit down”, “listen”, “be quiet”, etc.
Make sure each lesson has some target language and a theme.
The former for three-year-olds usually does not go beyond present-simple sentences, e.g. “My name is (English name)” or “It’s a (vocabulary item).”
For the latter, you can teach them the vocabulary for basic colors and toys.
Remember to keep vocabulary to a minimum, perhaps no more than four new words per lesson.
Your aim should be to have each student produce a simple sentence (three or four words) using the target vocabulary by the end of the lesson.
2. Keep it simple
Make good use of the present-practice-produce method.
First, the teacher should present the target language and vocabulary, perhaps by clapping out the syllables of sentences and having students repeat, or by showing students flashcards.
Next, have students practice that target language, perhaps with a simple game that involves them answering questions from the teacher. Finally, have students produce the language by themselves.
You could also include an activity where the students ask each other simple questions. For the youngest learners, this will probably be no more than asking each other’s names or, “What is this?”
Remember, little kids have short attention spans and sometimes need a long time to take in very little information.
Don’t worry about repeating things over and over again. In fact, the more your repeat things, the quicker they’ll get it.
3. Introduce classroom rules
Don’t be afraid to be a little strict with your young students (without scaring them, of course). In any classroom, students need to understand some basic rules laid down by the teacher.
Without them, lessons may become chaotic and the kids unteachable.
When teaching English to very young students, you should probably limit your initial discipline to two or three basic rules, such as no speaking Chinese in class and no running.
After this, you can introduce basic instructions as well. Get students to put their fingers on their lips to indicate “be quiet” and to cup their ears to indicate “listen”.
This way students will know what to do when they see these actions from the teacher.
Make sure your students also know what the consequences are if they don’t follow the rules. Perhaps have a reward system in which each student starts the lesson with five stars.
Each time they do something good, reward them with a star. If they do something bad or fail to follow the rules, take a star away.
Perhaps reward the winner with a prize at the end of each lesson or week.
It really is up to you how you do it. Just make sure your students are clear about the rules and the consequences of breaking them.
4. Use graded language and plenty of actions
Again, just remember how young your students are. Put yourself in their shoes.
You’re three years old and your parents have sent you to learn Chinese with a teacher who does the entire lesson in Chinese.
You’ll most likely not learn a lot unless the teacher speaks slowly, grades the language to your level, and uses plenty of actions to elicit meaning.
While lesson planning, think about how you will draw the meaning from each vocabulary item.
For instance, you might pretend to be driving to teach them the word “car”.
Or for the word “ball”, you might pretend to (or actually) throw a ball — you get the picture.
Do the same for instructions. Make sure when you say “stand up”, that you stand up out of your chair. Or when you tell students to “listen”, that you cup your hand behind your ear.
Then think about how to build the vocab into questions and answers.
One simple way to do this is to produce a flashcard or object and ask, “What’s this?” while shrugging your shoulders to make clear that it’s a question.
Then to answer the question, have the students repeat and clap out each syllable of the sentence e.g. “It’s a ball.”
5. Use games
ESL students, especially very young children, cannot simply be commanded to learn.
Kids don’t work that way. Instead, you need to make your classes fun and interesting (sometimes teachers forget this), or as one former colleague put it to me, you need to “trick” kids into learning.
For each lesson, ensure you have a set of flashcards and a few simple games at the ready.
These are particularly useful for the practice and production stages of your lesson. Simple ideas for games include the following:
- Flashcard bowling, in which students roll a ball and have to say the vocabulary item on the flashcard they hit.
- Musical chairs, in which whoever is without a seat has to name a vocabulary item.
- Flashcard hopping, in which students roll dice (preferably those giant soft fluffy ones) and have to hop to the flashcard of the corresponding number.
Make sure you clearly explain the rules of each game before your students start to play. If you have a teaching assistant, demonstrate the game with them first.
Check our blog for 14 Awesome Free Online Resources for Foreign ESL Teachers in China:
6. Bookwork has its place
Even when teaching English to very young children, bookwork and worksheets can be employed.
While your students will likely be unable to write letters of the alphabet, they will be able to do things like coloring, cutting (with scissors suitable for young children), and sticking.
This will help develop their motor skills, particularly important at this age, and give them a much-needed break from the more intense portions of the lesson.
Remember, however, to practice the language at this stage of the lesson too.
You can do this by simply pointing at the pictures of each vocabulary item and asking the students to name them or asking them what color they’re using.
Either way, make sure this stage has at least some emphasis on producing the target language and vocabulary.
Remember too that the bookwork section of the lesson is an opportunity for the students to rest.
If you have an hour-long lesson, you may want to include this as your last activity. Think of it as a kind of a cool down.
7. Use your teaching assistant wisely
While ESL teachers should aim to immerse students in English, i.e. teach a lesson without translating anything into Chinese, we all know there are times when this is not possible.
If you’re teaching English to very young students, your school or language center will hopefully give you a native Chinese teaching assistant (TA).
Translation by your TA should be your last resort, however, and I would recommend only using them when students do not understand something after three attempts or if there’s an emergency in the classroom.
Remember too that young children require a lot of looking after, so your TA may be needed to do things like getting the students to sit still in their chairs or taking them to the toilet, etc.
Again, it’s worth repeating that your TA can also be very useful for helping you demonstrate games, activities, and instructions.
Those then are some tips for teaching English to very young learners in China.
I still get that jaw-drop of a response when I tell people I’ve taught ESL to students as young as two and three.
Your students’ learning will probably be limited to saying their English name, a few colors, and a few toys.
Yet, when you see students producing this language by themselves, you may find that teaching this age group can be very rewarding.