When you walk into your ESL classroom, do you see a bunch of cherubic little faces staring back at you?
Teaching ESL is a calling, and teaching ESL to young children is a calling even fewer answer. Perhaps it’s because teaching a second language to kids can be even more challenging than teaching adults. Kids don’t have the ability to talk about language in an abstract way, and if you can’t talk about language how can you teach it? Luckily kids are super learners when it comes to language, and if you teach them you know just what I am talking about. Here are some tips to keep in mind if you are teaching grammar in an elementary ESL classroom.
Use These Fantastic Ideas for Happy Grammar Lessons with Kids
An Aversion to Grammar
If you are teaching children, or were ever a child yourself, you will not be surprised to hear that children do not like learning grammar. It’s not just a struggle for ESL teachers. Students are adverse to grammar in just about any language, including their native tongue. So to teach grammar to children in an ELS class, you might have to shift your focus or change your methods (since the same methods won’t work for kids that work perfectly well with adults). The good news is the biggest change is not talking about grammar at all!
As an elementary ESL teacher you will have to trust the process of language learning in your students without giving them overt grammar instruction. Are you getting tense just thinking about that? I know I am, but I also know that children are built to learn language – any language. They do not need the overt instruction of rules and exceptions that adult learners need, and you can trust that even when you are not diagramming verb tenses on your classroom board, your students are still learning what you are presenting to them. The key to this kind of grammar instruction is modeling. Show your students how to use grammar concepts without taking time to explain them, and you will be amazed at how much and how quickly your students learn.
Form or Function
Children, just like adults, have a goal when using language. A child’s language goal is simple: use language as a tool to make something happen. Their goal is the function of language, not the proper grammatical form. In other words, children want to use language in practical ways. They want a purpose, an end goal that is more than learning a particular grammatical structure. With that in mind, the more communicative you can make your (grammar) activities, the more likely your students are to learn what you are teaching, and they might not even realize it is happening.
When you plan lessons for your young learners, focus on language with a purpose. Have students talk to one another, read interesting texts, tell stories, and play games which all use the grammar point you want your students to learn. You should model the structure for them in the practical setting, and trust that they will absorb the “rules” of grammar as they participate in the activities. Don’t make perfect grammar your or your students’ goal. Make communication the most important goal of language and your students will be sure to meet it.
A Year Is a Long Time
For an adult learning a first foreign language, it is often a struggle. We all know that the older you get, the harder it is to learn another language. Kids don’t have that problem, but “kids” is a very broad term. In fact, it can refer to anyone from birth to eighteen or even older. Not all of those kids, however, will learn language the same ways. To make sure your students are getting what you are giving them in the grammar department, you will have to think about their age when you are planning how and what to teach them.
A child of five years can learn a second language practically without trying. Just being exposed to the language and using it in natural contexts is enough to make that child’s language skills as good as those of a native speaker. After that age, language learning probably isn’t going to come quite as easily, but kids will still have a better time of it than adults. From around six to ten, children value the function of language (as described in point #2). Communicative activities are going to be best for them. From about age ten to fifteen, students can begin to understand language in a more abstract way. You can be more overt about teaching grammar, rules and exceptions. These students may never sound quite like native speakers, but they have a chance at it. After about age fifteen, though they are still children in their parents’ eyes, kids are on the same ground as adults when it comes to language learning. They will have the same struggles with grammar and other language components as adults will, but they can also understand language in an abstract way, which may make teaching them English more straightforward.
Get Out of the Box
Most important of all, if you are teaching grammar or any language class to children, make it fun. Think outside the box (and outside the classroom) when it comes to lesson plans and activities. Something as simple as taking your class outside can make a big difference in how well your students pay attention and how much they learn. Play games in class. Do crafts, and talk about what you are doing. Give them materials they can hold and manipulate and move. Take field trips whenever you can. Invite guest speakers to your classroom. All these activities will engage your students, and engaged students are learning students. You can do almost anything and still be teaching language. Just talk about what you are doing (a great way to include the progressive tense) or what you could do (the conditional comes into play), or the next step in the process (future tenses). Describe what you see (use and order of adjectives) or how someone is doing an activity (adverbs and their use). All of these conversations work together to help your kids learn and internalize the English language.
Ultimately, ask yourself why your students should learn a particular grammatical structure. If you can determine that, you can figure out a communication oriented activity that will use that structure. You don’t have to break down for your students why you are doing what you are doing. Just let them have fun and use language in creative ways. They will learn.
What are your best tips for teaching grammar to young students?
Do you have any tips to share with other busy teachers around the world? If so, leave a comment below.