Munchkins in the Classroom? Top 5 Tips for Teaching Young ESL Students

Munchkins in the Classroom? Top 5 Tips for Teaching Young ESL Students

Susan Verner
by Susan Verner 29,713 views

It takes a special person to teach English as a second language.

It takes an even more special person to teach English as a second language to very young children. Besides the sticky fingers and messy art projects, very young language learners are a challenge because they do not have the cognitive ability to talk about language in an abstract way. In other words, it’s hard for them to understand grammar for grammar’s sake, and they are very literal in what they say and understand. Because of that and for many other reasons, teaching young ones English is different than teaching it to adults. Here are five tips to make your classroom efforts more productive.

Make Your Lessons with Kids Different

  1. 1

    Focus on Acquisition Rather than Learning

    The terms acquisition and learning are often used interchangeably in ESL education, but they are actually two different processes in the brain. Learning is gaining a conscious knowledge of material, such as a foreign language, and how to properly use it. Acquisition happens in language learning when a person is able to speak the target language fluently, without error, and without thinking about what they are saying. If you are teaching children five or younger, remember that they will be able to acquire English as well as a native speaker. What this means in practical terms is you don’t have to spend a lot of time teaching abstract grammar and language rules to your young students. Just put them in situations where they need to communicate using English and their amazing little brains will internalize the rules for the English language.

  2. 2

    Make Your Classroom an English Only Zone

    While maintaining an English only classroom isn’t always the best strategy for language learning, when you are teaching young children who are in the process of acquiring language (see the last point), the more English they are exposed to, the more easily they will learn. So if you are teaching young learners, TALK! And have them talk, too. Focus on discussion activities (with partners and with the whole class) playing pretend games, aka role-playing. Tell your students what you want them to do, have them do it, and then have them tell you what they did. Have them ask and answer questions about classroom activities. Have circle time to start your day and tell your students what they will be doing. At the end of the day, have circle time again and ask them to share what they did. This will reinforce both vocabulary and verb tense usage. They will be learning English grammar and vocabulary, and they won’t even realize it. And remember that young learners, like any other English learner, understand more than they are able to express, so don’t simplify what you say to sound like what they are saying.

  3. 3

    Get on Their Level

    Imagine standing in front of a giant who spoke some strange language that you couldn’t understand. Most of us would either be frozen in terror or run away screaming. That might be just how your young English students feel when they walk into your classroom for the first time. Here is this big, strange person who doesn’t even say stuff they can understand. What is a little kid to do? One of the most effective ways you can help your students overcome their fear is to get down on their level. Get your eyes on the same level as theirs. When a young child can see your face right in front of theirs, it takes away the I’m-standing-in-front-of-a-giant terror and makes you seem like a friend waiting to happen, even if they still can’t understand what you are saying. So if you are getting ready to teach young children, get those legs in shape. You should be squatting, sitting on the floor, and simply getting yourself close to the ground all class long.

  4. 4

    Stay Away from Idioms

    Although idioms are very important for English as a second language learners to understand at the very least and to use fluently at best, they are not appropriate material for young children. The reason is simple. Young children don’t understand idioms in any language. Young children are by nature literal creatures. If you tell them their lunch is on the house, they will look to the roof for their food. They haven’t developed enough cognitively to understand figurative language. So though you may start introducing idioms to older learners from the start, keep them packed away in a drawer until your young students are a bit older and able to understand them.

  5. 5

    Relate to Their Parents

    Relating to parents is sometimes the most difficult part of teaching young learners, and it’s twice as hard when you teach ESL to these young students. If your kids are coming to class with no knowledge of English, odds are their parents don’t speak a word of it either. This puts your little learners in a very unique position. They will frequently find themselves working as interpreters between you and their parents. This means that no matter what you try to tell them, your parents will only be able to understand what a five year old can tell them, and as a result they may not be getting the message you are trying to send. If you can, try to make things easier for your students’ parents. Hire an interpreter for school functions when possible (provided your parents all speak the same first language). Tap into resources in your school, particularly other teachers who are bilingual. Put homework assignments in writing so your parents can see on the page what their children are supposed to be doing. And use online translation services for necessary communications (though have someone fluent in the parents’ language read it over before you send it out). You will have to work harder than other teachers to have a good relationship with your parents, but it’s not impossible if you take the extra time to do it.

It does take a special person to teach ESL to very young learners, but those special people also get an amazing reward when they do. If you are one of these teachers, you already know amazing it feels to get a smile, receive a hug, or see the light go on in a young child’s eye when they finally understand what you are saying.

Do you teach very young English learners?

What is your favorite part about working with that age group?

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