Joyful Beginnings: 5 ESL Activities That’ll Get Children Grinning

Ever tried to play games with kids in English?

It can be a fun treat!

But what about when the child doesn’t even know how to say hello?

In this case, trying to play games or sing songs can be just plain frustrating.

It can’t be denied—teaching English to children is nothing like teaching adults!

Attention spans are shorter, and the child’s vocabulary is much more limited—even in his or her native language—meaning that the topics you can discuss are limited as well.

Luckily, where there’s a will, there’s a way! Here are five of our favorite ESL activities for children to get beginner children excited about learning their first words of English.

These activities work particularly well with beginners, as the child doesn’t need to have an extensive English vocabulary to participate, but once you’ve integrated these methods into your teaching style, you may find yourself using them again and again, even with more advanced students.

How to Use These ESL Activities for Children

Attention spans in beginner classes, no matter the age group, tend to be reduced. After all, it’s hard to ask someone who barely understands what you’re talking about to follow an in-depth discussion about anything, even if it is of interest to them!

But for children, this is even more true. A child has a reduced attention span even in his or her own language; teaching children English, therefore, must be done with attention to this fact.

Children should generally not be asked to do an activity for any longer than 20 minutes, so if we imagine that a class lasts between 45 and 60 minutes, each activity would be about a third or up to half of a class period. Often, however, an activity will take up much less time than this.

Be sure that you are organized in your lesson in order to make the most of your time when doing these activities, and never expect an activity to take up an entire class.

If you’re after an easy and enriching resource to keep your children engaged, then check out FluentU.

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.

With familiar characters, funny clips and native English, it’s the perfect resource to keep your classroom smiling! 

5 Creative Ways to Teach Children ESL Through Fun Activities

1. Art Projects

Art is a fantastic way to get your young students excited and interested in a variety of lessons to reinforce different vocabulary.

The art project that goes with this lesson should either come at the end of the class or at the beginning of the following class after a brief review of the vocabulary. Students can draw pictures independently, but you should walk around the room and encourage them to talk to you about their work.

Let’s say you’re using an art lesson to follow up acquisition of different color words; you could ask students what color they’re using with the phrase “What color is this?”

The same sort of lesson can be used once students become more advanced with other sorts of vocabulary, from fruits to careers to animals, by having students draw pictures using the vocabulary that was introduced in class and then helping them to label their drawings using the words they learned.

Get some ideas for more art projects to reinforce vocabulary from Art Projects for Kids, a teacher-approved site filled with resources and ideas. We also love these fun ideas from the Artful Parent, craft ideas from Enchanted Learning and the themed crafts from Funology.

2. Active Games

You’ve probably already witnessed the awesome power of kinesthetic learning in the classroom, and active games can be a great way to get beginners up and moving. One of the best for beginners is Simon Says, or a variant thereof.

Simon Says can be a very useful way to reinforce new vocabulary while also upping the energy. That’s why it’s a great choice either at the beginning or in the middle of a class.

The obvious way to use Simon Says is to reinforce a vocabulary lesson involving body parts. But what you might not think of is using Simon Says to reinforce the use of action words, like “dance,” “jump” or “clap.”

Always be sure to introduce the words you plan to use in lesson format before introducing the game. Students can always assume they understand what you’re saying, particularly if they’re following the rest of the group. That’s why it’s important to use Simon Says at the end of a lesson and to make sure that you’re not giving them any hints with your own body language as to what they’re supposed to do; let the ESL lesson be their guide!

Here are several more kinesthetic games to try with your learners.

3. Singing Songs

Songs are a fantastic mnemonic device for new vocabulary, and the Internet is a wealth of different song ideas. The best time to use a song is once the vocabulary has already been introduced. Some songs are simpler, ideal for using the same day or the same week that the vocabulary is introduced:

Other songs are more complicated, making them better for students that already know some vocabulary in English. They’re great for reviewing!

But don’t limit yourself to simply singing the songs. Use them as a way to get kids participating—even your shyest students—by coming up with ways for the class to respond to the song.

For example, when using songs to reinforce vocabulary, once the song has been acquired, you can call on an individual student to fill in a “blank” with the appropriate word. This is great for songs like “Old MacDonald,” where the verse is the same each time with a slight modification—in this case, the animal’s name and sound it makes.

Here are a few other ideas to keep your students engaged while singing:

  • Have students make up hand gestures or a dance to go along with the song.
  • Ask students to illustrate the song as an art project.
  • Have students make up their own verses (when appropriate to level).
  • Have students make their own musical instruments so they can play along as they sing!

4. Labeling

Labeling can be a great way to remember new vocabulary. We already discussed a bit how labeling can be used during an art project, but you can also use labeling in a classroom or with photographs.

If you’re trying to teach the names of different things in the classroom, tasking your students with creating labels for them can be a great way to get them up and moving—and speaking! Once the labels are created, be sure to laminate them. You can use them with all sorts of games, from treasure hunts to interactive matching or memory games.

You can also use labeling with photographs, particularly if you can project them on the wall. Find photographs or images of different scenes containing vocabulary that you have covered in class. Make the labels yourself or have your students make them, and then allow students to come up and affix them on the projected image, either using magnets or putty, depending on what’s appropriate for your classroom.

Labeling of this kind is great when used in tandem with an art project, as students first identify items as a group and are then encouraged to label things on their own.

5. Educative Play

Particularly when your students are very young, educative play is a useful technique for teaching them without ever letting on! Students can be encouraged to play with one another in a variety of ways, either with board games or in a playroom or space, depending on the way your school is laid out. The idea with educative play is for teachers and assistants to participate in the play in English, asking questions that students can answer.

Examples of such questions include:

  • What are you doing?
  • What are you playing?
  • Can I play?
  • What’s that?
  • Would you like this (block, ball, doll)?

The key to making educative play fun and useful is to make sure that you engage students without frustrating them. Asking them repetitive questions or simply asking too many questions can be frustrating and counterproductive. Ask about one question every minute or so.

Encourage students to answer you in English, but don’t force them to speak to one another in English. As things progress, they may speak to one another in English of their own accord—which is proof that your efforts are paying off!

There are lots of different ways that these five types of activities can be integrated into an ESL classroom with children. Try adapting some of these ideas into your own lessons today!

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