How to Teach English to Children: 3 Powerful Strategies for Impressive Results

Do you often hear precious little laughs and dramatic sobs in the same day?

Is your classroom is filled with color and creativity?

Have you ever felt like you’re becoming your mother (“Stop making that face or it will freeze that way!”)?

If you answered yes to any of these, you might just be an elementary teacher!

And if you teach elementary ESL, you may often find a smile on your face.

That is, until you run up against some of the struggles that are unique to teaching children—because they certainly do exist.

Language by nature is very abstract and intangible. Children, on the other hand, are very literal and concrete.

This makes it challenging to explain grammar or syntax rules to children. (How do you explain the conditional tense to a five-year-old?!)

But rest easy. As long as you know these three essential strategies for teaching English to children, your students will succeed. Even if they can’t articulate what a first conditional is.

How to Teach English to Children: 3 Strategies for Success

1. Make It Fun

Fun, fun, fun! This is one factor that really matters to kids. And that goes for kids on the playground as well as those in the classroom. I’ll never forget what my nephew said after his first day of kindergarten: “We didn’t learn anything. We just played!” And though I’m sure his class contained some academics, they were hidden well beneath a thick layer of fun.

That’s right. It’s entirely possible to teach a fun and educational class. One of the top ways to achieve this is with native content from FluentU.

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

With inbuilt video quizzes and interactive flashcards, your students will be able to learn real English through context and games.

Some educators believe that kids learn best through play. And what is true of English-speaking children, in this case, will also be true of your English-learning students. Here are some ways you can make learning more fun with your students:

Play Games

Games are a great way to make learning fun. Not only do games play on the competitive nature of most children, but games also give them a goal to accomplish. When you win a game, you have really done something, and you can feel good about your success.

There are so many games that can be used in an ESL classroom, we’ll only be able to scratch the surface today. But here are a few games that require little to no preparation, and are super fun for young students.

  • Simon Says: The classic Simon Says is great for practicing listening skills. You can use it to review body parts (“Simon says touch your head“) or prepositions (“Simon says put your foot on your chair”).
  • Mother May I: Take your movement games a step further and play Mother May I. Your students can use all sorts of adjectives to describe the types of steps they would like to take as they race to the other side of the playing area.
  • Memory: Memory is great for learning vocabulary. Try putting a vocabulary word on one card and a picture showing the word on another. Or put synonyms or antonyms on two different cards. Lay all the cards on the table and have students try to remember where the matches are.

Be Creative

Doing the same things in class every day is boring for your students, and you’re liable to fall asleep on the job, too. So be creative with your plans.

Change things up on a regular basis. Rearrange your students’ seats so they get a different inspirational view from time to time. Give your students the test before you teach the material, and let them answer the questions as they learn. Invite guest speakers in whenever you get the chance.

You can keep the same basic schedule every day, but vary the types of exercises you do. Rotate between doing exercises from the textbook, having students work on the computer on social media or ESL learning websites, and giving them real-life materials to work with rather than ESL materials.

Try a poem by Robert Frost rather than a simple reading passage. You can also have students come up with their own games, activities and exercises. Have your students write quiz question for each other, or give them some simple game supplies and let them make thier own review game for the latest grammar point. You might be surprised at how creative students can be.

Include Art in Your Class

Kids love to make colorful and exciting things in the classroom. Pablo Picasso observed that “every child is an artist.” Take advantage of that inborn quality and use art to teach your young students the English language. Of course you can talk about obvious things like colors and shapes when you use art, but creative projects have so much more potential.

  • Cultural Traditions: Invite your students to make an art project based on different cultural traditions. Then talk about that culture as well as their own—either as you make the project or once it is finished. Since kids are more concrete than adults, so having a piece of art in front of them will help them make connections to culture, which is a super abstract topic for kids.
  • Collages: Art projects are also a great way to talk about prepositions of location. Collages are easy, and you can make one with just about anything. As your students work, give them instructions on where to place different items using prepositions, or let them tell you what they are doing and where items in their collage are in relation to each other. Don’t forget to give each person a chance to talk about their completed artwork after any art activity.
  • Cooking: Don’t forget about the art of cooking. When you make any food in class, whether it is traditional or international, you have a chance to talk about all five senses. There is a saying that we first eat with our eyes, then our noses, then our mouths. Talk about all five senses when you cook with your students, and be sure to include the process of cooking. As you instruct your students, you cover grammar topics like imperative statements, transitions between steps, and cause and effect relationships.

Take Your Class Outside

Have you ever tried taking a class outside? If not, you’d be surprised at what they can learn in the great outdoors. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Scavenger Hunt: Try sending your students on a scavenger hunt on your school grounds. You can tailor the items they are looking for to whatever unit you are in the process of teaching. If you want, you might have them look for items that begin with each letter of the alphabet, or items that are each color of the rainbow. You can have them look for certain shapes, too.
  • Treasure Hunt: You can send your students out with clues to solve (either based on grammar or content) and have each clue lead them to another. Hide your clues outside before class, geocache fashion and give students plenty of time to gather all of them before heading inside and discussing the clues and their solutions.
  • Make Signs: Copy the pages of a picture book and make them into signs. Put these signs up around your school property and have students read each page and answer a question before moving on to the next station. There are lots of ways you can bring books to the outdoors.

2. Make It Active

If there is one thing kids like more than having fun, it’s moving. In fact, Dr. Maria Montessori suggested that young children are not able to learn unless they are also able to move. In addition, involving the whole body in language learning is a useful teaching method. The more language learners move, the better and faster they understand what you are teaching and the more easily they can retain the information.

TPR (Total Physical Response) is a teaching method that works really well with children. In essence, you associate physical movements with language instruction. Students move as they learn. They follow instructions, copy your movements and get their whole bodies involved when they practice language concepts. This is one of the most effective ways to teach ESL to children.

Using hands-on material is also a great way to get your students moving as they learn English. You can use simple items like flashcards, but you can also be more creative with what you give your students to handle.

  • Small World Play: Try collecting animal figures that show up in a book or story your class is reading, and let students retell the story using the figures. Try using this small world play when you do units on different subjects. Create a small scenario that includes play-sized items that represent those found in the real world.
  • Mystery Bags: Really target your students’ sense of touch by putting items in brown paper bags. Then have them reach into the bags without looking and describe what they are feeling.
  • Jenga Discussion: Rather than giving students a list of discussion questions on paper, write each question on a Jenga block. Then have students answer the question on the block they pulled for their turn.

3. Don’t Put Pressure on Your Students

One of the most important things to remember when you teach children is not to put pressure on them. Remember that children learn some aspects of foreign languages more easily than adults. So no matter what you do in class, they will already be on the road to fluency in English.

Their natural acquisition process will follow three simple steps. They will recognize words and grammar when you use them. They will be able to respond when you ask them questions about the words and grammar you use. And then they will be able to use those language structures themselves.

You can avoid putting pressure on students by:

  • Not correcting every error they make. Focus on what you have recently taught, and correct errors with those words and structures. But if you haven’t covered a grammar point yet, let it go. Your students don’t have to have all of English perfect right away.
  • Modeling correct language use. When you hear a student say something wrong or use a word incorrectly, just use it correctly right afterwards. The natural language learning feedback system in the human brain will notice the difference, and your students will likely use the language correctly just from hearing it right.
  • Not giving everything a grade. Sometimes it’s enough to just go over correct answers with your students or have them discuss their answers together. You don’t have to collect every paper and mark it up with the mighty red pen.

Because language is abstract and children are concrete, they may not be able to articulate grammar and other technical aspects of language, and that’s okay. Just keep things fun, active pressure-free, and your students will be fluent in no time!

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