How to Teach English to Children: 9 Powerful Strategies for Impressive Results
If you teach elementary ESL, you’re likely familiar with the struggles unique to teaching children—because they certainly exist.
Languages are very abstract and intangible.
Children, on the other hand, are very literal and concrete.
This makes explaining things like grammar and syntax rules challenging to kids.
(How do you explain the conditional tense to a five-year-old?!)
In this post, we’ll go over how to teach English to children using nine effective strategies. Even if they can’t articulate what a first conditional is.
- 1. Play Games During Classtime
- 2. Diversify Classroom Exercises
- 3. Include Art Projects to Teach Culture and Difficult Topics
- 4. Have Classes Outside
- 5. Use the Total Physical Response (TPR) Method
- 6. Use Hands-on Material in Classes
- 7. Encourage Natural Acquisition By Maintaining a Stress-free Environment
- 8. Use Native Speaker Videos to Reinforce Your Lessons
- 9. Encourage Language Output
1. Play Games During Classtime
Games are a great way to make learning fun.
Not only do games play on the competitive nature of most children, but they also give them a goal. When they win a game, they get a feeling of accomplishment and feel good about their success.
There are 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 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 classroom.
- 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.
2. Diversify Classroom Exercises
Doing the same things in class daily 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 regularly.
Rearrange your students’ seats so they get a different view. Give your students the test before you teach the material, and let them answer the questions as they learn. Invite guest speakers 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, working on the computer or social media and using ESL learning websites. Give 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 develop their own games, activities and exercises.
Have your students write quiz questions for each other, or give them simple game supplies and let them make their own review game for the latest grammar point. You’ll be surprised by how creative students can be.
3. Include Art Projects to Teach Culture and Difficult Topics
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.
Here are a few ideas:
- Cultural Traditions. Invite your students to make an art project based on different cultural traditions. Then talk about that culture and their own—either as you make the project or once it’s finished. Since kids are more concrete than adults, having a tangible piece of art will help them connect to the culture—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’re doing and where items in their collage are. Don’t forget to give each student a chance to talk about their completed artwork after any activity.
- Cooking. You can talk about all five senses when making food in class, whether traditional or international. There’s a saying that we first eat with our eyes, noses then mouths. As you instruct your students, cover grammar topics like imperative statements, transitions between steps and cause-and-effect relationships.
4. Have Classes Outside
Have you ever tried taking your 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’re looking for to whatever unit you’re teaching. For example, 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 specific 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 them before heading inside and discussing the clues and their solutions.
- Make Signs. There are lots of ways you can bring books to the outdoors. Copy the pages of a picture book and make them into signs. Put these signs around your school property and have students read each page and answer a question before moving on to the next station.
5. Use the Total Physical Response (TPR) Method
If there’s one thing kids like more than having fun, it’s moving.
In fact, Dr. Maria Montessori suggested that young children can’t learn unless they can also move.
Involving the whole body in language learning is a valuable teaching method. The more language learners move, the better and faster they understand what you’re teaching. And the more quickly they can retain the information.
Total Physical Response (TPR) is a teaching method that works well with children.
In essence, you associate physical movements with language instruction.
Students move as they learn. They follow instructions, copy your movements and involve their whole bodies when practicing language concepts.
6. Use Hands-on Material in Classes
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. Let students retell the story using the figures. Create a small scenario that includes play-sized items that represent those 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 their feelings.
- 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.
7. Encourage Natural Acquisition By Maintaining a Stress-free Environment
One of the most important things to remember when teaching children is to not pressure them.
Their natural acquisition process will follow three simple steps:
1. They will recognize words and grammar when you use them.
2. They will be able to respond when you ask them questions about the words and grammar you use.
3. 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’ve recently taught, and correct mistakes 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 misuse a word, use it correctly right after. The human brain’s natural language learning feedback system 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 go over correct answers with your students or have them discuss their answers together. You don’t have to collect and mark every paper with the mighty red pen.
8. Use Native Speaker Videos to Reinforce Your Lessons
Videos are highly-valuable resources to use in your ESL lessons for several reasons.
First, hearing native speakers talk will get your students used to different accents, improve their listening skills and create an immersive environment.
Second, videos are entertaining. It might be hard for kids to sit in their seats for eight hours, but they can easily become glued to an iPad screen.
Third, there are videos that can complement any and every lesson you cover. This reinforces what you’ve taught in case some students didn’t grasp everything, and it lets them see how new words and grammar are used in context.
You can always use YouTube, but there are also resources like FluentU that intentionally use authentic English videos to teach the language.
For example, FluentU has tons of English videos meant for native speakers in its library.
Each video comes with interactive subtitles, meaning students can click on words they don’t know to see their meanings, pronunciations, example sentences and more. This makes for excellent homework practice.
You can use FluentU’s video-based dictionary to find videos that use the words or grammar structures you’re teaching in class. Then, watch it with your students, pointing out the usages in the subtitles.
9. Encourage Language Output
Children learn languages best through immersion and repetition. So it’s essential to complement your immersion strategies with enough opportunities for them to create their own sentences and use English in real life.
Kids often try to take the easiest way out or use the shortest phrases possible when communicating in a new language, especially when they still have a limited vocabulary.
So to combat this, encourage output at every opportunity.
Here are a few ways you can make your classroom an ideal environment for language production:
- Ask open-ended questions instead of yes/no questions. If your questions only allow for one-word answers, that’s all you’ll get from kids. Instead of asking yes/no and true/false type questions in class, ask open-ended questions that require kids to think and use more of their English vocabulary. For example, instead of asking, “Did you have a good weekend?” on a Monday morning, ask, “How was your weekend?”.
- Tell kids what you want them to say, not what you don’t want them to say. It’s extremely easy to default to telling students, “Don’t say…” when they make a mistake. Instead of reinforcing that what they said was wrong, model what they should have said and have them repeat after you. Not only does this teach them natural and correct ways to speak English, but it also reduces pressure and performance anxiety in class.
- Make conversations a focus in class. Encourage conversations at every chance you get. Open your class with conversations and end them with conversations. This will help students solidify what they learn and also make them more comfortable using the language. And if anyone defaults to using their native language at any point, simply guide them by asking, “Can you say it to me in English, please?”
Because language is abstract and children are concrete, they may be unable to articulate grammar and other technical aspects of English—and that’s okay.
Just keep things fun, active and pressure-free, and your students will be fluent in no time!