Teaching ESL/EFL to children poses some unique challenges and can feel quite daunting when you first start out – but it’s also hugely rewarding once you get into your stride. Seeing young ESL learners go from knowing nothing, to learning a few words, to using a few simple sentences and then spontaneously speaking English whilst engaged in an activity or game is the best feeling ever.
Here are our 10 Top Tips for teaching ESL/ELT to children, to help you get into your stride with confidence. We hope they’ll be useful for new teachers, and that experienced teachers will find them a valuable reminder too.
1. Establish a class routine
It might seem a bit boring, but it’s invaluable to establish a structured class routine as soon as possible. It not only improves children’s confidence, it also creates a more positive learning environment. Children like to know what to expect and if they aren’t sure what they should be doing, or what comes next, you can guarantee unwanted behaviour will soon follow!
There is no ‘best routine’, you’ll have to figure out what works well for you and your young learners – making slight adjustments, as required! Here’s a good place to start: https://bridge.edu/tefl/blog/esl-classroom-management-routines-for-young-learners/
2. Be consistent in your classroom rules and discipline
It’s important to be seen as being fair (within the parameters of the school’s policies and/or local culture) – so be clear about which behaviours you will and won’t tolerate in your classroom, and how you’ll deal with them if they arise.
If children know the rules, and are actively engaged in their learning, there’ll be fewer issues for you to deal with. That being said, you don’t have any control over what happened to them during the rest of the day, whether they had enough sleep, if they’re unwell, etc – so there’ll inevitably be unwanted behaviours to manage.
The children need to know that you’re in charge and will deal fairly and calmly with any situation. You need to create a safe learning environment, with compassion and care. Sometimes easier said than done, but keep working at it!
3. Change activities every 10-15 minutes
Children have limited attention spans (some none at all!) – which means it’s important to keep the class moving along at a decent pace. Avoid talking for long periods of time – you’re far more likely to hold their attention by using a variety of activities that involve different skills.
It isn’t essential to run at 100km/h for the entire class – children need to experience a balance of calm and energetic periods. Some ‘down time’ tasks can include watching a cartoon, reading a book, playing a board game, colouring an activity sheet. These are just as valuable as high-energy action songs and games – so keep working towards that balance.
Most importantly, if your planned ESL/EFL activity is not working, move on – don’t try to flog a dead horse just because it took you four hours to prepare! Keep extra, back-up activities up your sleeve for this purpose.
4. Prepare well, prepare a lot
Nothing can give you greater confidence on entering an ESL/EFL class full of young learners than having a well-prepared lesson and all the materials needed to execute it. You can’t just wing it the way you can with teenagers and adults (not that we are suggesting you ever would!).
For an hour-long ESL/EFL class we recommend you plan at least five, ten-minute activities (ideally with two back-up activities). Of course, you also need to have the materials organised for each of these activities too. Anything you don’t use in this class can be recycled to use next time. It’s always better to have too much than too little.
It’s also worth building a collection of ESL/EFL flashcards, songs, action songs and rhymes, games, books, puzzles, realia, activity sheets, etc – and filing them by topic. Over time you will have all the resources you need, for most of your class planning.
5. Build your lessons around themes / topics
Focusing on a topic each week brings consistency to your lessons – and you can embed vocabulary and grammar within the lessons more easily. Just make sure they are topics that are relevant, and of interest, to the children – animals, food, family, daily activities, etc.
Building lessons around a topic can really help to keep young ESL/EFL learners attentive. It creates a sense of continuity from one activity to the next, where you can revise and recycle the key language in meaningful ways. The ESL/EFL Activity Packs from Osito ESL are a great place to start, and will save you many hours of searching the internet for suitable, topic-based ideas and worksheets. https://osito-esl.com
6. Maintain / retain focus during transition periods
Keep in mind that any ‘free time’ will see children become distracted and you do not want to leave them to their own devices! Once you’ve lost their attention it’s often an uphill battle to win it back… so better not to lose it in the first place!
When teaching ESL/EFL to children you need to gently guide their energy and excitement, both during specific activities and during the transitions between them. Moving between activities can be difficult to manage, so have some tricks up your sleeve. These can simply be the class singing a song, dancing, performing an action song, watching a cartoon – while you quickly prepare the next task.
7. Drill, repeat, drill, repeat … but be creative
Young ESL/EFL learners need a lot of repetition and drilling as they get to grips with the new sounds, intonation, etc. You’ll need to recycle and repeat language often – but through as many different activities as you can conjure up! You don’t want the children to get bored, so you need to cleverly weave the vocabulary or grammar into a range of tasks.
Flashcards are a good starting point for teaching new vocabulary, but they can also be used in numerous ways for games, such as Pairs, Kim’s Game and Chinese Whispers. For more ideas on getting the most out of flashcards in your classroom, watch this short film, from the British Council: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AIciRkz3INI
Songs and games are clearly the most enjoyable way to repeat vocabulary and you can find lots of inspiration on YouTube for songs, action songs and rhymes – along with films of successful classroom games and activities being modeled.
8. Get to know the names of all the children
It’s important that we build relationships with all the children in our classes, whether we see them for just one hour a week or several hours a day. Connection is key to positive learning and co-operation. The first step is to learn each child’s name – some you will learn very quickly, due to their behaviour!
Having children working in groups or pairs for some activities will allow you to move around the class and talk to the children individually. Make sure each child gets some positive, personal attention from you during every class, including eye contact, smiles, praise and encouragement.
Showing them that you care about them is important, so learn their names, listen to what they have to say, include plenty of humour in the class, be firm but fair, etc. Children learn best from people they like and respect.
9. Don’t expect too much too soon – take your time
With the younger children, it’s important to remember that they are still learning how to hold a pencil, use a pair of scissors, complete a jigsaw, and learn their first language – so don’t expect too much too soon.
Yes, it can be very unnerving to sit in front of a mute group of children, who refuse to speak, but you must hold your nerve! Be assured that they are listening and taking things in, they’re just not ready to speak yet… so don’t try to force it. When they do start speaking, remember not to rush them for an answer! We all need time to process information and respond – especially in a second language – so patience, patience, patience!
10. Give lots of praise and establish a reward system
Praising young ESL/EFL learners encourages them and builds their confidence. Learning occurs best when children are motivated and feel good about themselves – so plenty of praise for even the smallest effort is important. In most classes, a reward system can work very well as a motivational tool. This can be as simple as awarding stickers, or as complex as setting up a reward chart or team-points system.
Some suggest that ‘bribery’ is not the answer! We disagree! With small prizes, certificates, stickers and privileges (pick a game, draw on the board, watch a cartoon, play a game on the tablet, choose a story, etc) you will have them eating out of your hand. Then you can get on with the job of actually teaching them English… which really is the point!
Positive reinforcement strategies are a great way to make young learners feel safe, build a rapport with you and motivate them to do their best. You can find some good starting points here: https://www.brighthubeducation.com/esl-teaching-tips/73227-strategies-for-rewarding-young-students/
Teaching ESL/EFL to children requires patience (oh, so much patience!) but also a sense of fun and good humour. It’s important to enjoy it and not take yourself too seriously. It may be incredibly hard work, and involve endless hours of preparation, but it can also be the most satisfying and rewarding job ever.
I always hold in the back of my mind, that if the children in our classes enjoy their initial experiences / exposure to learning a new language, they’ll feel confident and inspired to continue – so we’re not just teaching English, we’re really paving the way to their future success!
What top tip would you give to someone starting out in teaching ESL/EFL to children? Let’s share and support each other in our endeavours.