Learning English as a second language (ESL) is one of the most challenging things an adult can do. Understanding an entire language’s worth of new words is difficult, but learning English, a language notorious for spelling and pronunciation inconsistencies, is especially tricky.
Children, on the other hand, have it slightly easier. Since they’re young and their brains constantly evolve, kids are more receptive to learning new skills. However, even though teaching ESL to kids is more manageable than adults, it's still impossible without the proper education techniques.
In this guide, we’ll walk through some of the best educational practices for teaching English to young students and how you can develop lesson plans that work.
Don’t Be Afraid to Repeat Yourself
Even though children learn quicker than adults, teaching them a new language presents two unique roadblocks that hinder their retention.
First, your English lessons only account for one or two hours of their busy day, leaving them plenty of time to forget whatever you just taught them. Second, you might have a class with a collectively short attention span, meaning anyone can lose their focus and miss a crucial lesson at a given moment.
That’s why it's essential to repeat yourself as much as possible, whether you’re restating a grammar term or repeating an entire lesson. Giving your students two, three, or even four opportunities to hear your teachings will increase their retention.
Keep in Touch with Your Students
One of the biggest mistakes ESL teachers make is assuming that all their students are on the same page. Again, learning a new language is tricky, and even your most attentive students will struggle during specific lessons.
That’s why it's essential to give your class retention checks and check on students individually from time to time. Of course, you can assign quizzes to gauge their understanding, but some young kids feel intimidated by the grading process. Some good ideas for low-stakes, engaging ways to check in with your students include:
- Designing speaking activities around the daily lesson so that they can practice their new skills in real-time
- Handing out a non-graded survey that asks friendly questions about their day using the material (for example, if you’re reviewing numbers, asking them to rate their day on a 1-10 scale)
- Asking casual questions about their day that require an English response
Always Be Creative
Most kids will remember their unique, engaging, and fun days at school more than the ones they spent quietly filling out a worksheet. So, if you can design your lessons with a creative edge, your class is more likely to remember what you taught them and have fun in the process.
Here are a handful of fun ways to teach English to young students to improve their engagement and retention chances.
Children love getting the chance to compete, especially in between dry lessons and long stretches of paperwork. And if you can design a friendly competition, either between your students and yourself or the students and each other, you’ll give them a goal to work toward that encourages them to pay close attention during lessons.
Fortunately, there are several types of games you can put together in an ESL classroom without much effort or outside props, including:
- Quiz-show style games on vocabulary terms or history
- Memory competitions with eight terms written on flashcards and eight of their English matches that require the students to find proper vocabulary words and pair them
- Simon Says for commands and vocabulary words (for example, “Simon Says touch the clock with your left hand”)
Teaching ESL to kids with songs that lean heavily into vocabulary terms and phrases is one of the most effective ways to improve their retention. Not only does catchy music stick in young children’s heads, but if the song is accessible and good enough, they’ll want to listen to it on their own.
There are plenty of ESL songs already available, but if you’re creative enough, you can even try to write your own tailored to your lessons.
Mnemonic devices are snappy phrases or acronyms that help people remember elaborate ideas or concepts. For example, many educators teach PEMDAS, a shorthand term for the mathematical order of operations, as “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Susie” is a fun phrase to get students to remember those six essential starting letters.
Creating your own ESL-based mnemonic devices for vocabulary collections can give your struggling students a reliable memory shorthand.
Many children learn the best through visual demonstrations and hands-on experience, and art projects are the best way to combine those two education styles in an ESL classroom. For example, asking students to draw a person and label their head and limbs can engage their desire for first-hand learning and concept visualization.
Collages are another excellent way to bring art into the classroom. You can partner students together and ask them to build a scenery with vocabulary terms using instructions with additional vocab. For example, if you’re teaching colours and directions, one step of the instructions can read, “draw a green tree on the left side of the collage.”
One of the most significant barriers to teaching ESL to kids is that it's challenging to apply your lessons to real-life situations. But you can overcome that common hurdle with well-designed role-playing scenarios.
For example, if you’re teaching your students about food, you can assign a two-person situation where one student pretends to run a restaurant, and the other pretends to be a customer. The second student then has to order a meal, and the first has to describe what ingredients it contains.
Keep Lessons Visual
Reading words out of a textbook or worksheet will eventually turn boring for anyone, especially young children with shorter attention spans. So, when teaching ESL to kids, try to keep your lessons as visually engaging as possible with these two simple techniques.
Acting out vocabulary terms, and asking your students to act along with you, is a surefire way to keep their attention throughout the lesson. Anything as simple as shouting out an animal and asking your class to mimic its sounds or mime its behaviour will interest them more than telling them what the word means.
With that extra engagement will come extra retention, as young kids will remember the days they spent in class pretending to be a cow more than the ones where they just heard a vocabulary word.
Of course, miming won’t be as effective for advanced phrases. Bringing in props to communicate complex ideas will give your students a clear vision of what you’re teaching.
Accompanying vocabulary words with matching pictures will quickly break the language barrier. Going the extra mile and setting up scenes with puppets or stuffed animals for complicated lessons will provide that necessary visual while giving the class a day to remember.
Take Lessons Outdoors
Engagement is the key to teaching ESL to kids. If your class is interested in learning what you have to say, they'll pay attention during lessons and have enough fun to invest fully. One of the best and simplest ways to increase engagement is to offer a change of scenery.
Bringing your lessons outside and giving your class an extra opportunity for direct sunlight and fresh air can be the mental reset they need to make it through the day. It broadens your lesson planning ability as well.
You can design scavenger hunts and outdoor art projects with unique directions when taking the class outside. This will help them stay engaged, but those hands-on, real-world lessons will also give you the chance to boost their understanding of outdoor vocabulary.
Break Everything up Into Small Sections
Teaching ESL to kids can feel like a daunting task with how much ground you have to cover, but if you rush through your lessons and try to teach your students everything in one session, they’ll likely learn less than they would if you had remained patient.
Try to break units into bite-sized sections and focus on hammering that tiny bit of information home rather than rushing through a broad topic. For example, if you’re teaching your class about animals, spend the day discussing common pets and asking everyone to describe their pet rather than reading through a 100-term list of animals without enough time for a group activity.
Keep Your Students on Their Toes
Students are more likely to remain engaged in your lessons if they know they'll need the information later in the class. For example, suppose you occasionally assign group work based on the lessons or spark a light conversation with a student about the vocabulary terms. In that case, they'll know to remain focused and try their hardest.
But Don’t Be Too Hard on Them
While it's essential to keep your students on their toes when teaching ESL to kids, it's even more important never to go too far. You want your kids to feel comfortable and eager to learn rather than scared of failure or disappointment, and there are three key ways to promote that positive environment in your class.
Testing your kids on their knowledge retention is vital, but remember, nobody wants to feel like a failure. And students that receive repeated poor marks on their assignments will often take the criticism poorly and feel discouraged from trying on future lessons.
Try to offer regular ungraded assignments so that your class can put their knowledge to the test without the pressure or fear of failure. That way, you’ll still gauge their knowledge, but nobody will feel heartbroken at the sight of a poorly-marked paper.
Utilize Positive Reinforcement
If you plan on grading papers, try to mark them with as many positive comments as you do point deductions. That way, the students who score highly can take pride in their impressive numbers, while those who struggle can find a silver lining in some specific compliments.
Remain Patient with The Learning Curve
No matter how well you teach ESL to kids, there will be a steep learning curve. Even the students who work hard and retain more than others won't have perfect grammar or understanding in every lesson, and that's fine. It's not a reflection of your teaching skills, just of how difficult it is to learn English as a second language.
If you’re patient with the learning curve, avoid correcting every minor mistake, and understand that not every project will be perfect, your students will feel comfortable learning and won’t fear those inevitable mistakes.
Teach Your Kids ESL With Proven Learning Methods
Teaching ESL to kids is challenging but not impossible. As long as you remain creative, patient, and visual, you'll keep students engaged and on track to learn English as a second language.
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