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Teaching English to Young Learners

How To Teach English, Teaching Young Learners


Learning is fun!

TEYL or Teaching English to Young Learners refers to a more specialized area of teaching English‏‎ which deals with younger students.

Aside from the usual considerations which you should give to any TEFL class, there are certain extra considerations to take into account. This page offers general tips and ideas for the young learners classroom.

Note, young learners here are assumed to be about 3 – 12 years old.

First Lessons with Young Learners

In the first few classes with a YL group, it’s often good to just sit and play with the children and not to “teach” them. This way the children will begin to relax around you and not feel threatened or worried by the new face.

Also, and this is important, it’s good to speak English only. Young children who are learning languages are very proficient at working out what languages people speak and will switch automatically to what is appropriate. Even though you may understand the child’s mother tongue (MT) and be able to respond, unless it’s an emergency you should speak only in English with the child (while at the same time allowing the child to speak their MT).

Finally, speak naturally to the children. Don’t simplify your grammar‏‎ too much and speak “baby talk” to them, just make sure you use fairly basic words and phrases.

What to Teach Young Learners

A first general rule is to forget teaching grammar to young learners but instead concentrate on simple, useful phrases and conversations. Functional English in other words.

By this we mean don’t get them to learn and practice the present continuous‏‎, instead get them to talk about what they are doing and what their friends are doing. Young children do not tend to think in the abstract so make things real: talk about what they see and what they did and what they will do. Don’t practice conjugation‏‎s, instead read books together and get them to talk about their family and pets.

Tips and Tricks for Teaching English to Young Learners

Teaching English to young learners is a whole specialized field. Here we offer just a few ideas to think about when you begin.

Attention Spans of Young Learners

In general children have much shorter attention spans than adults. This means that while it is easy to get them motivated and involved, it is also very easy to lose them if the activity is too long or complex.

This being the case, it’s wise to break your lesson down into small segments. On the same lines, it’s also useful to break any instructions‏‎ down into small units (which you should do with any class).

For example, each activity should have an average length of perhaps 5 – 15 minutes at most. Once you see the children are getting a little bored or distracted, move on to something new.

Motivating Young Learners

Children are easily motivated by reward. They will do something because they will gain something at the end. If you can turn an activity into a competition with a prize (however small) it will motivate the students. Boys vs Girls is an easy one here.

Teacher Stress with Young Learners

TEYL can be more stressful than many classes. It’s noisier, young children have a shorter attention span and need more stimulation to keep them interested, and they are likely to give you less polite feedback!

In TEYL you need to try your utmost to keep calm during the class. There’s little point in getting mad or angry with children as it will upset both you and them further. Instead, after the lesson try to work out what went wrong and how it can be corrected for future lessons.

Abstract Thought in Young Learners

For children, the dominant sense is visual (as it is for most adults also, but for children it is especially important) so try to use as many visual aids as possible – flashcards‏‎ or realia‏‎ and especially toys. As children develop so too does their ability to think in an abstract sense so remember that whilst they are young it is easier for them to see a picture and understand what it is rather than hear a word and try to imagine it.

Language Development in Young Learners

The children in your class are probably still learning their own mother tongue. Although this is not going to cause a problem, remember that teaching grammar‏‎ is probably going to be out of the question since they will not even be able to apply to their own language and it will be extremely abstract for them to understand.

Instead, concentrate on teaching simple, useful language: colors, names, phrases and so on which are highly practical and useful and relevent to the classroom or their life.

Language Ability & Development in Young Learners

Even though the age of the students may be very similar, you are likely to find major differences in the abilities of your students as children develop at very different rates; this means you are very likely to be facing a mixed ability class.

To help counter this, build up a repertoire of different activities which you can change at a moment’s notice. Get the class used to working in small groups‏‎ on different kinds of activities as well.

Punishment & Young Learners

Try to avoid using punishment with children (and with classes in general, but especially in the TEYL classroom). They will be noisy at times and every so often there might even be a tantrum. But stay calm and let it pass.

Instead, reward positive behavior. It is a slightly longer process but worth it in the long run. Children will work because they want to please you, rather than because they are afraid of you.

Activities for Young Learners

Children love stories and there are plenty of books you can use – children’s books in English are fine with the right class since they are often very well written using very simple language. However, make sure to try and teach much of the key vocabulary‏‎ beforehand in other activities so the children do not lose track during the story telling and wander off (either mentally or literally).

Children also love games and songs so use them liberally in your class.

Mistakes from Young Learners

Avoid pointing out mistakes; instead, praise and point out correct English.

Other Children

Although you should encourage children working together in small groups, remember that young children can be very touchy about others in the class so you should avoid pushing students to work together when obviously one of them doesn’t want to be there and would rather work with their friend.

Parents of Young Learners

Bear in mind that the children in your class are likely to tell their parents everything which goes on! It is like teaching in a class with a dozen or more video cameras to avoid any problems, just imagine the parents are sitting there at the back of the classroom while you teach!

Related Articles

Teaching English to Teenagers – Tips on teaching students in their teens.

Teaching English to Adults – all about teaching mature students.

TEFL to Adults vs TEFL to Children –  be aware of the difference.



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  1. shirley

    It’s very useful, how can I see more helpful articles about teaching young learners?

    • Pete West

      HI Shirley, thank you for your comment. You can search the ICAL TEFL Resources by category and by key word. So feel free to browse and read more interesting articles on this or any other TEFL realted topic.