How to teach English to young learners


I don’t know if it’s Bennett’s new program, the growing amounts of research* or a generation of Israelis who  grew up learning English but are still afraid to speak, but there seems to be an increased awareness of the importance of learning English at an early age. Many teachers are teaching English to young learners for the first time, and the question “How should I teach them?” is being raised more and more. 

My answer is – Don’t. 

???

That’s right – Don’t teach them at all. Young children learn on their own without being taught. Expose them to English by speaking to them, singing, playing games and reading stories and they will absorb the language naturally. Explanations will bore and confuse them, and are unnecessary.

Now for some more specific ideas:

Speak – Young children are very tuned in to body language, facial expressions and voice intonation. Unless you are giving complicated instructions, speak English and use gestures to make the meaning clear. They will quickly become accustomed to hearing English and recognize common words and phrases.

Sing – Songs are an excellent way to learn and remember language along with its natural rhythm and flow. Singing should be active – add movements, hand motions and props rather than just watching videos. Make sure the lyrics of the songs are simple, repetitive and suitable for EFL students. They don’t have to understand every word, but don’t burden them with words like “merrily” and “water spout”. This is why I started writing my own songs.

Play- If you play games that they already know, it will be easy for them to understand instructions in English, allowing you to use very little L1 and making them feel more comfortable by creating a familiar atmosphere. Use games in which the children repeat a few words or sentences. Some popular kindergarten games I use are Knock-Knock-What’s My Name, Telephone, What’s Missing, Red Light/Green Light and Hot/Cold.

Show them – Do any activity they like, but do it in English. Whether you dance, draw, cook or throw a ball, if they can see what you’re doing while you speak to them they will understand and pick up new vocabulary.

A few basic rules to remember:
  • Keep them active. Kids need to move.
  • Be friendly and patient. Everyone learns at their own pace.
  • Children learn by hearing, seeing and doing. 
  • Avoid translating whenever possible. Use props, pictures or gestures instead. The disadvantages of translation can fill another blog post.
  • Make it fun. They more they enjoy English, the more they’ll learn now and in the future.

And do they know the Earth is round?

I was in the car listening to the radio tonight. During the news I heard Bennett, the Minister of Education, talk about his new English program. “Children in Israel need to learn spoken English… The ability to have a conversation in English is a necessity today… Our children will know how to speak English and not be afraid to open their mouths when they’re overseas.”  Later I heard other speakers discussing the program “A student can do a 5-point Bagrut in English and still not be able to speak.” “Children need to speak a language before they learn to read it.”

Bennett’s quotes made the headlines, the interviewers sounded interested, but I think I’ve heard this before. Oh, right, I said it yesterday when I presented my English group to parents. And in the past to school principals. My motto “English is not just a subject in school, English is a language” basically sums it up. No, I’m not Galileo. Plenty of other people have discovered, researched and said all these things.  But now the top bureaucrat of education wants English to be taught as a language. This could get interesting.

The obvious question is – Will anything really change? Written English is so much simpler to teach. Students do exercises from a book and memorize vocabulary lists. Teachers prepare them for tests and then test them on the material they prepared. Tests can be graded quickly with numbers that go into a computer to be compared. Everyone can see which students are smarter and which schools are better. 

Now Bennett is talking about extra time for spoken English, debate clubs, oral exams. In other words noise, disagreements (maybe even political), no objective standards and all that extra time and effort! Teachers will need to learn new skills, and no one will be able to measure their success with standardized test scores. 

They will only have the satisfaction of hearing their students speak English and knowing that they made a difference in their lives.