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.

From the Other Side of the Classroom

The best way to understand what it’s like for your students to learn a foreign language is to learn one yourself. If you’re teaching your native language, showing your students that you have made an effort to learn their language and that you speak in spite of your errors also sets an excellent example. 
It’s been a long time since I struggled to learn Hebrew as a second language, so recently I began learning spoken Arabic.  We are fortunate to have a wonderful teacher who usually teaches children. Some of her methods are similar to mine, which allows me to see my lessons from the other side. 
Drilling – Reciting lists of words is boring and not very effective. Using words in sentences, or better yet in songs, is a much better way to learn and remember sentence structures. Unfortunately we don’t sing many songs but I do occasionally look for them on my own. Some students have asked for printed tables of verb forms. Personally I think that constantly referring to a list would make conversation difficult, and that it’s much easier to learn verbs and tenses in context.
Pronunciation – We aren’t learning the Arabic alphabet. The teacher writes words on the board in Hebrew letters, but when she says them they often sound completely different from they way I would read them. We need to hear the words to learn them properly. I’ve begun recording more of the lessons and writing fewer words. For the same reason, I discourage my students from writing English words using Hebrew letters, and provide younger students with CDs of the songs we learn so that they can listen and review what we’ve learned at home.
Willingness to Communicate – In a SHELTA drama course we discussed this topic as a critical point in learning any language. Speaking a new language requires confidence, determination and an awareness of the importance of speaking, even with errors. My students often refuse to speak English because they don’t know English, I remind them that they will never know English until they begin speaking. As a student, I try to speak as much Arabic as possible during class and make note of my mistakes. There are other students who have decided to just sit back and listen until they feel ready to speak. In both cases I can see how active learning is much more effective than passive learning.
Translation – Every language has unique syntax, sentence structures and expressions. Translating sentences word-for-word often results in sentences that at best are awkward and can even be embarrassing. I’ve been trying to explain this to my students for years as they try to understand English by translating each word into Hebrew and then putting them together, then translating their answers back to English the same way. Now I’m experiencing it from Hebrew to Arabic. I’ve tried to say sentences using words I know and was told that that’s not the way to express the idea in Arabic. She then rearranged the sentence so that it made sense. This is called Lexical, or whole-language, learning. At least I understand this concept and didn’t argue with her.
Comprehension – When our teacher speaks to us in Arabic, I listen for the words I recognize and pay attention to facial expressions and hand motions.  I’ve told my students for years that they can understand English even when they don’t understand every word, and now I’m discovering that it’s true. When students constantly ask “What does that word mean?” and then try to put everything together, they often miss the general idea.
After sitting in the student’s chair, I can honestly say that what I expect from them is not only possible, it’s the best way to learn.