There are an estimated 300 million English language learners in China and this number is only set to rise. But what most people don’t realise is that a large majority of this figure is made up of young learners! Now more than ever, the Chinese are putting a strong emphasis on learning English for their children and teenagers and around 83% of jobs for English teachers involves working directly with kindergarten or primary kids.
Working with youngsters can seem quite daunting if you’ve not had much or any experience so we’ve put together some tips to prepare you!
With young learners, especially at kindergarten age, you are likely to be their first introduction to English. But it’s equally important to understand that your classes will be the foundation for learning English and the next level of education as a whole.
So what do they want?
- A safe, stress free environment. Like adults, no one learns well if they feel uncomfortable or intimidated.
- Enthusiasm! If you’re bored, they’re bored. Besides keeping the atmosphere fun, having energy keeps the focus on you and stops their minds from wandering.
- Encouragement. Kids seek positive affirmation from the adults around them. Reward good behaviour as opposed to bad behaviour. A little praise goes a long way!
How do they behave?
- Short attention spans and easily distracted. Varying the pace in class is key. You can do this with both active and more relaxed activities. It’s usually a good idea to mix it up as young children can become tired quite easily. You’ll know they’re becoming tired when they start to lose interest, get distracted or just close their eyes and try to take a nap!
- Establish a routine and rules and stick to them. Children respond the best when there is a certain level of consistency as it makes them feel secure. This doesn’t mean your class has to be predictable or boring, only that you need some elements of routine. Be consistent with applying rules too. If you don’t apply your rules, they will soon realise that there are no consequences for bad behaviour and this will impede their learning.
- Expect crying on the first day (and maybe the second). This is normal and some children might take a while to warm up to you. Just be consistent, approachable and positive and they’ll love you in no time.
What is the primary focus for young learners?
- Communication. Kids are like sponges and you want them to begin thinking in English. The basis of this will start with sounds of the English language as many of these will be completely foreign to them. Lots of repetition and don’t forget to grade your language!!!
- Vocabulary. Try not to overload them with complicated instructions or too much vocab. Depending on the age, 4 – 5 words at a time is plenty. At kindergarten age, you can expect to be teaching the alphabet, colours, numbers, animals, days of the week, types of weather and some simple grammatical structures e.g. there is/there are, I’ve got a/I’ve got some
- Repetition. Repeat EVERYTHING. The more they hear it, the faster they learn. If you say a word, get them to repeat it. You can make a song or game out of it with clapping or gestures too.
- Establish the basic phrases. E.g. Please sit down, please stand up, please listen (this is less negative than ‘be quiet!’) and thank you. They will need to know these phrases throughout their academic career so it’s important they learn them early.
- Establish the rules early on the first day. For older students, you can write a class contract together and get everyone to sign it. This gives them the feeling of responsibility and empowerment which children respond well to. For younger students, keep the rules simple. Either way, post the rules on the wall or board so you can refer to them in class. Remember: be consistent with the rules!
- Be firm – but fair! Being firm doesn’t mean you have to be grumpy, intimidating or snappy. You can definitely still be a loving and nurturing teacher whilst employing good classroom management and acknowledging bad behaviour. As long as you’re fair and reward positive behaviour with lots of encouragement, this won’t damage your relationship with them.
- Give them a choice. If a student is misbehaving, give that a student a chance to make the right decision e.g. ‘Do you want to play the game nicely or do you want to sit to the side?’ Once they understand that there are consequences for bad behaviour, they will usually choose the right decision.
- Give boisterous or quiet students an active role. Some kids act up for attention or because they’re bored. Other students are quiet because they’re shy. In class activities and games, giving these types of students an active role engages them and gets them to participate in class. If done well, you can then reward the student, giving them a positive view of English class.
- Group weak and strong students together. This allows the weaker students to be exposed to better English without the intimidation of calling on them in front of the whole class.
- Create a points system. At the beginning of each class, put the students into two groups and reward points throughout the class. The team with the most points at the end of the class wins and this creates some positive peer pressure where they encourage each other to behave. Note: Games with points can be stressful for children under six. A more individualistic option is to hand out classroom tokens when you reward good behaviour.
- Say their name when you give praise. This is more personal and helps you build rapport.
- Always reward good behaviour. It’s much better to acknowledge and reward good behaviour than bad. Before an activity or game, you can tell the class that you’re going to watch carefully for three good students and then you can reward them.
- Be clear! Don’t use more words than necessary as it’s confusing and you’ll lose the class. Which is easier to understand? ‘Okay class, now we’re going to play a really fun and exciting game so I’d like everyone to stand up please.’ OR ‘Please listen. Please stand up.’
- Always show first. When you’re explaining a game, show them as you explain or do an example together.
- Keep them occupied during transitions. If you’re handing out sheets or getting them from the floor to tables, get them to sing a song while they do it in order to keep them focussed on the task so you don’t have to settle them down again after every transition – that gets very tiring very fast!
- ICQs – information checking questions. These are questions you ask them after you’ve given them an instruction to check they understand. For example, you have a hand out and you explain first they must write their name on the op of the paper, then they must complete question 1. An ICQ for this would be ‘So first, are you going to complete question 1?’ They should all say ‘No!’ then you ask ‘What are you going to do?’ and (hopefully) they respond ‘Write my name.’ ICQs will work better with older students. Don’t attempt this for classes under the age of 8/9
- Class size. Consider how many students are in your class before you plan a game. If you’re class is big, you don’t really want to do a very active game as it might be chaos. In this case, think of something they can do standing up in their chairs e.g. something with clapping, hand gestures, TPR
- Vary the pace. Again, keep a mixture of active and more relaxed games. Some kids can get tired or stressed easily with lots of boisterous games to keep that in mind. They also get bored or distracted with lots of relaxed games so you need to mix it up to keep them engaged.
- Competition. Team games and competition can be really motivating and are great for a medium sized class. Just keep in mind stress levels for very young students. Usually, for kindergarten age, playing a game alone is enough fun.
The key is to have fun, manage the class well and get them thinking in English. Now you’ve got the basics, you’ll be able to walk into any class and help them with their language learning journey.