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Teaching English to Young Learners – Some Tips

Teaching English to Young Learners – Some Tips

I am always sceptical when I hear a teacher claiming that he/she doesn’t have a favourite age group of students and doesn’t see any big difference in dealing with young or senior school learners. How many times have I heard from experienced teachers: “Students are students. It’s not about the age”.

My ideas about teaching English to young learners

For me personally,when I first started out, I felt that young learners were definitely not my target students and would never be. Frankly speaking, though it’s not easy to confess, I was afraid of them. I had no idea how to approach them and the books on classroom management (“What if” chapters, especially) gave vivid descriptions that in reality, things might be even worse than I could have ever imagined. So, at the beginning of my teaching career, I had a strong belief that teaching young learners wasn’t my cup of tea. And so, I decided to focus on adults and senior school students. The next several enjoyable years of teaching proved that I had made the right decision. But life is full of  surprises!

Facing my fear

Due to some personal reasons, my husband and I had to leave Russia, where we had been living, and move to Turkey. Being a workaholic, I was also eager to start teaching again, without any delay. Fortunately, I got an offer from a local private school but on the condition that I would take kindergarten and primary students. What a turn of events! I was in shock!  For years, I had  dealt with English for specific purposes and exam preparation and now I was going to have to face my fear!

I accepted the offer and then spent the whole study year with my little students, having no experience whatsoever with that age group.   

Two years have passed since then and  I have survived. Now I can say that it was most definitely worth giving it a go! I won’t  say it hasn’t been challenging and there were times when I thought I was in the middle of a nightmare, but it has also been extremely rewarding, and  now let me tell you why.  

The main pitfalls I fell into.

You are neither a magician nor a miracle worker!

Looking back, I realize that I started the process wrong! Extreme anxiety, (due to  lack of experience) and obsessive perfectionism pushed me almost to the limit. Unintentionally, I created my own ‘KPIs’ that were too high to meet every day. When you start writing your lesson plans as if they are scenarios for a Broadway Show, you are doomed! The truth is, when you give 32-34 lessons a week, plus extracurricular activities, plus duties, plus parent meetings, plus, plus, plus, and keep blaming yourself for your lack of enthusiasm – you practically ruin yourself!

Try to know your students!

Sounds banal, but what I am referring to here are the drawbacks of inclusive education. Private schools are not always forthcoming when it comes to giving information about delicate issues such as  psychological disorders, ADD, dyslexia etc. Often parents try to conceal the fact that their child is taking medication or sometimes they are just not ready to accept that there is a problem. Children certainly do not benefit from such an approach and so as a teacher I often had to find out about a child’s problems myself through interacting with the child and then develop a strategy to cope and help; not easy.  

Cultural differences do exist!

Travelling and several years of corporate life in a huge multinational company (yes, teaching wasn’t my first dream job) made the borders between countries and national peculiarities a bit blurred. But there are cultural differeneces and ‘how close is too close’ – really depends on where you are from. Do not underestimate it, especially, if you move from a ‘non-contact’ culture to a ‘contact’ one. You can’t simply say: ‘Hey kiddos, stop kissing and hugging me please. I am from a ‘non-contact’ country!’. You don’t have such an issue with older students because for them, you are a foreigner, perhaps, a slightly weird one. Unfortunately, young children tend to misinterpret the distance that you involuntary keep as alienation. And if it happens, it is not easy to develop a close rapport again.

Get over Impostor Syndrome or It will get over You!

Oh, yes, that phrase – Impostor Syndrome – has turned to a buzzword nowadays, and I have no intention of discussing that psychological pattern here. The only thing I wish to mention is that being inexperienced doesn’t make you a fraud. Teaching young children is a huge responsibility but the fact that you don’t really know how synapses are formed at that age, doesn’t mean that much. It’s the bigger picture which counts.

Marketing tools or teaching approaches?

STEM, Project-based learning, Bilingual education, CLIL, etc. It seems all these fancy words and intricate abbreviations have migrated from the area of teaching methodology to the sphere of marketing to attract more clients, i.e. parents and their children. Are we really aware of what we are doing when the school management proclaims a new trend to follow? Dogme approach combined with inclusive learning in classes with 25 six-year old students…Come on! It almost made my mind explode!

Tips that you may find useful in teaching English to young learners

Now, leaving the self-reflection aside, here are some simple and practical tips that I would have been grateful to get when being on the threshold of a new challenge in my teaching career.

Keep in mind two types of student involvement!

I’m grateful to Susan Halliwell for this idea which she mentioned in her book “Teaching English in the Primary Classroom” (Chapter 3. Being Realistic).

It is really crucial to remember that roughly all activities might be divided into 2 types:

  1. Mental engagement (activities that settle) 
  2. Actual occupation (activities that stir).

My advice – take it into account while planning your lessons. Combine two types according to your students’ temperament, their energy level and even a part of the day when you are having the lesson.

Give a new activity a second chance.

It is always preferable to diversify different activities. With primary students it turns to a vital necessity. How often do we come up with a great idea that we have planned thoroughly for several nights only to find that it fails when we try it out in class? My advice – don’t get upset, cheer up and be rational. Give time to let your emotions calm down (I know, it really hurts) and analyze the reasons why things went wrong. It might be your unclear instructions or long explanations, improper lead-in or poor classroom management, whatever it is – name it and think of a way to  improve and try again! Most probably your second (or third?) attempt will be successful and your students will ask why you haven’t done that before.

Plan but feel the class.

The idea isn’t new, but naturally we tend to stick to our ‘brilliant’ plans too much. Yes, planning is an inevitable part of teaching. Personally, knowing that my students are a Pandora’s Box, I usually have Plan A and Plan B, in case of force majeure. However, no matter how perfect and detailed your plan is, be ready to adjust or completely change it on the spot. Sometimes it is worth breaking the rules and forgetting about a perfectly settled and painfully established daily routine. For example, your students are too energetic, they have just had a PE lesson or they are fully absorbed in a non-lesson discussion. Forget about the plan. Start the lesson with a rhythmic song or a catchy rhyme. Let the students release their energy and after that switch to a settling activity.

Another point that should be highlighted is the  pace of the lesson. The importance of keeping a dynamic pace cannot be overestimated. If you feel that the activity you are doing, isn’t going smoothly, don’t panic, stop it and switch to another one! Don’t be afraid of looking unprofessional. What realy matters is your students’ engagement.

Accept that you cannot deal with disruptive students alone!

Poor classroom management is not your problem alone. There are several elements to it and for a successful solution all should be involved. It is no shame to ask your colleagues or school administration for help. What a relief it was to read this simple idea in the book ‘The Art and Science of Teaching’ by Robert J.Marzano (Chapters 6-8).


Don’t be afraid to disappoint your little learners.

Let’s be honest, it’s practically impossible to give a ‘Wow’ lesson every single time you enter the class. Don’t blame yourself when you see a yawning child.  They may simply be tired rather than bored. Yes, these little monsters seem to be too demanding but at the same time they do know what sympathy is. Moreover, they really care about you, just let them have  a chance to show it.

After that year of professional discoveries and revelations, I have changed my role again and now I am again with my senior students! No regrets! Just a feeling of appreciation for such an experience and perhaps it has helped me to understand my senior students a little more.

In conclusion, I’d like to express my greatest respect to all dedicated teachers to devote themselves to teaching English to young learners. They are more than professionals teaching a subject. They are actors, psychologists, entertainers, mentors and…

What role can you add to the list about teaching English to young learners?

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