Teaching Young Learners : What Makes for Good Practice?

Do you have trouble keeping your younger learners concentrated? Do they seem to get bored in your lessons? In this article Mark looks at what children enjoy and suggests some ways of making the lessons more fun and involving.

Mark lives and teaches in Japan, and also runs the site Mes-English.com where you'll find free flashcards, worksheets, lesson plans, games - and a host of other resources.

Aside from teaching have you ever played with children? I'm sure you have. We all have horsed around with nieces, nephews, your own children, friends children, etc. When you've made them laugh, what's the next thing the child says?

"Do it again."

This is an extremely powerful tool. When children are having fun or if they find something amusing, they will do whatever it is again and again and again. It's amazing. Not only will they want you to do it again then, but the next time you see them, they'll ask you, "Do that thing again." (Problem is you have to remember what it was.) In designing lessons plans this can be a key point for game/activity selection and/or creation, as well as presentation. If the students find something amusing they will want to do it over and over again (just ask Nintendo.)

The problem is other than tossing them around, tickling them, physically harming yourself, what do they like?

  • Funny sounds: If you are drilling, try raising your voice 7 octaves at the end and have the students model, sing the word, whisper the word, shout the word, dance to the word, what ever sells.
  • Funny words: Don't be afraid to make up words or combine words to make non-sense. Children do this and love it. Tell them you want an elephant-pencil. "An elephant-pencil? No, no a monkey-pencil! No, no. A ROCKET-pencil." "A pocket-pencil? What's that?" Children will jump in and start talking!
  • Physical comedy: Unfortunately this could mean physically harming yourself, but the pros just pretend. I do a lot of street side performance type material that really gets kids laughing and on my side. For example when I meet a child for the first time I may go to shake their hand, miss and run right into them. Then, do it again. And again. And again, until eventually I just deem that there must be something wrong with the childs hand and make him/her shake hands with another child just to verify that his hand actually works and repeat.

So, what makes for good practice? Is it clown type humor? Physical humor? Goofing off? I think the fun needs to be structural and can be any, all, or none of those. If you can plan a lesson that is structurally fun, not necessarily contextually fun, you'll find the lesson successful. That applies to the attitude of the teacher, the presentation of the material, and the execution. Interestingly enough, not necessarily the child or the material. When the activities are interesting in and of themselves, then the class is structurally fun. In that case the content doesn't necessarily have to be.

The answer is have fun on the way - or charm. Don't be afraid to digress a bit. Listen to Ken's story about his beetle in the middle of class. Don't be afraid to run into a wall (pretend to run into a wall) when Ken won't stop. Break into song. Pretend you're a bus driver swerving away from a deer if you're teaching them "I want to be a bus driver." Children (people for that matter) want to be led, not dragged.

When I design a game or activity the bulk of the burden lies in "how am I going to sell this activity?" How am I going to get the students to say the target language 100 times and come back and do it again next class? Usually, the answer is keep it simple. Some of the best and most popular games are the most simple; Checkers, Scrabble, Tic-Tac-Toe, Tag, Hang-man, Dodge-ball, Chutes and Ladders... When you are choosing or designing an activity or game please keep that in mind. You can always go back and add more later. But, not if it fails the first time. Also, ask yourself if the activity is interesting. It doesn't have to be a circus all the time but if it's not interesting, it's... boring. Is the information students are gathering / discussing/ learning about interesting to them? There is a time for learning for learning's sake but if it's always merely constructive for learning, you're going to have a hard time motivating some of the students.

Each teacher is different and teaching styles need to match the teacher. I can go on and on with endless examples of things that work for me, but those are things that work for me. You need to find some things that work for you. If you have the resources, spend time with children. Don't try to teach them, try to learn from them. See what things children like to do with you or what things you do they find interesting. Then apply those to your teaching methodology to make learning fun and effective.

Watch other teachers, parents, anyone and see what things work for them when they are around children. If you simply try to copy someone else you'll generally find yourself flat on your face. Don't try to mimic, but think about how you can incorporate similar things that will work for you. If you can learn from others and build yourself, you'll find yourself in a very powerful position.

Above all, have fun yourself and teach hard!

Happy teaching,

Photo provided under Creative Commons Licence by Genki David via flickr

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