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Teaching English to very young children

The other day I was idly watching one of our teachers working with a couple of our students: two sisters, three and one and a half, who have a play style class with a teacher while their mum has a private lesson with another teacher.

I have to admit, I have always been fairly sceptical about teaching very young children in an EFL context. I’m sure it can’t do any harm, but I hadn’t really seen much benefit either. Basically if the parents were happy to pay us to play with their children for 40 minutes a week, and the children enjoyed it, no problem. It wasn’t something we advertised, but we did consider special requests.

However, about halfway through the class I saw something that completely challenged my assumptions.

The two students rarely speak English, beyond ‘hello’ and ‘see you’ at the beginning and end of the class. Their teacher only uses English with them, and they talk to him in Japanese. The ‘class’ consists of playing together with a variety of toys and objects we have in the classroom. The children decide what to play with, and how they want to play, but we manage that by adding or removing toys.

The teacher was playing with a doll, making it sit down or walk around. At one point, the older sister asked in Japanese “Why is the doll sitting down?”, to which the teacher replied in English “Her legs are tired.” The students then said in Japanese, without missing a beat and completely naturally “Oh, her legs are tired. I see.”

I almost fell off my chair.

The student didn’t have enough to be able to guess that meaning from the context. The teacher did not use any gestures or indicate the doll’s legs. She clearly understood what he said.

I think I’m going to have to rethink the very young learners thing…

4 replies on “Teaching English to very young children”

Hi Tom

Great link! I had seen that before: very inspiring. I also find that creating the conditions for learning, then getting out of the way, is one of the most effective things a teacher can do. Feels very strange to do though 😉

We have Mummy and Me classes at our school too, Ben. Like you, at first, I questioned the merits of these classes and it took me a while to get my head around what kind of a curriculum to put together for the class. Our Mummy and Me classes are for children aged 1-3 years old. Obviously at this aged, the kids aren’t producing a lot of language (we don’t expect or pressure them to in any way either), quite often the younger children are not even producing much language in L1.

Where I’ve been very encouraged by these classes in particular is when our kids move into our Kindy curriculum (3-6 year olds) the kids that have taken the Mummy and Me classes are really firing with their English by this time. This is when the benefits become more obvious. Another thing is that I’ve found the kids who start out in our M&M tend to be far more accepting of unfamiliar things like new language, when new things are introduced into the class, or just the whole English language experience in general.

We’ve been doing our M&M classes for about 3 1/2 years now, and I’ve become a big convert. I think they are very beneficial….and like you say, you’re always learning something new.

Best,
Greg

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