Teaching the under 5s

by Sophia McMillan
(Shane Training Centre, Japan)


Teaching very young learners (under 5s) can be particularly daunting for many teachers. For most it is the first time they have had to cope with children this young, and many are concerned or worried about how to approach the class.


Teaching very young learners can be a lot of fun and very rewarding however, there is no doubt that it presents a set of unique challenges. Young learners are not interested in English per se they are more focussed on having fun, playing games and being entertained.

Initially, most young learners are very shy of their new teacher; especially as to them the new teacher is a strange and scary looking foreigner. It is not uncommon for them to become fixed to their mothers and barely acknowledge your presence. One thing that works in your favour is that small children are innately curious and by making funny faces, silly noises etc will make them smile or laugh winning half the battle. Perseverance however, will pay off and before long the little ones will be used to you and the classroom, possibly even fighting over who gets to hold your hand etc and learning English all at the same time.

With very young learners it is important that the lessons are fun, as, if they are enjoying themselves they are more likely to participate in the activities. Generally children love to draw, colour, sing, dance, and play games – they are looking to be entertained. To maintain their interest it is important that they enjoy it and laugh.

Very young learners have very short attention spans and so the classes should be fast, fun and energetic. Using a combination of activities, e.g. songs, movement, actions and games is an effective way of maintaining their attention. However, it is vital to be aware of what is happening around you because as soon as the learners start becoming distracted it is imperative to stop the current activity and move on to something else. While you should go into the class with a clear lesson plan it is important to remain flexible and respond to the learners.

Playgroup courses are designed to incorporate social skills, gross and fine motor skills, simple concept building etc., in conjunction with a wide range of resources. The courses contain a range of activities etc that work with this age group. It is important to consider why we are doing the activities we do. Some activities will make the lesson go smoother for both the teacher and learners. For example, teaching the value of turn taking and co-operative play will encourage learners to work together and share, developing their social skills. Creative activities are important as they can provide an opportunity for a wide range of language use as well as developing a number of skills in the learners, increasing their motivation. Thus it is beneficial when teaching very young learners to consider what skills are being developed.

It is vital to remember that irrespective of the activity the learners are not expected to do everything perfectly. Rather it is the taking part that is important, not the end result. It is important also to remember that talking to the children is vital, they probably will not respond initially and most of the learning will be passive. During activities you should be talking about what they are doing, what colour things are, counting etc.

Songs, chants etc are a great way of getting the learners moving. Initially, they may be shy and reluctant leaving you leaping around the classroom feeling silly. If you can forget your embarrassment and persevere they will soon join you. Songs expose the learners to natural speech rhythms, useful English and language heard with music is retained easier. Further, the musical side of the brain (the right hemisphere) is larger in young learners than the ‘language’ side. These songs etc need to be repeated regularly with consistent actions to accompany them, as more exposure will increase learner confidence and motivation.

Interactive drawing is another useful teaching tool. For example, draw a circle and have the learners add facial features to your direction; give them a page of shapes and ask them to colour specific shapes certain colours. As they become more aware the tasks set can become more complex – while remaining within their capabilities.

Flashcards can be used to introduce, practice and review language as well as play games and tell stories. Using mimes will help learners associate an action with a word (e.g. drink, wash). Remember that for very young learners even something simple like running and touching a colour is an exciting game.

Puppets can be a useful teaching aid as learners often enjoy making the puppets talk and interact. They can also be used to model the language and encourage quieter learners to speak, either to or through the puppet.

A kitchen set equipped with plates, cooking utensils, and the plastic food or playdough can help teach early vocabulary and concepts. Setting up tea parties can foster co-operative play and encourage learners to use their imagination.

Overall, teaching under 5s can be challenging; it requires a great deal of energy, an ability to forget your embarrassment, and a great deal of flexibility and lateral thinking. However, after the first few weeks you should be able to tell what works with your learners and this will help ensure the lessons are fun and entertaining for both you and them.

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