Young learners present a special set of challenges and opportunities in the English language classroom. Younger students tend to have shorter attention spans and can lose focus more easily than older students. They may require more frequent breaks or opportunities to move around and also benefit from structure and routine. Often, younger students learn best by physically doing things and interacting with peers. As with students of all ages, young learners need to feel connected to what is being taught and involved in their own learning process. Additionally, young learners can present a special set of behavioral challenges if a classroom is not managed well.
The thought of addressing all of these needs may seem daunting, but with some careful consideration and planning, working with young learners can be a very rewarding experience for both teachers and students. The English language classroom for young learners provides opportunities to incorporate hands-on activities, music, movement, and visuals. Younger students learn best when content is presented in a consistent manner and repeated frequently, which can actually make preparation a bit easier for teachers.
This month in the Teacher’s Corner, we will focus on four ways to increase success when teaching young learners in the English language classroom:
Week 1 - Creating a Visually Rich Classroom
Week 2 - Using a Daily Routine for Language Practice
Week 3 - Incorporating Opportunities for Interaction and Sharing
Week 4 - Using Music, Chants, and Movement
While the ideas presented this month are geared toward teachers of young learners, many of the suggestions can be adapted and applied to students of all ages, especially beginners. The main goal of the suggestions here is to create an interactive, content-rich environment where young learners will be engaged and have fun as they are learning.
Language teachers already know that students learning a new language need visual support, but it is especially beneficial to young learners. Visual support helps young learners associate images with new vocabulary, grasp concepts, and understand classroom routines. Visual support is especially important for young students who are still learning to read.
How can teachers create a visually rich classroom that will support students’ language learning? This week in the Teacher’s Corner, we present some ideas for materials to post in the classroom as well as ideas about how to encourage student interaction with each one.
Many stores that sell educational materials sell pre-made posters that illustrate key vocabulary, concepts, and even classroom routines. However, if you do not have access to a store like this, posters can easily be created for this purpose. If you create your own posters, it is helpful to make a quick sketch on a regular sheet of paper first so that you can plan how to arrange the content. Once the plan is ready, the information can be neatly written on large poster paper. The poster should present images and/or content for students to learn in an organized way. Words and images should be clear and large enough for students to see from far away. Vocabulary such as color words, shapes, sizes, numbers, the alphabet, animal names, types of weather, and seasons are commonly displayed in classrooms for young learners. As content is covered throughout the school year, teachers can add posters to illustrate concepts such as daily routines, the water cycle, and animal or plant life cycles.
In order for a poster to be useful, it should contain the key vocabulary or information in words and illustrations. For each vocabulary word, there should be an accompanying illustration or example. For every piece of information, such as steps in a cycle or process, there should be a visual that illustrates the concept.
While posters create a colorful and visually stimulating environment for young learners, simply hanging them on the wall does little to support language development. Instead, teachers should try to incorporate the posters into lessons. For example, if you are teaching a unit on fruits and vegetables, you can incorporate a discussion about colors into the lesson. Ask students to locate the color of each fruit or vegetable on the poster with colors as you discuss each one. Similarly, if you create classroom posters about routines that students should follow, you can use them to review expectations. (There will be more ideas about how to utilize posters in Week 2 of this month’s Teacher’s Corner.)
The Sing out Loud collections are available for free on the American English website and are excellent resources for young learners. Both collections, Sing Out Loud Children’s Songs and Sing Out Loud Traditional Songs, include a poster for each song to add visual support as students sing. These ready-to-use collections can help you create a visually rich classroom that will build the vocabulary of young learners.
When teaching new information to young learners, it is helpful to create a visual representation of ideas or examples as you discuss content. To do so, it helps to have chart or poster paper on an easel or hung on your chalkboard so that you can easily create illustrated lists or diagrams.
Continuing with the fruits and vegetables theme, you can begin by asking students to name fruits and vegetables that they already know in English. As they raise their hands, you can quickly write down the name of each fruit or vegetable they say and then draw a picture. Even phonics concepts, such as letter sounds, are a great opportunity to create illustrated lists. If you are reading a book with your students, create a graphic organizer on the chart paper to review the events or concepts from the text.
The charts you create can be displayed in the classroom to help learners recall concepts and information throughout the year.
The vocabularies of young learners grow very rapidly and word walls are a great reference tool and visual reminder to use throughout the school year. A word wall is an area of your classroom where vocabulary words are displayed in an organized format. The most common ways teachers choose to organize them is alphabetically or by theme/unit.
To create a word wall, you must first choose your organization method. Whether it is alphabetical or thematic, you should create labels that are legible (easy to read) from a distance. For alphabetical organization, create one label for each letter of the alphabet. For thematic organization, create labels based on your units of study, such as “weather” or “animals.”
For each set of vocabulary words you introduce, create an illustrated card for each word. Write the word neatly with a marker and, if possible, large enough that students can read the words from their seats. Include a picture or create an illustration on the card. The picture can be to the left, right, above, or below the word, but it is helpful to keep the position consistent so that the word wall is neat and students understand the format.
Depending on the age of your class, you can ask your students to create the vocabulary cards that you will display on the word wall. They can find pictures for the cards in magazines, newspapers, or on the internet, or create their own illustrations. For students at the higher end of the young learners age range, you can also include brief definitions on the vocabulary cards that will be displayed on the wall.
As with posters, to promote language development, word walls should be incorporated into lessons and classroom activities. You can refer to the word wall when teaching, have students come up and read words from the wall, or use the wall to play matching games. To play a matching game, you can verbally state a definition and have students come up to the word wall and point to the word that matches what you say. You can give additional clues about the word, such as the part of speech, how many letters it has, an example sentence with the word missing, or something that rhymes with the word. The goal of the activity is to help students interact with the word wall often so that they can recall the words and meanings in order to use them independently.
Props and Realia
Young learners enjoy when teachers bring concepts and stories to life with real objects or props. Not only does this provide real life examples of content, it also helps learners feel more connected to the information they are learning.
Incorporating these types of visual support can be quite easy, and you can even involve your students in the process. For example, if you are reading a book or story with new vocabulary related to a particular topic, you can bring in the items from home or have your students bring them. For example, if you are reading a book about morning routines, bring in a toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, a towel, and a hairbrush. Interacting with these objects will bring the story to life for young learners, and they will make connections to the content. If you are studying the names of different clothing items, use your students’ clothes as visuals or ask them to bring in items to associate with the words.
Whenever possible, have students interact with the objects rather than just look at them on display. For instance, in the daily routines example, pass the objects around the class and have students pantomime the actions associated with each one (pretend to brush their hair, wash with soap, etc.). In the clothing example, you can choose a student volunteer to “get dressed” and then have the class name all of the clothing items the student chose to wear.
By including visual representations of the content young students are learning, you will enrich their learning experience and create a visually stimulating classroom environment. If your young learners are old enough, you can also get them involved in the process of creating materials. If you teach the same content each school year, it is helpful to laminate the materials you purchase or create so that you can use them again year after year. If you do not have access to a laminating machine, try to use sturdy poster paper or card stock to help make your materials last. Take care of the materials by asking students to use pointers, rather than their hands, to interact with the posters. Many things can be used as a pointer, such as a ruler, a marker with the cap on, or even the eraser side of a pencil. This will help to keep the materials clean and enable you to use them over and over again.
Young learners benefit from a structured environment. Routines help students feel connected to what they are learning. For language learners, routines also help lower the affective filter (feelings of anxiety or self-consciousness) by providing structured, familiar activities in which they can easily participate.
One of the best ways to take advantage of the benefits of structured activities for young learners is to have a daily routine. If you work with the same students all day, this can be a morning meeting where you gather students together in one area of the room each day to complete a repeated series of activities. If you have different groups of students throughout the day, you can use this structured practice as a warm-up at the beginning of each class.
The most important aspect of using classroom routines is to repeat the activity the same way each day so that students know exactly what to expect. The language used in the activities should also be highly structured, repeated the same way each time the routine is completed, and posted in the classroom for students to see. Below are some ideas for classroom materials to include in a structured daily routine for young learners. Following this, there is a sample outline of a daily routine using the materials described.
A classroom calendar can provide a wealth of activities to include in your daily routine. It should be posted in the area where you hold your morning meeting or gather students for the class warm-up. The calendar can easily be created on a chalkboard or whiteboard by using tape to make the grid. Then, you can use chalk or a whiteboard marker to fill in information directly on the board. Many stores that sell educational materials offer pre-made calendar kits that contain everything needed to use in your classroom, but you can easily create your own as well. If you plan to create or purchase a paper calendar, laminating it will help preserve it for many years of use. This option also enables you to use a dry erase marker to write on it. If you are unable to laminate, using heavy poster paper and card stock to create your calendar will help it last. When students interact with the materials, have them use pointers to keep the calendar clean. To make a paper calendar, here is what you will need:
- Blank calendar grid (7 x 6) on poster paper with days of the week labeled at the top (or create this on the chalkboard/whiteboard using masking tape or colored tape)
- 7 index cards, each with one day of the week written on it
- 12 index cards, each with one month of the year written on it
- Individual cards for each number 1-31 (These should be small enough to fit into the squares on the calendar grid. Index cards cut in half or other cards that are about 5cm x 5cm work well.)
- Velcro, tape, or sticky tack to secure cards to the calendar
- A set of five icons or special cards to place on significant days/holidays during the month (star-shaped cut outs work well)
As with a calendar, you may be able to find a weekly weather chart at an educational supply store. You can also create one on the board or from paper. The chart should have a section for each day of the week your students attend school. Non-school days can be included as well if you want to incorporate them into your routine. To create a paper weather chart, here is what you will need:
- Blank weather grid with a space for each day of the week you want to include
- Cards with the word and a picture for each type of weather: sunny, cloudy, rainy, windy, snowy, etc. (Depending on where you live, you may need to add more types of weather. It is recommended that you create several cards with the same type of weather, especially if the weather in your area is consistent. You can adjust accordingly.)
- Velcro, tape, or sticky tack to secure cards to the weather chart
Creating a daily schedule or agenda to include in your routine works best if you have the same group of students all day long. When working with multiple groups of students, rearranging the schedule between classes can be time-consuming, especially when the content you teach differs from class to class.
The schedule will, of course, be based on how the school day unfolds. You can simply write the times on the board and then create cards with a word and picture for the different activities your students do during the school day. Examples include:
- Morning Meeting/Warm-up
- Learning Centers
Each card should have a picture so that students can associate the image with the word and activity. The appropriate card should be placed by each chunk of time noted in the schedule. For young learners that are a bit older, you may choose to write a sentence starter next to the card that says something like, “We will learn about ________.” You can complete this based on what you will teach in the lesson.
CREATING THE DAILY ROUTINE
|Topic and Items Used||Teacher says/does:||Students say/do:||Extensions:|
|Greetings||“Good morning/afternoon, students!”||“Good morning/afternoon, teacher!”||For small classes, ask each student “How are you, ___(name of student)__?” and have them respond accordingly with “I am fine, good, tired,” etc. For large classes, have students spend 30 seconds greeting a friend and asking how they are, and then ask them to reverse roles.|
|Alphabet (use poster/classroom alphabet, or The Alphabet Song poster from American English)||Lead students in the ABC song while pointing to letters or download The Alphabet Song for free from American English||Sing along with the teacher||Add sounds to the routine by pointing to each letter and saying “A is for apple” and then making the sound /a/ three times, “B is for ball,” etc|
|Numbers (use poster, hundreds chart, or free One, Two, Buckle My Shoe poster from American English)||Lead students in counting while pointing to numbers, or sing along with One, Two, Buckle My Shoe||Count/sing along with the teacher||As students progress, practice skills such as counting by twos, fives, tens, etc. Ask students to locate numbers on the poster/chart according to statements like “I am looking for a number that is one more than ___” or “I am looking for a number that is two less than ___.”|
|Colors, shapes, or other basic vocabulary (use posters)||Lead students in naming each of the items (colors, shapes, etc.)||Read along with the teacher or repeat after the teacher||Ask students to locate the appropriate item on the poster according to your question. For example, “Where is the triangle?” or “Where is the color orange?”|
|Months of the year and days of the week (use posters/lists and/or the calendar)||Lead students in a song or chant to recite the names as you point on the poster/calendar||Follow along and say the names of the months and days||Teach students that a number is associated with each month (January -1, February - 2, etc.) and ask “Which month is number ___?” to help them remember the information.|
|Calendar (use calendar and sentence strips with sentence starters or write them on the board and fill in the blanks)||“Now it’s time for the calendar.” Then ask and allow students to respond: What day is today? What day was it yesterday? What day will it be tomorrow? What is the month? What is the date? What is the year? Place cards in the blanks on sentence strips or write on the board to fill in answers||Students raise their hands to answer the teacher’s questions.||Teach students how to write the date in different formats (June 6, 2016, 06/06/16, 6 June 2016, etc.) as they master each one.|
|Weather (use weekly weather chart and a sentence starter that says “The weather today is _____.”)||Say or sing “What’s the weather like today, someone please tell us!” Call on a student to tell you the weather. Add appropriate weather card to the chart.||Students raise their hands to answer.||Add additional questions such as, “Is it cold or hot?” Teach students the seasons and ask “What season is it now?” Add a sentence that says “The season is _____.”|
|Daily Information (use all of the sentence starters from the activities noted thus far)||Lead students to recite the daily information, pointing to words as you say them. Use the sentence starters you have completed, saying “Today is (day of the week). Yesterday was _____. Tomorrow will be _____. The date is (month, day, year). The weather today is _____. The season is _____.”||Students repeat after the teacher. Once the routine is familiar, they should be able to follow along and say the sentences with the teacher.||As students progress, you can create a vertical list of all of the students in the class. Post it in the meeting area and slide a paperclip next to the first student’s name. They will act as the leader and lead the class through the routine. Provide the student with a pointer if you have one. Be sure that there are clear expectations about using the pointer properly. Allow them to call on classmates to answer the questions. Remind the leader that students must raise their hands to participate. At the end of the routine, slide the paperclip down to the next name on the list to designate the leader for the following day.|
|Schedule/Agenda for the day (use the daily schedule/agenda)||“What will we do/learn today? Point to the daily schedule and either note the activities shown in the pictures (reading, writing, etc.) or read the “We will learn about _____” statements that you have prepared.||Listen and follow along as the teacher discusses the schedule for the day.||Once students are able to lead the routine, the leader of the day can also guide students through this portion.|
As the school year progresses, young learners will become so familiar with the daily routine that you should be able to designate one student per day to lead the activities. You can also adapt some of the content that you use in the routine to reflect what you are teaching at the time, such as adding a song about weather or shapes. If you do so, it is suggested that you spend a month on each song or concept so that learners fully grasp the material before you move on. Once your learners are able to lead the daily routine, you can observe and take note of any common errors or difficulties with pronunciation.
A daily routine provides young learners with a structured activity to learn basic vocabulary and concepts. The routine provides a safe, familiar environment where learners become more willing to take risks and practice new language. The free collection Sing Out Loud Children’s Songs from American English includes posters and is an excellent resource to incorporate into your daily routine to give young learners practice with language and vocabulary. For more ideas to incorporate into your daily routine, try the article Using Favorite Songs and Poems with Young Learners from English Teaching Forum.
The attention span of young learners is a lot shorter than that of older students. Young learners need frequent opportunities to move around, take breaks, and interact. They also love to share information about their lives and experiences. In this week’s Teacher’s Corner, we will examine some simple ways to incorporate movement and interaction into any lesson in the young learners’ English classroom.
Turn and Talk
Turn and talk may already be familiar to some teachers, but it is very significant when working with young learners. In this strategy, students have a partner toward whom they physically turn and talk about a question asked or topic stated by the teacher. For instance, the teacher could say, “I want you to turn and talk to your partner about something fun you did over the weekend.” Then, partners turn to each other and discuss the topic for a set amount of time. This simple strategy is great to use with young learners because the more frequently you provide opportunities for young students to share about their experiences or opinions, the more they will feel connected to content and valued in the classroom community.
This strategy is quite easy to integrate throughout the school day and requires very little preparation. The most important aspect is to rehearse procedures and expectations with your students. This will train your class to start and stop talking efficiently so that you can get back to your lesson. This strategy can be used with any topic or content. For instance, if you are reading a book to students, follow these steps:
What to say and do
Link the content to students’ lives with a question.
“Wow, (name of character) feels very surprised right now! Can you think of a time that you felt surprised? What made you feel that way?” Give students about ten seconds to think quietly.
Remind students of the proper procedures to follow.
“In just a moment, I will signal you to turn and talk to your partner about a time you felt surprised. Be sure that you both have time to share. When you hear the signal, start talking. When you hear it again, it is time to stop.”
Give students a signal to begin.
Ring a bell, clap your hands, or loudly say a special word to signal students. Listen in on their conversations and be sure both partners share. They should have about one minute for both partners to speak, depending on the question.
Give students a signal to stop talking.
Ring a bell, clap your hands, or loudly say a special word to signal students. Quickly acknowledge some of the conversations you heard by saying, “I heard that (student’s name) was surprised once because ______.” Return to the lesson by saying, “Let’s keep reading to find out why (character’s name) is so surprised.”
When you introduce this strategy in your classroom, you will likely have to review procedures many times and remind students of your expectations. However, if you remain consistent, students will master the procedures. For very young students, it is helpful to assign partners ahead of time and have them seated next to each other. Initially, you may also want to plan and write 2 or 3 turn and talk questions into your lesson plans where you see opportunities for students to share information. Once you have done this several times, you will be able to quickly come up with turn and talk questions while you are teaching or when you feel that students are becoming restless and need to interact.
Think-pair-share is similar to turn and talk because students have time to think individually before they discuss a question or idea in pairs. As with turn and talk, the more well established the procedures are, the more efficiently this strategy can be integrated into your teaching. The difference here is that pairs have an opportunity to share with the whole class after their discussion.
You can follow the same procedures outlined above. After students finish their discussion, each pair should have time to share their ideas. For this reason, this strategy works best when you give students an opinion question, a question with specific answer choices, or when you ask them to make predictions. Again, if you are reading students a book, a question to ask for a think-pair-share is, “What do you think (character’s name) will do next?” or “Do you think (character’s name) is right to feel so angry?”
Once you have followed the steps above, you can quickly restate the question and then call on one student from each pair to provide the answer or conclusion reached during the partner discussion. To make this run smoothly, you can pre-assign partners (as noted above) and designate one partner as A and the other as B. Give each pair a number. Then you can easily say, “We are going to share, starting with pair number one. I would like partner B to tell the class what you and your partner predict (character’s name) will do next.”
If you rehearse the procedures each time you use this strategy, it will become another easy way to quickly give your young learners a chance to interact and share their experiences.
Stand up/Sit down (or Thumbs up/Thumbs down)
You can also give young learners a chance to share opinions or information nonverbally. You can ask learners to stand up or sit down, or show thumbs up or thumbs down according to their opinions and experiences. This is a very easy strategy to integrate, and the questions can be simple, such as:
- Stand up if you like ______. Sit down if you do not like ______.
- Show thumbs up if you have been to ______. Show thumbs down if you have not been to ______.
- Stand up if you think (character’s name) did the right thing. Sit down if you think what (character’s name) did was wrong.
You can extend this strategy by asking students to quickly find someone who is displaying the same response or the opposite response and explain why they made their choice. Or you can use this strategy to collect data about different topics for use during an activity. You can also use this to review information by making true/false statements and asking students to respond according to what they think is correct/incorrect.
While many of these strategies are likely familiar to many English teachers, the difference lies in how often you should use them if you teach young learners. As mentioned before, young learners have trouble sitting and listening for long periods of time. The more frequently you can include opportunities for young students to move around, talk, and share ideas, the more they will learn. The strategies presented this week require very little planning and are therefore a quick and easy way to incorporate interaction and sharing into your lessons.
This month’s Teacher’s Corner has emphasized the need for young learners to have many opportunities to move around and interact in the classroom. This final week will discuss how to use music, chants, and movement to create a lively, engaging classroom that appeals to multiple learning styles.
Background or Transition Music
Perhaps the easiest way to begin using music with your students is to play it in the background during times when you are not providing direct instruction. Soft, instrumental music works nicely to create a calm atmosphere when students first arrive to your classroom. You can also play this type of music when students have time to work independently. Free music streaming services are a great resource to use for this purpose.
Another simple way to use music is during transitions. You can use specific songs (or portions of them) to signal students that it is time to change activities. For instance, if your students have been working independently, you could play a minute of a certain song each time you expect them to begin cleaning up. If you do this consistently, the song itself becomes a signal to students, and they will be familiar with how much time they have to straighten their area and/or move to the next appropriate location in the classroom. Using music like this is also great for getting students in line, packing up materials at the end of class, or any other transitions your young learners have to make. It is much easier and more effective than verbally telling students how much time they have left to complete a task, a concept that can be difficult for young learners to understand.
Music for Teaching Content
A great way to teach young learners content that you include in your daily routine is to use songs. For students learning the alphabet, letter sounds, numbers, shapes, colors, or other basic vocabulary, there are many songs available on the internet for free. Some songs include visuals such as videos or pictures that you can use if you have a way to project them in your classroom. If not, you can still use the songs in combination with your classroom posters and materials. It is important to preview the content you plan to use in your classroom to be sure it is appropriate.
Another great resource for teaching with songs is the American Rhythms collection from American English. The songs are available to download for free from the American English website and cover a wide range of content such as gardens, healthy foods, and social studies topics. Each song has an accompanying lesson plan including the lyrics and ready-to-use classroom activities that you can download for free.
Using Jazz Chants
Jazz chants, created by educator Carolyn Graham, use the rhythm of spoken English set to a simple beat to teach pronunciation, stress, and intonation. As presented in this Shaping the Way We Teach English Webinar, almost anything can be turned into a jazz chant. The webinar is a great resource if you are interested in creating your own chants to use in your classroom. Jazz chants are an excellent addition to a daily routine or your lessons for young learners.
The basic rhythm of jazz chants makes them easy for young learners to follow and learn. They also provide an opportunity to incorporate movements such as clapping, snapping, tapping on knees, or marching. You can also consider including instruments such as a drum or tambourine when you use jazz chants. For more information about how to use jazz chants with young learners, you can order a free video featuring Carolyn Graham through the U.S. Embassy.
As noted above, jazz chants provide an opportunity for learners to move around and actively participate in learning. Songs with lyrics can also give learners a chance to move around with a bit of planning. You can create a few simple movements according to the lyrics of the song and teach them to learners ahead of time. Then, have students follow along and perform the movements with you each time they listen. Eventually, they will remember how to do the movements on their own.
The same strategy can be applied when you read stories and teach vocabulary. Choose a set of words you want learners to learn (5 to 10 works well) and assign a movement to each one. You can teach learners what the words mean, and choose a movement that illustrates the definition. For instance, if one of your vocabulary words is the verb dig, act as if you were shoveling dirt and tossing it backward over your shoulder. Learners can even help you come up with the movements as you teach what the words mean.
Review the list of words and corresponding movements several times. Then, when you read the text, have learners perform the appropriate motion each time they hear you say one of the words. You can also split your class into small groups and assign each group a word to listen for as you read. When a group hears their assigned word in the text, they are responsible for performing the corresponding movement.
The great thing about using music in your classroom is that the frequency and extent you use it in your teaching is up to you. It is a very flexible tool to use with students. Music addresses different learning styles, and young learners really enjoy it.