Top Ten Tips for Teaching English to Primary Learners
A few weeks ago, I was honoured to teach a group of Chinese primary learners (aged between 4 and 8 years of age) for the first time in a long time. The last time that I had taught primary-aged English language learners was in my initial few years of teaching in South Korea. However, it was a rewarding and highly motivating group of learners to teach. Fortunately, I had a chance to reflect much of my knowledge and awareness of primary learners from a Young Learner Extension Certificate which I undertook a number of years ago. With much reflection and consideration, I have now thought of my top ten tips for teaching primary learners.
1. Enjoy Teaching Primary Learners
It seems like common sense, but something which is often overlooked by many teachers. To be successful, you need to enjoy teaching primary-aged language learners. You need to be aware at this age that primary young learners are still learning how to hold a pencil, how to use a pair of scissors or even still learning their first language. It can be incredibly rewarding to see the immediate progress from this age range of young learners but you need to be very very patient. So my first tip would be that you need to enjoy teaching primary learners. If you have very limited experience or just feel uncomfortable, then it is likely that you will not enjoy the classroom.
2. Lesson Topics
Initially, I taught my primary-aged learners (back in South Korea) a mismatch of lessons: a bit of drawing, some vocabulary and some games. There was no consistency or topic to the lessons. I soon discovered that the best approach to deal with primary learners was to focus on themes or topics each day, with grammar and vocabulary embedded within the lesson. Something which I incorporate into all young learner and adolescent classes now.
The benefit of focusing on lesson topics would help engage learners but you need to choose topics which would interest primary-aged learners such as animals, parts of the body or food. You just need to look at the contents list of any primary-aged material and photocopiable resources to give you an idea on topics.
3. Establish a Reward System
Rewarding young learners can be a useful tool to help out with extrinsically motivating learners to complete tasks or activities. With very young learners, I would recommend all teachers to get a stock of stickers of smiley faces or the like so that you can stick them on student work to complement them. Combined with ClassDojo, this can be a very useful motivational tool. You could say, “If you get 10 points today, you can watch a cartoon!” and this aim will get the young learners keen to achieve this task. And don’t forget to manage the children positively.
You will have to consistently and constantly praise the learners but you could recommend an area for them to focus on for the future: “Good effort with completing your drawing today but you could do better with the colouring“, “Well done with your speaking today Jason. I’d like you to try harder with your writing“, etc. If you provide some positive feedback to the learners, they will work better at trying to achieve which they could do better. However, should you be too negative with very young learners, you are likely to encounter tears so get the tissues ready.
4. Classroom Routine
It is invaluable to establish routine in all lessons with primary learners as young learners. Children, especially very young learners, will function better if they are familiar with the routines and it is very important to highlight the daily routines with right with the very first class with your students. You could also add stickers at the bottom or top of the whiteboard to illustrate the daily routine and tasks involved. I usually do the following with a generic 50 minute lesson:
- Greet children as they enter class
- Take the register
- Start the lesson
- Instruct students what is expected
- Get students into pairs or small groups
- Hand out material to all
- Monitor learners and help where necessary
- Stop a task
- Students glue their worksheets into their notebooks
- Tidy up the classroom
- Ending a lesson
It is difficult to describe the best routine but I personally had primary learners for the whole morning so I had to think about how best to schedule the whole day and the first day was more an experience for me to see what routine worked best for the primary learners. Do not worry if you find yourself amending the routine slightly. It is important to reflect and adjust areas of your lessons where required.
5. Supplement Lessons with Songs
One thing that I focus a lot with primary-aged learners now is with songs and nursery rhymes. If you have an opportunity to purchase additional material, I would highly recommend Primary Music Box by Cambridge University Press. I was introduced to this resource by the British Council Bucharest, Romania. It is a really really good book which includes a variety of traditional nursery rhymes and activities for very young learners. My favourite task in this book is getting students to match pictures associated with the song, ‘The Wheels on the Bus’ (a great song for the topic on transport).
You could also use YouTube to help you find suitable nursery rhymes to play in the background when the students are doing some activity which requires the student to focus. You just need to search using very simple terms: ‘Alphabet Song Primary‘ or ‘Farm Song Primary‘. You will come across some great songs which could be used in class.
6. Flashcards & Other Cards
The use of flashcards can really help with your lesson activities. They can be used for games to review vocabulary or introduce key words as well as drilling and pronunciation work. ELT Planning has a great blog post about using flashcards in class (read idea number 1) and a previous blog post of mine includes ten ways to use flashcards in class. It is important to spend a bit of time creating and laminating the flashcards. I would recommend any teacher to try to laminate all flashcards as it helps keep the flashcards from becoming unusable.
Also, you don’t have to make the flashcards all the time. You could get students to contribute. For example, I got students to paint selected animals. These were left to dry, then cut, stuck on card and then finally laminated. I used them in the following lesson to review vocabulary from the previous day. You can also make other cards which can be used in class. For example, in some of the other primary material (see below), there are a lot of material related to domino cards which can be used in small groups to play games. Keep a stock of your own flashcards or purchase some from a primary related shop which specialises in the education of children.
7. Have a Break
It is important for primary learners to have regular short breaks during the lesson due to their limited patience to devote to one task. If you are expecting your primary-aged learners to complete quite a complicated project, then it is best to stage it appropriate throughout the day rather than focus on this tasks solidly for most of the morning. Therefore, I would recommend teachers of primary English learners to allow their children to have a regular break after the completion of one task. This is directly related to tip number four (Classroom Routines). Try to devote a 15-20 minute block of time every hour for learners to rest from their study if you are teaching them for a morning. However, if you have a primary class for an hour, you could use the final 10-15 minutes for them to relax before finishing the class. Anyhow, I used the following tasks each morning to allow primary learners to have a break from their study:
- Playing with some toys
- Watching a cartoon (I got my learners to watch the “Lego Ninjago” cartoon mini-series at the end of the day)
- Playing some sports outside the classroom (it is important to let students out of the class if they are there for the rest of the day)
- Quiet reading
- Playing boardgames
The tasks above did not have any language focus itself but it motivated learners and also got the learners ready for the next task. Actually, one benefit of engaging primary learners with one activity which they do is it enabled me to prepare the classroom for the next activity. For example, while the children were watching a cartoon, I took that opportunity to prepare the classroom for painting. I placed all the materials at one side of the classroom, placed paint and paintbrushes around for them to use and had them all ready before the end of the short cartoon.
8. Creative Tasks
It is important to remember that primary learners respond better to more creative tasks such as painting and drawing. Each day, I focused on thematic vocabulary but there was always a creative task involved. There was lots of gluing, lots of painting, lots of drawing and lots of colouring. We also used a lot of tissue paper and the alphabet cards were made with coloured pencils and tissue paper. The very element of of cutting out or sticking can be really rewarding for the children and different to the traditional method that they might be used to in their own classrooms (sitting down and listening to the teacher talk).
When ever there are any creative tasks involved always think about materials you will need. I would urge teachers to ask their school whether they could purchase a stock of tissue paper, glue sticks, PVA glue, paint, paintbrushes, scissors, etc. If you don’t use all the material, you could always reuse it again in future classes. It would also help if one teacher is responsible for the replenishment of new material required.
9. Take Time
Primary learners are very young. It is natural to remember that students at this age will have difficulty communicating (as mentioned above) in their first language, let alone their second language. Therefore, I would remind all young learner teachers, especially primary-aged teachers, to not expect their students to be communicating naturally in English. They may know some very basic forms and functions of English and be able to use them effectively but any form of communication or interaction could be quite limited. Don’t forget this. If they are having difficulty communicating, be patient. Let them take their time and you will be quite surprised by their progress. Students will be very happy and will be keen to please you which leads on to Tip 10.
10. Foster Relationships
The final tip I would recommend teachers is to establish a good relationship with all students in the classroom. We are all told that it is vital to develop rapport with adult and adolescent learners. Much of this remains the same with primary-aged learners but more emphasis should be placed on fostering this relationship. This will help you win over students and show that you care about them. As such, they would be more willing and supportive in class. I have a few ideas to help you foster positive relationships with the primary learners including:
- Learning all the names of primary learners
- Listen to what children have to say
- Avoid having favourite students
- Incorporate humour in class
- Be firm but fair with all students
- Do not shout or lose your temper with the students
So here are my ten top tips for teaching primary learners? What are you favourite tips and advice for teaching primary learners? Many thanks for reading and apologies if this is a long post. To finish this post, I would recommend the following books for primary English teachers to supplement your lessons.
Suggested Materials for Primary English Classes
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