Teaching toddlers English

Teaching in a kindergarten has a lot of ‘oh god, no one prepared me for this moments’. In the last week I’ve been hugged by a little girl who just peed herself, had fingers shoved up my nose and been sincerely called ‘아빠’. These are all one offs, but there is a class that I constantly feel underprepared to teach. Elf class are four students aged 3. Aged 3 in Korean can mean anything from 12-24 months old (I think so anyway; Korean ages are confusing). I wanted to share some of my experiences; even though I don’t think anyone who reads this teaches such tiny kids, it might be interesting. I’d also be interested in any critique of what I’ve been doing if anyone has any ideas.

In ELT we talk about ‘false beginners’, It means that most ‘beginners’ actually know a fair bit of English from loanwords and the fact that English is almost everywhere. Elf class are the real McCoy beginners. They also lack a lot of really basic skills. This should be obvious but still surprised me. Things they can’t/struggle to do include reading (even hangul), sitting still, walking up stairs, knowing how kids are supposed to act in classroom, refraining from crying when a really big waygook walks in and starts teaching them. The way they speak Korean to me makes me worry that they might not really get that Korean and English are different languages yet. They’re also incredibly cute, lovely, curious and in love with the world in a way that I aspire to be (maybe not the cute bit).

I get materials to use with the class but they are quite optimistic about how well they will pick things up so I have to improvise a lot. Total Physical Response (TPR) is, as I understand it, an idea of teaching that says that if students are responding physically to things said in English then they will learn English. What this means in practice is that songs with lots of actions are great for children who know very little English. Repetition is key because it gives them something they can learn and join in with. Take this, made up in five minutes, song from todays lesson. I’ve italicised the bits that they joined in with.

Sung to the tune of ‘The Wheels on the Bus’ and accompanied by much arm flapping.  Lots of other animals were added in.

This little duck goes

quack quack quack‘,

quack quack quack‘.

This little duck goes

quack quack quack‘,

All day long’

This is more than just a more fun way of getting students to drill the word ‘quack’ nine times. When students sing the song with a verity of animals they are listening for the word ‘duck’ and knowing that when they hear ‘duck’ it’s time to flap their arms and say ‘quack’. I don’t much buy into learning styles, but I’m sure from my experiences that having a physical and melodic aspect to the learning process aids memory (which I’d argue is something very different from believing in learning styles). It also has the advantage that if a student isn’t ready to speak yet, they can flap their arms, be engaged and enjoy English

When I open the class I have the same way of saying hello that I always use. I do this for similar reasons that I use songs that are repetitive and action filled, it usually goes something like this. I’ve put my actions in square brackets, the students generally start to copy more and more as they learn better. If the

T: Hello everyone. [waving hands]

Ss: Hello teacher.

T: How are you today? [pointing at Ss]

Ss: How are you today?

T: I’m happy. [putting chin on hands spread in a V shape and smiling]

S: I’m happy.

T: I’m sad [doing best aegyo ‘booing booing’ face, a teacher doing this is comedy gold if you’re a Korean child]

I’ll usually go on and continue through 5-8 emotions with actions. Once again it’s kind of like drilling but funny and silly and with something for them to do physically if they’re not ready to speak yet. The actions here seem to aid recall too. My older classes who use the same opener went on to be really good at ‘how are you’ questions. Starting a class with something familiar that they’re confident is a good routine to start them in a positive mood and is good for behaviour.

In the few months I’ve been teaching them, Elf class have gotten much better at some of these skills like not crying when they see me and sitting down nicely. They say ‘hi’ and ‘bye’ really nicely. They know a few songs really well and are learning some basic English vocab and some classroom instructions. Has anyone else taught English to kids this young? How was it? What did you do? How can improve? Leave a comment.