Reading with Very Young Learners

Last year I was teaching middle and elementary school and teaching reading was pretty boring, but since I’ve been teaching kindergarten I’ve started to really enjoy it. Our oldest children can read quite independently but the youngest who do reading class are 3-4 western age (I’ll call them 5 years old, their Korean age, from now on) and can only read the tiniest bit of Korean. Teaching reading class with them was a challenge at first but it’s rewarding now. I thought I’d share a little about what I get up to in these classes as it might be different to what other people are doing and it might offer up some insights for older young learners.

What are the challenges?

The first challenge is that the students don’t know how to look at an English text know what it says. Some of them can, maybe one or two in each class, but this is only making out one or two short words. Unlike my older classes they can’t have their own book each and read chorally or on their own. They don’t speak lots of English either and so while I might drill sentences or chunks with an older class I can’t do that in these classes.

The other challenge is concentration, students aged 5 don’t always want to sit down and concentrate on a book. To be honest they’re really young and I can’t blame them that much for it. They do the same book for quite a while and so it’s really important for my classes to vary things up and make the reading as engaging as possible.

What goes on in class?

The most important thing about reading at this age range is you don’t really have to ‘read’ the book at all. Talking about the pictures and what’s going on is just as valuable as going through what the text says. There is, hopefully, a lot of detail in the pictures of the book; more than it’s possible to cover well in ten minutes. One day I can talk about who is happy and who is sad on each page.

I’ve outlined a lot of things that are hard to do in a 5 year old reading class, but what can you do? One of the important things is to break the class up into different parts. Very young learners have a low attention span so it’s important to do lots of different things in one class. Typically I might start by saying hello and asking about the weather, their opinion on something or just how they are. The next step might be focusing on one piece of vocabulary to listen out for during reading. Then the reading. Then some songs to finish up the class. They might only spend 10 minutes reading.

The two things to remember during the actual reading part are that they need to be paying attention and understanding what you’re saying to get anywhere.

Here are some things that help understanding:

  • Repetition: if they do the same story a lot they will have a better understanding of what you’re talking about. You can still focus on different ideas in the text but if they know the backbone of the story they’ll have a much better understanding.
  • Use L1: I often start a new book by giving an overview the story in Korean and then telling it at length in English. Having an idea of what’s going on scaffolds their English understanding.
  • Anchor their understanding with language they know: My students know how to talk about emotions really well, so a good way to look at a new book for the first time is to look at the pictures and see who is happy, sad, scared etc. and when they feel that way.
  • Link what you’re doing with other things you do. I’m doing a book about eating cookies at the moment, so we’ve sung about cookies and liking food; talked about food likes and dislikes; played flashcard and board games with similar lexis and so on. It also shows them that there is lots they can do with the language in their books.

Being engaging is important too, kids don’t learn well if they’re not paying attention. Here are some things to do:

  • Ask questions about the book: If you’re just reading, the students, who often don’t understand everything you’re saying anyway, might not pay attention that well. If you start asking them questions about the book (pictures as well as text), they will feel involved. They’ll also want to understand so they can answer well in front of their friends.  Ask about the time, emotions, weather, colours, how many things there are or anything else interesting.
  • Ham it up: The book is facing you when you turn the page. The kids can’t see what you’re looking at. You gasp in shock as if you’ve seen the most amazing thing ever. The kids will always almost always be really curious about what comes next.
  • Be funny: I don’t have many tips on how to be funny, but be funny. I’ve found that you can use the same jokes pretty much every class and they usually just get funnier for them. Keep the ones that work.
  • Lie: If it’s sunny in the book, say it’s raining; if the protagonist is happy, say he’s sad. Kids find this really funny and love to catch their teacher out. This one works best if you do it more than once: they’ll be paying attention for the next time you say something wrong.
  • Trick them: If you ask a question about the book with the same answer over and over then ask a question with a different answer it’s funny and makes sure everyone is paying attention. “How’s he?” “Happy.” “How’s she?” “Happy.” How’s Mum?” “Happy.” How’s the cat?” “Happy” “Happy?” *everyone giggles and shouts out* “Sleepy.”
  • Act it out: If you can mime/act a part of the story out for them they’ll understand what’s going on really well. There’s a bit in the cookie story where the boy steals a jar of cookies from the top shelf. I always mime it out standing on my chair. I’ve done it so many times but I’ve yet to see someone chat or sleep through that bit of class. Bonus points for being funny and repeating the mime more than once.