Teaching kids can be one of the biggest challenges new (and even not that new) EFL teachers face. You’ve done your CELTA, you’ve taught a few adult classes, everything has gone well; and then, suddenly, you find yourself in front of a class of 8 year olds. These are my top ten tips for anyone new to teaching kids.
1. Choose shorter activities.
One of the main areas where teaching children is different to teaching adults is that children have shorter attention spans. It seems obvious when you put it like that – but it can be easy to forget in the classroom. Your adult students may be perfectly capable of completing a reading/writing/grammar activity that takes them 15-20 mins. Try the same thing with your class of 8 year olds, however, and the result will be pandemonium. The younger the student, the shorter their attention spans – the general rule of thumb is the students’ age + two = the maximum amount of minutes they can concentrate for. When teaching kids, plan accordingly – you’re looking for lots of short activities, with different types of interaction – pair work, group work, individual work, so that you can vary what you’re doing every few minutes.
2. Let them move.
Children fidget – especially if they’re coming to your class after they’ve already done a whole day at school. It’s wise to incorporate some activities where they can move around – this could be a running game, a miming activity, or cutting up a text and putting it around the room for students to read. This will also help any lively students to burn off a bit of energy and help them to concentrate during the periods where you do need them sitting down!
Connected to both activity length and letting students move around is an idea called Settle/Stir. Some activities are ‘settling’ – they calm down excited students and can also be helpful transitions between one activity and the next. Think taking a register, read and draw activities, or using stories. Other activities are ‘stirring’ – they energise and excite students and can be useful both at the beginning of a class or at points during the lesson where students’ energy levels are flagging. Think miming/movement games, mingle activities, or many flashcard games. In your lesson you need a good balance of both settling and stirring activities (alternating between the two as much as possible) – too many settlers in a row and the students will become bored and lethargic, but too many stirrers and they’ll become overly excited, find it hard to concentrate, and you’ll risk losing control. You can find some good ideas for stirring and settling ideas for the primary school-age EFL classroom here.
3. Consider what they know/can do/like doing in L1.
If you don’t know, ask them/ask a parent/ask another teacher/Google it! Textbooks for young learners often include information that may not be at all helpful for your students – for example teaching them to tell the time in English when they cannot yet do it in L1, including CLIL lessons on photosynthesis or the water cycle, or asking a group of 10 year olds to write a job application letter for a job (I have encountered all of these!). Needless to say, if your younger students have yet to encounter something in their first language, it’s probably not that meaningful to teach them all about it in English. Conversely, if they’re learning all about woodland animals in L1 at school, it could be really interesting for them to learn some of that vocabulary in English.
4. Get them creating.
It’s unusual to meet a child (at least under the age of 10) who thinks that they ‘can’t draw’. Make the most of your students’ creativity by getting them to draw, imagine, design and invent.
5. Play games.
Playing games is almost always considered central to teaching kids – to the extent that I’ve been to training workshops on ‘teaching kids’ that have only consisted of game demonstrations! The fact of the matter is that most kids do love playing games, and in their English lesson is no exception. After a while you’ll have an idea of what things work and don’t work with your classes (and most of them will probably have favourite games) – but in the meantime ask colleagues for ideas, search the internet, or look at some of the other ideas on this blog. It’s also worth pointing out that often a class will develop a love of a particular game – and then request it every single lesson. Often we think that children want new and exciting things all the time – but actually, if they love a particular activity, it can take them months to tire of it. If they enjoy it and ask for it, run with it!
6. …but don’t think you have to make everything a game.
Once you are teaching school-age children (as opposed to VYL – very young learners) your students will generally have some idea of what sort of behaviour is expected of them in the classroom. Regardless of how they feel about it, they know that this is an English lesson, and they do expect to do some work. On a related note, if you aren’t naturally a cheerful, bouncy person, don’t think you have to become some kind of all-singing, all-dancing clown in order to successfully teach kids. If you force it, they will notice; and who’s to say that there won’t be a quieter, more reserved child who would prefer a more relaxed approach.
7. Have routines.
(and stick to them). I had worked with children in various settings for about 8 years before I became a teacher – but this is what I most wish someone had told me in my first few months of teaching. Children need routines – it helps them to feel safe and secure, it means that they know roughly what is coming next, and as a teacher it both makes managing your lesson a lot easier and helps to give a framework to your planning. As with younger age = shorter activities, the amount of routines to use also depends on the age of your students. Again, the general rule is that the younger the students, the more routines. When teaching grade 1, for example, you might want a routine for everyone coming into the classroom, a routine for starting the lesson, a routine for everyone sitting down/making a circle etc, a routine for transitioning between different stages of the lesson, a routine for packing away and a routine for finishing the lesson/everyone leaving the classroom. For 10-12 year olds a routine might be as simple as playing a game at the start of the lesson, followed by an activity to review what was studied last time, followed by new material, and then checking homework at the end. What’s also important is that once you have your routines in place, stick to them. Routines will take time to develop – the first few lessons may be a bit of a mess, but it is well worth persevering.
8. Have a classroom management system.
Classroom management is one of the most important aspects of teaching kids/teens of any age. Adults, as a general rule, know how to behave in a classroom, what is expected of them in a lesson, and then don’t try to test the boundaries. With kids this is not necessarily the case. Ideally, set up your classroom management system in your first lesson with the group. Again, other teachers or Google are your friends here – there are lots of different ways of doing classroom management, from class contracts, to star charts, to making positive behaviour into a competition between the students and the teacher. Find something you like, and then, unless there are clear indications that it isn’t going to work with your class, stick to it. As with routines, children need to know what is expected of them, what the consequences will be if they do not behave in an appropriate way, and most importantly, they need to know that these consequences will be carried out, rather than simply being empty threats.
9. Expect the unexpected.
Often I’ve put a great deal of time and effort into planning a lesson, only for it not to work. When teaching kids it’s perhaps more important than any other age group to remain flexible. Make sure that you have some back-up plans, some extra activities that fast-finishers can do, and above all, if it becomes apparent that something isn’t working, don’t keep trying to force it to work.
10. Don’t be afraid to ask for help!
Other colleagues, books and the internet can all be great sources of ideas when you first start out teaching kids. Don’t be afraid to use them!