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Picture This: A story about teaching English to 5-6 year olds

9 Comments

A first lesson for a group of 5/6 year olds, they’ve never had English lessons before, they’re clearly nervous and a bit worried. My goal (as their teacher), in the first few lessons is to ensure they enjoy being there and feel happy about coming back for more lessons. A few games are played, the children seem happy and relaxed – goal achieved!

The lesson comes to an end and the nervous and slightly apprehensive students that came into the class, leave the room happy and relaxed. I haven’t taught them much English, but I have started the process of building a safe, positive and effective learning environment for lessons to come.

However, this is all undone by one mother waiting at the door to collect her child. As I stand in the doorway, saying goodbye to each of the students, I hear one mother, ‘pounce’ on her child with ‘So, tell me, what did you learn today? Say something for me in English’. The child looks at the ground, and shuffles her feet a bit, but doesn’t provide an ‘answer’, so the mother then says, ‘Come on, what did you learn, you must be able to say something in English, come on, say something for me.’ The child looks more than a little panicked and upset…

This is what happened to me with one of my first classes of primary-aged students. It quickly became pretty clear that this student enjoyed being in the lessons, but disliked coming to English because she was always worried about being ‘tested’ by her mother at the end of each lesson. You could clearly see a change in her manner as lessons came to an end.

A parent and child learning English

This was a first lesson for me in how important it is to ensure everyone involved in a child’s education is aware of what’s going on and has shared expectations. We so often focus on the students and the teachers and ignore the role parents play in the learning process.

Involving the parents from the beginning and keeping them in the picture as the course progresses is the way forward. Here are a few suggestions for doing this:

Communicate with the parents (e-mail, letter, newsletter, parent’s meeting) before and during the course/term about:

  • the methodology of the course
  • teaching techniques/activity types that will be used
  • expectations of progress
  • content being covered (songs, topics, projects etc…)

Give parents the opportunity to see what their child can do:

  • invite them to watch a lesson
  • have a parent/teacher meeting and show work the child has done
  • have a class performance and/or display of work

Encourage extra practice at home, but in a fun and motivating way (as in the classroom)

  • Sing the songs /chants
  • Read/retell the stories
  • Computer-based games and activities

It’s definitely understood that children need a positive and encouraging environment in order to be in the best frame of mind to learn and develop. We can do all we can to create this environment in our classrooms, but in order for this to be truly effective we need this to be reinforced at home. Of course, this is easier said than done, so I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas on getting parents involved and sharing the learning process!

Naomi Moir, Teacher Trainer, Oxford University Press ELT

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Author: Oxford University Press ELT

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9 thoughts on “Picture This: A story about teaching English to 5-6 year olds

  1. Dear Naomi,

    As a teacher, I went through the same ordeal many a time.In spite of trying to involve parents in what was being done in class, their own expectations prevailed. They wanted their children to be “bilingual”, which for them meant translating every word and expression their chilren were exposed to into Spanish.
    Needless to say, children were not always able to do it, particularly, because they were taught expressions and vocabulary within a context and could not recall them in isolation.
    Parents felt their children were not making any progress and children were disappointed to find out they did not “know” English. I somehow found a solution by inviting parents,care takers and relatives to share our classes from the beginning of the school year. I had to be very flexible because I used to teach at a public boarding school attended by children whose parents were at work during the time they were at school. I told parents they could come any time to share our classes provided they let me know, even on the same day, they were coming. Some parents, grandparents and even care takers participated in our classes, which boosted the students self-esteem and gave visitors the opportunity to understand how their children “learned” English and enjoy the progress they had made.
    As a supervisor, I have tried to persuade the teachers I work with that we can´t teach as if we were isolated from the family context. Involving parents is essential for the success of their students´ acquisition of the language and, what is even more important, for their own personal development.
    Martita García Lorea
    Buenos Aires
    Argentina

    • Thanks very much for your comments Martita. I think opening your lessons to parents and other family members was a very ‘brave’ thing to do. Not only that, but it’s often not an easy thing to set up, as the logistics can be complicated, but as you discovered the benefits do mean it’s worthwhile! As you say, it’s very much about ensuring everyone’s involved and engaged in the learning process – and that the learning is not just about the language, but personal development also.

      Thanks Martita.

      Naomi

  2. Dear Naomi
    You are absolutely right. And this is not a problem of just young learners and their parents. I’ve had a girl of 10 as a student of mine. Her Mom always demanded: “Say SOMETHING in English!!!” But the poor girl didn’t know what exactly to say. That was the problem. Now the girl is 13, she speaks English fluently. Her Mom had a lot of evidence to her daughter’s perfect speech during their common journeys all over the world. But still when asked “say something” the girl just shrugs her shoulders and keeps silence.
    🙂
    Elena

    • Hi Elena, thanks very much for your comment. I think most of us would want to shrug our shoulders in response to the ‘say something’ demand! 🙂 Nobody likes being tested and put on the spot. It’s great to see that despite this ‘pushy’ parent, the child has done well with their English – must be because they have a great teacher!

      Thanks again.

      Naomi

  3. I think it could be very helpful to remind parents whose English as a second language has been painful to acquire that the difficulty can be widely imputed to lack of fun and pleasure when started being taught it. As a private teacher of ESL to adults I’ve come across many people who dislike English so very much although they cannot do without it nowadays and therefore feel forced to work more thoroughly on it. So, fun is the basis of my approach and in 99% of the cases they take to learning, that is, it doesn’t feel painful anymore.

  4. I agree totally with Jonice. I teach ESL to adults too. The middle-aged elementary students often come to me with horrible memories of failing English years ago at school, and suddenly they need to use English in their work. Once you show them that lessons and learning don’t have to be painful, and that fun things such as games, TV, films, Internet etc also count as learning, then the battle is won. Maybe they’ll never be very good at English; the older you are the tougher it is to learn a foreign language. But at least they won’t be afraid of it any more, and they will communicate.

  5. Thanks for raising this point Jonice and for your comments about it too Janet. As you say, learning really shouldn’t be ‘like pulling teeth’! It should be something that’s fun and interesting. The way these children learn when they’re young will impact on their interest and motivation for learning for the rest of their lives. If we want to avoid another generation of parents demanding extensive word lists and hefty translations, we’ve got to break the cycle. It will make everyone’s lives easier in the long run!

    Thanks for your comments.

    Naomi

  6. The fact is as adults and esp. as parents raising our child, sometimes we forget the labour we ourselves took to learn and become what we are today.It might help if we sometimes help parents feel that we are not computers able to give back the data we’ve been given at once,neither are our chiodren.And as for learning a foreign language,the process is much like the one in the way we start to speak our mother tongue in the first place,and it takes at least some months for our child to take the new language at first,digest it and finally be able to produce sth.

    Hajar
    Iran

    • Thanks for your comment Hajar. I couldn’t agree with you more! You raise an interesting point about allowing time before expecting production – sometimes referred to as the ‘silent period’. This is so important and something that is often elminated completely or at least ‘squished’ a lot in the classroom! Personally, I think allowing time goes beyond just the getting started phase and should apply to individual lessons too. I’ve observed (and taught!) lots of lessons where the pressure for students to produce comes all too soon – and you can see the students ‘freeze’.
      Something that helped me remember just how difficult it is to learn new things, was to learn something new! It would be great if we could get parents into the classroom to experience being a student again – even if only for 20-30mins!

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