Children are naturally curious, with an enormous appetite for learning about the world. When it comes to teaching English, we can tap into this curiosity by providing a window to amazing facts, people and places. The key is doing this in a way that is truly meaningful for young learners, and creates a memorable and motivating learning experience that optimises engagement and builds confidence.
Of course, this is often easier said than done! In my recent webinar about encouraging confident communication with young learners, participants talked about the obstacles they face in achieving this in their English classroom. These include limited time in class, lack of exposure to English outside of the classroom, large class sizes, and students with differing levels of ability and engagement.
In the webinar, I explored some ideas to help overcome these obstacles. Focusing on four key areas: foundational language, communication skills, the real world, and contextualised reading and writing, I outlined practical tips and suggestions for building essential language skills and communicative confidence in young learners. Here are some of the key takeaways:
Confident communication must be built on a strong language foundation. For young learners, this can be split into three areas: vocabulary, grammar and phonics.
When it comes to teaching vocabulary, here are some top tips:
- Teaching new lexis explicitly and upfront is important. Especially if students aren’t having much – or any – exposure to English outside of their lessons, providing that vocabulary upfront is an essential building block for confident communication.
- English is much more memorable and fun if you can tap into your students’ interests and make learning personal. If you focus on topics learners can relate to and want to talk about, then this will really help with their engagement.
- Employ lots of different types of media to teach new language; for example, photos, illustrations, doodles, actions, audio, songs, realia and video. This varied exposure to new language cements comprehension and keeps levels of interest high.
A balanced approach to teaching grammar is key:
- Set explicit grammar presentation in a useful and interesting context, so that it makes sense to learners straight away.
- Bring grammar to life with songs, chants, realia, props and personalisation.
- Encourage informal communicative activities early on in grammar instruction, so that students are given opportunities to use the new language authentically from the outset. This will aid understanding and enjoyment, and help to reduce any anxiety around using the new grammar.
Phonics is an essential tool for learners, firstly as a means of building up an understanding of the sounds of English, and then in teaching the relationship between those sounds and spelling:
- Teach phonics in short, sharp bursts. Five minutes of each lesson set aside for a short phonics game is time very well spent.
- Dedicate more time to those sounds that don’t exist in your learner’s L1, so that you’re really helping students to gain familiarity with these.
- Align phonics instruction with the rest of your language instruction, wherever possible. This context will significantly help your students’ comprehension, and in turn build their confidence.
You can build students’ skills and confidence when it comes to communication and speaking in several ways:
- Teach and model small talk with your students, as well as lots of functional language. This will give learners a solid communicative context to build from.
- Create lots of speaking opportunities in class, at all stages of language instruction. Making these regular and informal will create an atmosphere where speaking is normal and not anxiety-inducing.
- Offer a variety of different speaking activities; for example, pair work, working in small groups, or even asking students to record themselves.
- Ensure students know it’s OK to make mistakes when speaking. You can model correct language for a student, of course, but try not to interrupt flow if they are managing to get their point across.
The Real World – The Whole World
Authenticity is a very powerful tool in ensuring student engagement and building confidence. Just a hint of an interest in something can open a world of possibilities for further learning.
We can tap into students’ curiosity by ensuring that content is:
- familiar yet fascinating to learners
- relevant and relatable, in the sense that it is age-appropriate, and something that learners are both interested in and understand
- representative of the learners themselves.
Rudine Sims Bishop’s metaphor of Windows, Mirrors and Doors is a useful way to leverage children’s natural curiosity when teaching English, as well as prioritising diversity, honouring many cultures, and promoting empathy:
We can fascinate learners by opening windows into the realities of others.
We can teach relevant and relatable content that represents them and mirrors their own lives.
We can help them stride through doors into a truly immersive English language learning experience.
Contextualised Reading and Writing
Learning to read for pleasure is so important for young learners, and this is just as true in the English language classroom as it is in the L1 classroom. If the enjoyment is there, then the engagement is there, and so many benefits will follow. Not just in terms of building language skills, but also in terms of social and emotional development, and other essential life skills.
When it comes to teaching reading in your English language lessons, encourage communication throughout the pre-reading, while-reading and post-reading stages, to help students explore reading in lots of different ways:
- Choose texts across a variety of genres, and ensure a balance of fiction and non-fiction
- Ensure texts are appropriately leveled and pre-teach any unknown language
- Support with pictures and photographs for context and interest
- Set fun activities, such as finding the ‘secret word’ in a text, or performance activities
- Read aloud to your students (or use supporting audio)
- Encourage students to read along while listening.
Finally, when it comes to your writing lessons, here are some top tips to maximise confidence and engagement:
- Focus on meaningful, real-world genres to teach essential communicative writing techniques. For example, class surveys, reviews, emails, fact files, scripts, invitations and journals.
- Provide clear writing models so that students understand what is expected.
- Provide step-by-step support for putting together the final written piece, using resources such as graphic organisers to scaffold the process.
View the Imagine Road Map for Confident Communication to learn how Imagine helps learners develop the foundational skills needed to speak English with confidence in real-world settings.