I still vividly remember my first session with a group of young learners. I’d spent hours planning and was sitting in the classroom a full twenty minutes before the class. I paced the room frantically bouncing a rubber ball against the wall. Then came the most terrifying sound my 24-year-old ears had ever heard–the footsteps of a small troop of children heading up the stairs, heading to me!
When asked if I prefer teaching children or adults, I’m always hard pressed to come up with an answer. They both have their good and bad points. I will say this though, teaching children is a lot more fun. That’s not to say that I haven’t made my share of difficulties.
For this week’s post, I’m going to travel back in time to some horrible mistakes I’ve made teaching children. I’ll also share what I’ve learned along the way. Read on for five ways to save yourself from making the same errors in judgment that I did in the young learner classroom.
Plan “if time” activities
During those early days it was easy to get caught up in the moment; even lose track of time. I remember one rather difficult group of kids that I was teaching. Everyone has that class that is difficult for them to teach, especially in their first TEFL years, and this was mine.
Well, I’d finally gotten through to them one day. The games were working and they seemed to not only get the concepts, but they were using the language. I’m not sure what had changed, but they respected me. It was while feeling this sense of joy in my chest that I told them goodbye for the day. The only problem was, as one child was pleased to point out, that the class was not over.
We still had fifteen more minutes. My stomach dropped as I scrambled to come up with activities for us to do. I even ended up repeating some games we’d already done! Their tiny eyes looked at me in shame.
Solution: Things happen during a lesson. It’s good to always have an extra activity planned. I sometimes use these extra activities to fill an awkward amount of time in a lesson or as a back up in case one of my activities is an absolute fail. Literally, I still do this for every lesson.
Know what to do in case of an emergency
“Teacher red!” one of my five year olds screamed in horror one lesson. While I was pleased that he remembered his colors (at least one), I went into a near state of shock when I saw a student whose t-shirt was covered in blood.
It was only a bloody nose, still, given the communication barrier, it was a difficult situation to deflate. It was scary because I was by myself and had no idea who to contact. Imagine if it was a more serious situation!
Solution: Often, when teaching very young learners, you have a teaching assistant in the room with you who will help with communication problems or emergencies that might arise. This is not always the case.
Now, I always find out who to turn to if there are problems in the classroom beit an operations officer, a head teacher or security guard. Be prepared for these situations, because the is no worse feeling than being in an emergency situation with a child, not speaking their language and being responsible for them.
Plan on how you are going to present ideas
“So you run into the circle, then you throw the ball at the other team and you ask them a question. If you hit them then they have to answer. Then they get to hang the dragon up on the ceiling,” I said to a group of confused students who knew their numbers, colors, how to say their name and a few other fundamentals but nothing else.
Needless to say, they were confused. Saying the rules aloud to the strange game I’d concocted, so was I. What seemed like a great communicative game when planning, quickly devolved into a disaster.
Solution: Keeping it simple is one important rule I always try to follow. Another is to clearly think through how I’m going to communicate how to do an activity. The same is true about presenting new language or concepts. I can’t simply assume that they’ll just get it, I’ve got to think it through.
With games, the simplest way to get the rules across is to demo it. Act it out while using very simple language. If you want to do a complex game, but are worried they won’t understand, start with a simpler version of the game and work up to it. This may take a few weeks.
Remove distractions and get their attention
I was finally getting to the crux of the lesson. I’d reviewed numbers and the relevant vocab. Now, I was going to present the idea of plurals and the ‘s’ ending–a completely foreign concept to these kids. I had a plan, I was ready–they, however, were definitely not.
Three of them were looking through different pages in their book, one was playing with some sort of transformer-like robot and one of the boys seemed absolutely mesmerized by his own hand.
Solution: I always make sure that students’ books and other items that may distract them are put away until I want them to be used. “Put away your book” and “take out your book” is some of the very first language I teach beginner level kids.
It’s hard to compete with some distractions (e.g. butterflies, large mirrors or interesting things happening just outside the window). One of the most useful tricks I’ve learned along the way are attention grabbing techniques. One very simple version is to teach a chant. Clap, clap, “Look at me.”
The students then in turn: Clap, Clap, “Look at teacher!”
Make sure all their eyes are on you and then award points to the most attentive team. It will take a number of tries before your students will get the chant, but once they know it, you’ll be amazed at how effective it can be.
Use “hot” and “cold” activities
“Teacher bored.” These words hurt. They may, however, be deserved if the students have been sitting down for more than twenty minutes passively listening. Bored students don’t pay attention. Bored students do not take part in the class. Bored students do not learn a language.
Solution: Kids have short attention spans. I keep them engaged by continually changing activities and the pace of the lesson. Hot activities refer to active games or activities that get them out of their chairs. Cold activities are more focused activities where the learner is either working alone or focused on something else happening in the classroom (e.g. a story). Cold activities aren’t passive activities, they are just calmer activities.
Mix both into your lesson. Experiment to create the perfect classroom stew. Some rules of thumb that I follow are to never have the students sitting for more than fifteen minutes. Also, don’t put too many active games in a row (lest the children lose their minds in a frenzy of uncontrollable energy). Adjust your lesson based on how things are going, if the students look restless, get them out of their chairs for a minute. And, use songs!
Songs are a great way to get students energy up or to calm them down. Click on the button below for a page of links to, what I believe, are the most effective TEFL songs for beginner level young learners.
Top 10 TEFL Songs for Young Beginners
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