The Oxford TEFL Blog

5 Things I wish I had known before teaching very young learners

Our guest blogger Taylor Grabowski is from California, USA and completed the Trinity CertTESOL, Developing Teacher with Spanish and Teaching Young Learners course at Oxford TEFL Barcelona. She is now a full-time teacher in the school, specializing in Teaching Young Learners. Here, she provides her top tips (and things she wishes she’d known before) for teaching young learners.

teaching young learners tips

You’re pumped and ready to make this the best class ever! You’ve read the articles, watched the videos on YouTube and maybe you’ve even attended a workshop at your school to prepare you for your very first very young learners EFL class. These are all excellent resources and I’m personally very grateful I had access to such a great support network at my language school. However, if you haven’t worked with children before, there is NOTHING that will prepare you for what you are about to take on. My intention isn’t to scare you, but simply to let you know that you are not alone. And who knows? Some of these tips might even help you. In any case, these are the things I wish I had known before I was thrown into the emotional roller coaster that is teaching very young learners:

1. Don’t let their smiles fool you.

Very young learners can be dangerously cute. They’ve got big eyes, bright smiles and say things that make you go “Dawwww.” However, these kids are not dolls but small humans with different personalities, complex emotions and a penchant for boundary-testing. During your first few weeks, they may seem well-behaved enough and might even stop doing something if you tell them to. However, if you haven’t taken advantage of what EFL professional Carol Read calls the “honeymoon” period, you’ll find yourself wanting an annulment!

2. Don’t get discouraged.

Kindergartners don’t see a need to speak English. I’d read this before I started teaching, but I thought I was going to be the hotshot to change all that. I like a good challenge. And then I failed miserably—or so I thought.  Week after week of not hearing any English from my students unless it was part of a song or game was really starting to have an effect on my ego; was I doing something wrong? Was I simply a bad teacher? And then, in the last class of the term before summer, with all the parents there to witness it, a miracle happened. I asked Mónica what she likes to eat. The response? “Chicken and bananas!” I could have cried (in fact, I think I got a little weepy). Even better, the parents began to tell me that their children have been speaking English at home! The point is, don’t give up. In time, your chicken and bananas will come.

3. Routine, routine, routine! But what does it mean?

I’m sure you’ve heard this one before: “Ensure you have set in place a classroom routine that will create a safe and structured learning environment.” Some things are easier said than done! In addition to your clearly visible behavior chart and variety of stirrer and settler activities, there are other small things you can do that will make a big difference. Take my pre-class routine for example. After putting their jackets and backpacks in the designated area, the kids sit down for snack. As they munch on Nutella sandwiches, I set up my behavior board, take out my pre-written lesson plan and flashcards, get any music ready, etc. This shouldn’t take more than 4-5 minutes. I sit down with the kids while they’re finishing and ask some review questions. “Martín, what color is this?” and I point to his shirt. I also ask if anyone needs to use the potty. So in 10 minutes, you’ve prevented what could be a major headache!

4. Have a PLAN.

And make sure there are at least 14-17 activities on it, even if they’re simply routine, such as “lining up by the door” and “sing the Clean Up song.” You’re not going to get through all of them, but just knowing that you have something to fall back on in case your song falls flat can really help you feel good about going into class. Take a look at one of my first lessons compared to what I use now. Which one do you think gets me through the hour with my sanity intact? Hint: it’s not the first.

5. Follow through.

“I’m going to talk to your mommy” were magic words the first week or so. Imagine my surprise when the spell lost its mojo after two empty threats! Make sure you and your students know what bad behavior and good behavior look like and that your consequences are swift and fair. If standing on the table means Estela gets knocked down a peg on the behavior board, make sure it happens, no matter how sad she is. And if Lola has helped one of her classmates cut something out, praise and move up a peg! Don’t be afraid to talk to parents if need be. As uncomfortable as it may seem, the parents want their child to succeed even more than you do and will set them straight.

So there you have it. The things that would have saved me headaches and tears had I known them my first year. But that’s all part of the experience, right? Despite my rocky start, I’m proud to say I’m now going on my third year with this age group. Although one of the biggest challenges I’ve ever taken on, teaching Very Young Learners has also got to be the most rewarding. I hope it is for you too!

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If you are interested in teaching English to any age group, you can gain an internationally-recognized certificate by completing the Trinity CertTESOL course. If you would like to develop your teaching skills in a specific area, such as Teaching Young Learners, and gain a certificate to give your CV a boost, take a look at our teacher development courses.

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