How to teach English to pre-primary students

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Pre-primary learners sat on the floor in a classroom setting. The teacher can be seen reading to them and the children look very happy and engaged.

Teaching pre-primary learners requires a different approach than teaching primary or older students. You need to use a very different skillset and it can be a challenge to shift gears and adjust your expectations. Teaching expert and materials writer Jeanne Perrett has years of experience working with the youngest learners. Here, she shares her insights into starting the learning journey with three to six year olds.    

What are our aims?  

There are two main language aims when we teach children aged from three to six. The first is to help them feel at ease in an English-speaking environment and the second is for them to learn to recognise, understand and then use very small amounts of English – words, phrases and short sentences.  

At this age, children have a relatively short attention span. So, they need a guided balance between activity and rest. Almost all of their language input and output will come from listening, speaking, singing and chanting. So, where do we start?  

Classroom English 

It is important to start as you mean to go on, by speaking to the children in English from day one. Welcome them into the class in a normal chatty, friendly manner, for example: ‘Hello, [Jason], come in. I like your shoes! Put your bag here and you can put your coat here. Now sit down on this chair.’  

Your students won’t understand the actual words, but your actions, your attitude and demeanour will be clear. By creating this background of English, they will begin to get used to the rhythms and sounds of the language and they will enjoy it too.  

It is important to let the parents know what you are doing. Tell the parents that you do not expect the children to be able to reproduce what they are hearing, or to be able to translate it. You might want to consider putting this into writing for the benefit of the parents. 

Small amounts of language 

At the start of a pre-primary English course for children of this age, the target language for one lesson might just be one word or one short sentence; for example, ‘yellow’ or ‘I’m happy’.  

In My Disney Stars and Friends we teach these tiny amounts of language in a variety of ways; through pictures in the Student’s Book, through activities in the Workbook which require coloring or marking the page in some way, through listening to simple dialogues and stories, through chants, songs and games.  

Feelings. From My Disney Stars and Friends – Level 1 Workbook, p. 4

This helps the children to naturally acquire the target language through different sources. What’s more it also means that your lessons have a good balance of activities; some active and playful and others which are more reflective and peaceful.  

The target language is always clearly set out for you, the teacher. So, if a game about the colour yellow includes language such as ‘Where’s the yellow card? Can you see something yellow? Is this yellow?’ you will know that the target word is still only ‘yellow’. That is what you are aiming for the children to know when they leave the class.  

Of course, some children will pick up the ‘surrounding’ language and reproduce it. But it is important for you to keep your aims clear in your mind so that you can see when everyone has learnt what you were intending. It is easy to get distracted by the children who pick up language very easily and to think that others are falling behind, when in fact they are not at all.  

Varied and interesting lessons 

We don’t just speak English. We whisper it, we call it, we chant and sing it, we play with it. Let’s look at how we go about this using the example of the target language ‘Mommy, Daddy, brother, sister, baby’.  

Using hand-puppets in My Disney Stars and Friends

In My Disney Stars and Friends, we start with Circle Time (having the children sit in a circle with you) and use the Mickey Mouse puppet and picture cards to introduce the target language. Then we move onto the Student’s Book and look at the family from Disney/Pixar The Incredibles. We have the children listen to and then repeat the vocabulary. Then we have a chant with actions, a sticker activity and then a game.  

In the game, you can use toys or teddies, and you or the children decide which family members they are. It’s a game which the children can play as a class, in groups, or by themselves. When children initiate games, they act out situations which are meaningful to them and this helps them process their own thoughts, feelings and actions, and those of others.  

Then, there’s a workbook activity, where the children draw lines (guided at first) between the superhero and the regular family members of The Incredibles 

My Family. From My Disney Stars and Friends – Level 1 Workbook, p. 18

All of these activities are in just one lesson and in each activity, we are reinforcing the target language of five words. The same vocabulary is reinforced in other lessons in the same unit with songs and more games (for example, using paper or toy plates to lay the table for a family dinner whilst saying who the plates are for – for example –mommy, me, baby). There’s a story about Jack and his family (where we also consider the value of ‘I love my family’). An activity where the class looks at photographs of different and diverse families. As well as a press out craft activity of making a simple picture frame for the children’s own family drawings.  

These simple, fun activities are guaranteed to get your pre-primary learners engaged in learning English and enjoying your classes. 

Learn more 

For more classroom activities and lesson planning tips, sign up for Jeanne’s webinar on the 23rd of March, where she’ll be sharing more of her expert insights on teaching pre-primary learners.  

About My Disney Stars and Friends 

My Disney Stars and Friends is a new pre-primary course for children aged 3-5. The course brings together the magic of Disney and the rigor of Pearson educational content to give learners a fun and motivating start to language-learning. My Disney Stars and Friends is flexibly designed to suit teacher’s specific classroom needs and scheduling requirements. Read more about the course. 

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