Foreign Language learning is often a challenge for anyone and these challenges are frequently multiplied when teaching children.  When teaching children in the mainstream rather than privately / one to one the teacher faces the same issues as with normal teaching.  A children’s teacher needs to be in part:

  • An entertainer
  • A disciplinarian
  • A confidant
  • An effective communicator
  • Patient and persistent
  • Positive and encouraging

And indeed much more.

By far the best method of learning a foreign language is to mimic as closely as possible what is often called first language acquisition – or in other words how you learnt your mother tongue.  This is broadly done by consistent exposure to the new language through the learner’s domestic environment, social interactions and the media (TV, Film, radio, reading, etc).  However, this option is very rarely available as the parents of the foreign learner are almost certainly of the same nationality themselves and in a situation where the parents are of two nationalities any child will acquire both languages as a mother tongue – although the mother’s language will usually be favoured – hence why it is referred to as the mother tongue.  Where this is the case the role of foreign language tuition is diminished and in fact the child can be taught using the same principles as when teaching native children.

So this aside what is the best way to teach a foreign child English?


The golden rule of foreign language teaching is to avoid TTT (Too much Teacher Talk) and get them talking.  Put another way when you are speaking they are not practicing.  Keep this in mind and keep your speaking to a minimum where possible.

The following tips should help.

  1. Be Visual. Use body language, visual aids and signs.  It is easy to introduce the word ‘cup’ to a child by simply showing them one (this is very similar to flashcard methodology that is used to develop reading) and it is not much more difficult to then use the cup to demonstrate the verb ‘drink’.  Common and proper nouns can be introduced very effectively this way as can many verbs, adjectives and adverbs.  More obscure words are more difficult, but again gesture brings them to life.  If the child has already learnt the word big use gesture and tone to emphasis it.  ‘The palace was SO big that…’  This could also provide a launching point for a lesson on comparatives and superlatives.  Make your gestures large!
  2. Use the same gestures to show what you want the children to do; if you want them to sit of the floor in a circle make the appropriate gesture while giving the instruction and repeat until they do it. You will find that those who struggle to understand will follow the others who understand anyway – but they will have made the connection with what they heard.
  3. Never pidgin or use an imitation accent. This teaches bad practice.  By all means use simplified forms.  I bought a new car yesterday rather than I have bought a new carif the child has not been introduced the present perfect (both forms are correct, but note the more sophisticated present perfect does not describe when the activity took place).
  4. Repeat, repeat, repeat. A very popular methodology for learning English is the Callan method which involves students repeating after the tutor.  It claims to be four times faster than traditional methodology (logically if the student is a constant this means four times less material), but for all of its disadvantages it does get students speaking very quickly.  Use drilling exercises and get the child not only to repeat the word or phrase, but to imitate the both the pronunciation and intonation (this is a particular challenge for a tutor who could inadvertently ‘sing-song’ the pronunciation).  Use this particularly for common and useful phrases – starting especially for the classroom where they are more likely to practice.
  5. Use direct methods and do not use their language (assuming you know it). This forces them to communicate in English as they have no other means.  Although particularly with older children it is worth ‘letting slip’ that you understand (even if you don’t) so that they know they can’t get away with being cheeky in their own language to you.
  6. Keep it light with lots of play. Use memory games and interactivity to maximise their involvement.  Something as simple as Simon Says is good for learning actions.  Get the winner of the first round to be Simon and so on.  Your role is then reduced to mediator.  With the play aspect this will engage a group of children from mixed ethnic backgrounds.  A good icebreaker lesson is to have a ball and get the children to throw it to each other (or roll it if they are too young to catch) and when they get the ball they have to introduce themselves – ‘I am Tom’.  Later flip the game and get the throwing child to day ‘Here you are Tom’ etc.  Due to limited attention spans use frequent changes of activity and pace – whilst not creating chaos.
  7. Use a topic based approach where children can use their initiative. Children love engagement – this is true in all teaching.
  8. Have fun – if you are seen as enjoying yourself it will be infectious.

© Richard Horton 2015 Omega Support Services

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