Teaching English to very young learners. Best practices for teaching English to Very Young Learners


Dont give up.

I believe in you all.

A person’s a person,

No matter how small.”

Dr. Seuss

These words of famous children’s writer always remind me, that I can encourage my young and very young learners to develop an interest in learning English, which will stay with them long after they have finished my classes. Teaching young learners is different from teaching adults. Children tend to change their mood every other minute, and they find it extremely difficult to sit still. Nevertheless, I’m sure, teaching young learners is so amazing, so unique! Every day brings surprises and delight. We just need to think of them as learners, as first language learners and as learners of English.

When I’ve started my teaching practice, it was really complicated for me to work with so small children. At the University, we’ve learned only about middle school and high school students. And my first class after graduation was 3-4 years old kids. I’ve been working in the private children’s developing center. So… Young teacher and very young learners. We were growing together and learning together.


Very Young Learners, what are they?

To teach them we should understand their personality and their needs. Here are general characteristics of VYL, that teacher needs to consider:

  • They learn very quickly.
  • They have so much fun with learning.
  • They have incredible energy.
  • Everything is new to them.
  • They are such active learners, processing new experiences, asking questions, trying things out, experimenting, practicing over and over until they master new skills.
  • They have fun with language.
  • They ask questions all the time.
  • They have a short concentration span.
  • They need hands-on, concrete experiences in order to learn effectively.
  • They need multi-sensory experiences.
  • Their first language is still developing rapidly.
  • Little boys tend to be somewhat less advanced in linguistic skills, fine motor skills and concentration.
  • Most are in the first stages of learning to read and write.
  • They may not be ready for co-operative play or pair/group work, preferring to engage in parallel play or side-by-side activity.
  • They find it difficult to sit still.
  • They need and enjoy lots of repetition.
  • Much language development in both first and second languages is inner (i.e. they understand more than they say).
  • They may not be ready for certain structures and complexities in either first or second language.


What do they need to learn?

Children need a variety of experiences with a concept in a variety of situations with a variety of people. Each new experience will result in some modifications, extension or limitation of the concept. The following are some of the clusters of concept that young children should become familiar with over time:

Identification of objects. Such as body parts, clothing, objects in the classroom.

Classification according to color, shape, size, number, function and kind. Beginning with what is immediate, personal and concrete; comparing and contrasting these.

Spatial relationships such as near, far, in front of, behind, under, and over. Activities such as games, handicrafts and tidying up can all involve opportunities to develop children’s awareness of spatial relationships.

Temporal relationships such as past, present and future, before and after, and since and during.

Emotional and familial relationships: love and hate, happiness and unhappiness, family, friendship, self and others.


Practical tips for successful teaching


Tip #1

Don’t afraid to be silly!

All children enjoy the humor of funny and unusual words. They don’t forget funny and emotional lessons. Just add some humorous poems, stories in you lessons. Books like “Green eggs and ham” by dr. Seuss will help you. Ask your little students, do they like green eggs? Show them green eggs! Make monster puppets, give them absurd names, make machines with ‘junk’, cut up pictures of animals they know the names of and invent some new ones (have you ever seen a kangdogcow before?). Make them laugh and they’ll be happy! A little bit silly teacher = happy students.


Tip #2

Use toys and games

Use all kinds of toys: teddy bears and dolls, puppets, finger puppets, cars and trains, toy animals. It really works! Flashcards are good, but toys are much better! You can make role-plays, practice small conversations, identifying objects, memory games and many other wonderful things.

I have a doll called Leva. Like my VYL, he, too, is learning English and the children love him. Not only does he provide continuity between lessons, he also helps the children to feel powerful and knowledgeable as they coach him, correct his mistakes and teach him new words. I love to make stories with the children about him and find this is a successful way in which to introduce and reinforce key language items

Children are tired of all electronic devices, computer games, mobile applications, etc. Parents not often play toys with their children. They’ll enjoy playing with toys in the English classroom.  Especially they’ll enjoy playing board games: blocks, puzzles, domino and bingo games. All of these are splendid way to learn first vocabulary.


Tip #3

Let them move

Learn song and rhymes with movements and actions. Let them rest and move around the classroom, while they listen the song. And learn new songs every time. I’ve met a lot of teachers, who complain me, that children don’t like songs and rhymes. They do like, but sometimes teachers use only couple of hackneyed songs like ‘Head and shoulders, knees and toes’ and their little learners just got bored.  Try to search something new for children and for yourself. These are my favorite, you may easily search them in the internet and use in your classroom: ‘Itsy Bitsy Spider’, ‘The Hokey Pokey’, ‘Who took the cookie?’, ‘This old man’, ‘5 little monkeys’, ‘Put on your shoes’, ‘Open, shut them’, ‘One potato, two potatoes’, ‘Walking in the jungle’, ‘If you are happy’, ‘One little finger’, ‘Hickory Dickory’, ‘Wheels on the bus’, ‘Do you like broccoli ice-cream?’, ‘London bridge is falling down’, ‘Old MacDonald had a farm’, ‘Finger family’, ‘Eeney Meeney Miney Moe’. Always sing them with actions!


Tip #4

Arts and handicrafts

Many of the materials for the VYL are bright, jolly and fun, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But the Arts (music, dance, painting, drawing, drama) all have a role in helping us to communicate with the child in a very special way. When we work through and with the Arts, we reach the sensitive, aesthetic and spiritual aspects of the child and turn our lessons into something special, which stays with the child for the rest of his/her life.

Of course, teacher’s main role to teach them English, but handicrafts – is a good way to make them first writing. Tiny books with first vocabulary, paper planes and boats, paper puppet. If they’ll make it, be sure they’ll remember the word!



Tip #5


These are what you keep in your ‘magic box or bag’ (i.e. your contingency plan!) If you find they complete what you had planned for the whole lesson early (and this often happens) or interest and concentration are waning at some point in the lesson, gather them round you in a circle, play some special music, and, with some ceremony, engage them in guessing what is in the bag or box today.


Tip #6

Parents are your best helpers

Parents of the VYL may be excited about their child learning English at such an early age. However, they may also be confused if their experiences of learning language were of boring textbook exercises and formal grammar. They may be wondering how we can teach English to a 4 year old. Also, if they don’t speak English very well they may feel nervous about how to support their child in case (as one parent said to me «I get it wrong»). It is up to us to take the lead, and warmly welcome parents to talks, workshops and opportunities to see how we do things. If you are brave, invite them in small groups to watch you in action. Alternatively video some lessons and show them at a parents evening. If we are clear about our methods and rationale, and we explain them clearly, parents will feel reassured and secure. If we go one step further and offer guidance on how they can offer support at home, they will feel much more involved and valued. We need to convince them that, even if they don’t speak English perfectly, they can help.

The best way to sum up all my thoughts is:

I hear and I forget,

I see and I remember,

I do and I understand.

The VYL needs to do in order to learn effectively. Teaching them is challenging, fascinating, exhausting, exciting and FUN.



  1. English Teaching Forum, Volume 41, number 1, 2005
  2. Mcllvain, A. (2001) A Stretch in Time Helps Children to Learn in Early Years Educator, Vol. 2, No. 1, January 2001
  3. Montessori, M. (1983) The Secret of Childhood London: Sangam Books
  4. Green eggs and Ham, by Dr. Seuss, Random house, NY, 1980
  5. http://busyteacher.org/
  6. http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/
  7. http://product.pearsonelt.com/englishadventure/


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