The perfect English lesson for toddlers and why it failed

parent and toddler
30 Mar Shelley Vernon 5 Comments

Here’s what sounds like the perfect lesson for toddlers at nursery, kindergarten or preschool. It's well thought-out, varied and thoroughly planned. Yet it was a failure ! This blog post explains how to teach toddlers English successfully and with very little preparation time.


Here’s the lesson for toddlers :


« I just gave a trial lesson with 2-year-old children and it didn’t go well ! I tried to get them to do actions to a greeting song and find pieces of a puzzle I had spread on the floor. Then I introduced the hand puppet from the mystery box. That part was probably the moment they were engaged most. Then we did an action song, singing with running jumping walking up and down etc.

Only one kid was doing it, the girl refused to participate the other boy was just wandering around climbing up and down. I understand I can't expect a lot from this age group but I was disappointed even the action songs were not attractive to them. It came to the point that the girl didn't even want to be there. So she left with her mom not even half way through the lesson.


Then we had story time, but it was still that one boy who was paying attention while the other one wasn't interested, attempting to open the door and go out a few times even with his mom being present in the classroom. I used a lot of music during the lesson and a lot of body movement too, but I wonder if it is all too new to them so they get bored or it is me who didn't know how to make it fun. You are an expert, so can you please give me some advice what went wrong and what I could do to improve? »


My reply :


This lesson must have taken some preparing and I can understand how disappointed you were when it didn’t go well. Don’t be disheartened - you have to tweak things to come down to their level. It’s easy to improve and spend less time getting ready for each lesson too.


How can we improve ?


1. Firstly one very important point to make is that this teacher has never met these toddlers before. It can be difficult to get two-year-old children to join in anything, simply because they are shy and overwhelmed at meeting a new person. In the first lesson, don’t have high expectations!


2. There is too much structure in this lesson. It’s better to prepare LESS and go with the flow rather than impose your plan on toddlers. If you see that the activity you had planned is not making your toddlers curious then stop right away and try something else. When you hit on something that they do like, milk it to the full !


3. Be gentle and don’t try to make a toddler do anything. Toddlers like to explore for themselves. They hate to be told what to do, especially by someone they have only just met ! Instead try to attract them to you. During your lesson you found that the puppet attracted your pupils. Go with this and drop the rest, you can always use it in the next lesson. It might be that the puppet (who only speaks English) becomes a best friend to your toddlers. The puppet can be shy or sad and need reassurance. He can want to know how to say words in the kids native language, but have terrible pronunciation that makes the kids fall about laughing. Then he says the word in English. Gradually he’ll be able to coax the toddlers to tell him what things are called in English, over time, as they get to know him.

Sometimes you stumble across something really simple that the kids love, when you do, let it evolve and develop in free play. It might be hiding the puppet and not being able to find it (though the kids can see where it is). All this happens in English, repeat the same thing over and over..."Where is Elfie? Where is Elfie? Where is Elfie." The kids will be calling out in their native language, "He’s over there, behind you !" But you still can't see Elfie, because everytime you turn around, he's still behind you.


Or try this, bring in two boxes, put the puppet under one box. Look for it. You can't find it anywhere. Lift up the wrong box. Where is Elfie? Is he under the box ? No ! He’s not under the box. Where is he ? Look somewhere else, then lift up the wrong box again. Still no puppet. Where is Elfie? Repeat the same phrases. Toddlers absolutely love all that kind of stupid stuff ! And they will be learning English all along, with your repetition of short phrases and vocabulary. When you finally find Elfie it's a big party, maybe the kids will want a kiss from him (not in the first lesson perhaps).


Toddlers report book coverIf you like these ideas then you'll love my Teaching Toddlers Report, compiled from ideas that work, contributed by 250 Toddler Teachers! Add on the stories too.


You can use these techniques to teach single vocabulary words, hiding different objects and looking for them. Or you might just touch interesting objects, naming them repeatedly. If you are touching a toy, the chances are the toddlers will want to touch it too, but you can’t make them.


Keep the language simple and repeat the same things over and over. You can’t chat away to toddlers in English. They won’t have a clue what you are talking about and it will most likely alienate them. However if you say single words and short phrases repeatedly, over time toddlers will catch on.


You want lots of props for them to touch and play with - different toys to pick up when you name them. First you play with the toys and name them (maybe just two toys), then see if they will touch the toy you name (teddy or car). When they know those two they will find it hilarious when you touch the wrong one. You might put a bag of different coloured scarves in a box and scraps of material with different textures. You pull one out and quickly hide it inside your jumper, then you peek at it and wonder what colour it is - and show a tiny bit, then hide it again.


Remember the key thing with two year olds, is that you can't get them to do what you want.

You have to lure them in, allow them to play freely, you follow their interests, and you mesh in with them rather than the other way around !


Closing ritual and parents


For a closing ritual you can do a little circle time with you, and the mums or dads, doing a finger play and a little rhyme. The first few times do it quickly since the kids won’t have a clue what it means and will lose interest quickly, though they may be intrigued that mummy and teacher are interacting in this curious way. As the routine becomes familiar the kids may join in. Mum or dad will probably do this finger play at home too, and that will help. It’s good to give some teaching tools like this to parents to empower them and make them feel involved.


How long should the lesson be ?


Keep lessons short. 20 minutes of lesson plus 5 minutes to arrive with greetings and 5 minutes for a biscuit and to leave. As you get better at playing with toddlers in English, you’ll be able to expand to 30 minutes, with 5 each side for coming and going.


Please leave lots of comments in the box below, we can exchange ideas !

And check out my Toddlers Report if you want lots more fun ideas. I recommend you add on the stories too (optional).


Shelley Ann Vernon

Teaching English Games


That was very useful. Thank you!
Hello. Thank you very much for the tips above. I find them really useful. I teach English to two year olds and yes sometimes it gets quite tricky!!
that was great, thanks.
Thank you for your experienced comments. I appreciate the way you "go with the flow" and encourage the teacher to be natural and fun. If a child "feels" then he/she learns. It is the emotions that need to be addressed. If the child is curious, you´ve got them. Your comment is a perfect example of this.
Dear Angie, thanks for your comment, it's most useful, perhaps other teachers will be inspired to try this approach. All the best, Shelley

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