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The perfect English lesson for toddlers and why it failed

toddlers looking slightly anxious

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.

The "Perfect" English 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? »

Learn from failure

This lesson must have taken some preparing and I can understand how disappointed the teacher was when it didn’t go well. Don’t be disheartened ! We learn from what does not work ! This lesson just needs tweaking,   to come down to the toddlers’ level. It’s easy to improve this lesson,  and spend less time preparing too.

How can we improve this toddler English lesson?

Natural shyness at the first encounter

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!

There is too much structure for toddlers 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 !

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.

toddlers playing with scarves at kindergarten

Go with the flow

The idea is to engage toddlers so that they learn, so, if they unexpectedly become fascinated with a box, when you wanted them to get engaged with a puppet, go with the box ! The box is an English box ! It talks ! Hello box! What’s your name? Then the box can be hungry and everyone can feed it flashcards.

When you stumble across something really simple that the kids love, 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.

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).

Teaching Toddlers English, by Shelley Ann Vernon

If 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.

Packed with dos, don’ts, tips, and great activities that require no preparation!

This short book will have you ready to bounce into preschool feeling full of fun!

More great tips for teaching toddlers English

Keep language simple and repeat the same things over and over

You can’t chat away to toddlers in English as if they were bilingual. 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.

Use props and more props!

You want lots of props for them to touch and play with – touchy, feely, noisy, squidgy and smelly! Have different toys to pick up when you name them. 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. Pull one out and quickly hide it inside your jumper, then peek at it and wonder what colour it is – and show a tiny bit, then hide it again.

Closing ritual

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 an English 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.

Key tip to take away

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!

Your comments are welcome

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

8 thoughts on “The perfect English lesson for toddlers and why it failed”

  1. 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!!

  2. 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.

    1. Shelley Ann Vernon

      Dear Angie, thanks for your comment, it’s most useful, perhaps other teachers will be inspired to try this approach. All the best, Shelley

  3. Hello, these helpful comments and ideas are from Clare, which I am posting with her permission:

    Thank you for your creativity and openness in sharing your fun material and experiences of teaching toddlers. I was used to teaching Adult fairly proficient ESL students, so this experience I was thrown in the deep end and felt I was drowning!

    When I came to Hungary my friend who is a Teacher took me to a crèche where she hid behind a white netting material and pretended to be shy before introducing a puppet and getting the new group of toddlers to speak their names. She also used brown paper with some water and paint brushes to splash a weather song and to draw a sun. The young toddlers enjoyed this hands on fun game.

    In one crèche as you described, one little boy intensely listened to a story being read whilst another little one wandered around and didn’t want to participate in the group nor in the activity.

    At the moment my youngest student online is 7 years and I using the Cambridge Starters story fun. But she shows me her own toys so we play. I have a puppet and she has a soft toy and we play! She loves the 5 little monkeys jumping on the bed plus 5 little duckling went swimming one day.

    Yesterday she excitedly hid behind her chair as we said the 5 little monkeys swinging in the trees, teasing Mr Crocodile!

    Yes to teach little children it is fun and necessary to be playful and flexible and go with the flow. A little child would normally learn at mum’s side not via a computer!

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