My thoughts

Teaching English to Children
March 4, 2008, 3:16 am
Filed under: Intermediate


Here at Lingua Espresso, we recently began teaching English to children on-line. This is new for us, and luckily I have experience teaching English to draw from. I taught English in Japan for three years at an eikaiwa (English conversation school) and I have worked with children here in the United States. Currently, I am pursuing my Masters in Education. I am going to talk about some of the things that I have learned about teaching English to children.


I believe that having conversations with children is important. Without conversations, they do not understand how to put the language they are learning together. As adults, even high level speakers of English can struggle with this. When I taught children in Japan, before the class had even started, we had simple conversations with them as they were arriving and leaving. How were they doing? What did they do yesterday? Last week? What are they going to do after class? What did they have for breakfast? I also tried to involve conversation as much as possible in my lessons.

I never considered the value of having conversations with kids. It was just a normal activity. However, one evening I was sitting in an izakaya (pub) with a coworker, Neal, and other teachers who worked at Nova. Neal and I were discussing something one of our students had said that day, when one of the Nova teachers said:

“What! Your kids can have a conversation with you?”

Neal and I looked at each other. “Ummm, yes….”

We were startled by this questions, wasn’t this completely normal? We were teaching them English conversation! We were informed by our Nova friends that did not have conversations. They were not allowed to. They had to go by a specific lesson plan, and would get into trouble for not following it exactly. They would just start and end the lesson with out any conversation or chitchat. Whereas, the school I worked for let us plan our own lessons. Although we had to use the textbooks selected for the class, we were free to plan the lesson how we wanted.

There are many problems with the way that Nova taught English, and I believe that the lack of conversation was a huge one. The Nova kids may know grammar and vocabulary, but could they hold a conversation? I think for many of them, the answer is no. I knew that the children I taught could. Some of them even could participate in a speech contest. I wonder if they could make a speech, if they had not the experience of having conversations. Is conversation not the point of learning English from native speakers?

Games and Activities

Teaching kids is quite different than teaching adults. For one thing, adults have a much longer attentions span. Most children can’t focus on one thing for more than ten minutes. Sometimes it is less. You have to be very flexible, have lots of things planned because you are never sure how long something will take or if they can handle doing it. Also sometimes things come up in the lesson that are valuable things to learn. Giving the students choice is very important, and it is good to respond to things that they are naturally curious about and interested in.

I have learned that one of the most powerful tools in teaching children is games and other activities. They need to be having fun while learning, and it is best if they do not know that they are learning–they think they are just having fun. I always started my lessons out with a game, and I used the game to get them to talk. I would play the game with them, and had to be careful because they would try to gang up on me so that I would lose. Games were always short, not more than 5 minutes generally, although the kids would try to extend this. I dealt with that by using a timer, and when the timer went off, we were finished! I used manufactured games like Uno, Operation, Candyland, etc., but some of us also made our own games. We were not simply playing games, but practicing language we were learning.

We also did activities from other materials that we had, such as picture dictionaries, phonics worksheets, songs, chants. We read about American holidays. We also did art in class. The art usually related to what we were studying, and gave them a chance to practice the language in a different way. It is great to involve the arts whenever possible. Research shows that children exposed to arts tend to be more successful in school. They also have more fun while learning. While they were working on a project, we could have conversations too.

In the summer, we tried to beat low enrollment by offering a special kids program. The kids came for half the day, and we had activity classes for them. We did projects, arts, and crafts together and they got to practice their English while doing it. It was a great way to apply what they had learned so far, and to learn new things in a different way, similar to immersion.


It is important to teach children how to read in English, but it is also important to read to them in English. Most children are not read to enough, and being read to makes them better readers. It does not matter if they are 2 years old or 12 years old, they need to be read to. As we are reading, I show them the pictures, ask them what they think is going to happen next, and check for their understanding of what was read.

Research also shows that children record what they hear in their brains. This means that the English they hear as kids, will affect how they speak English as adults. They have better pronunciation and speaking ability. It is even possible that they can pick up the accent of their teacher.

Sometimes I would find an American translation of a Japanese story and read it. I think this type of study is especially meaningful because they know the story, and makes the reading a meaningful experience.

Phonics and Sounds

Phonics are also very important, and are connected to reading. The better understanding a child has about phonics, the better reader he/she is, and the pronunciation is better. If the child is focusing on phonics, syllables, sounds, they start to have a natural pronunciation and way of speaking. If they are Japanese, they also get away from “katakana pronunciation,” where they pronounce English words in Japanese sounds. This is a very common problem with Japanese English speakers.

Children are also naturally curious about all the little sounds we make in English. This curiosity will allow them to be better speakers, as they will have more of a real understanding of the English language.

This is one of my students who had studied at Nova for a few years before leaving and joining my class. She was behind the other kids in her class, and quickly caught up. She really liked studying with us!


17 Comments so far
Leave a comment

This is very interesting and insightful. I was a Montessori assistant once and here, play is very important to how a child develops.

Sometimes play is actually work, like your games at the start of each class, but it’s playful work that enables them to apply what they have learnt and not just assimilate the information, as it seems to be done in the Nova classes.
Great Work.

Comment by gee16

I teach English to children in Venezuela. Your article is great advice. I´m going to continue reading your blog. Thankyou for the interesting tips!

Comment by Learn English

I ever teach English several months ago. I realized that teaching children is not easy.. thank you for your interesting can be a great input (n_n)

Comment by intan

Somehow i missed the point. Probably lost in translation 🙂 Anyway … nice blog to visit.

cheers, Hoer.

Comment by Hoer

This blog is really useful. Thank you for your advice!

Comment by Kc

i want to read more about teaching english by game

Comment by mahboobeh

more about teaching english by game

Comment by mahboobeh

I am a teacher.I always have to communicate with children.To tell the truth child teaching isn’t so easy as it may seem.Not every educator can manage it.Children grow very enthusiastic when they are taught by games.You need to treat them patiently, fairly, objectively so that they can feel that you love them much.

Comment by Education Blog

Yes, I agree. I think the secret in teaching kids is to use games to teach them so that they don’t even realize they are learning. They think that they are just having fun.

Comment by samsensei

thank for your useful tips. i would like you to share more about difficulties when teaching them and your solutions. i need to do my essay.thank in advance

Comment by thuy( vietnam)


I am sorry it took me so long to answer. The difficulties depend upon the age of the kids and their capacity for learning. For example, there are different challenges surrounding teaching a 3 year old as opposed to a 12 year old–the three year old has an attention span of 5 minutes max, so keeping their attention is a challenge. A 12 year old has a much longer attention span, but it can be difficult to keep them motivated and interested. If there are children with learning disabilities or gifted children, that adds another element of difficulty. If the kids are not all at the same level of English, it is very challenging to keep them all challenged , and not frustrated or bored.

Comment by samsensei

your analysis of teaching non english speaking children was very valuable. I included some of yr analysis in my presentation for parents about the need for children to learn English. Thank you very much

Comment by rajkumari

i think that they are just having fun.

Comment by ngthanh

thank u . good idea , but totell the truth i know this befor but i dont know wich games are useful ? can u explain more for me ?

Comment by sara

thank you for the valuable advice. Please werite more games about teaching english for the kids.
Good luck!

Comment by tsegi

i would like to learn more about the english language specially the english grammar ~

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