As imposing a task as teaching the top managers of a company or a class of surly teenagers might appear, the most nerves I’ve ever seen in teachers has been when considering the prospect of handling a whole class of under 5s for the first time. I’m not sure why that is, but maybe it’s the fact that you can’t fall back on free conversation or a fear of tears and other bodily fluidsa??In fact, kindergarten classes one of the most fun and easiest to teach once you get in the swing of things. There are also plenty of ways of making sure you are fully prepared for your first class even if you have never taught any very young children before. This article gives some tips to make sure you are prepared and are able to go into class with the confidence of knowing that you are really ready. The tips are divided into ones on how to collect suitable materials to be able to go in with your arms reassuringly full and ones on how to practice some techniques before your first class.
1) Collecting materials
While you will probably want to take in colouring worksheets, it doesn’t really matter which ones for the first few classes with students who are under four, as many of them will scrawl any colour anywhere without paying any attention to what it is supposed to represent or the instructions language (“Colour the apple red!”) you are chanting. I will therefore start with the much more vital areas of songs and picture books/ storybooks before moving onto other materials and finally things the students colour, draw and write on.
It is perfectly possible to just sing songs yourself in class – especially if the kids already know the tune (e.g. from a version of the song in their own country), if you don’t mind them just copying the actions and only joining you in singing after a few weeks, or if you can play an instrument to accompany yourself. If you are okay with this, all you need is the words and tune of the song off the internet or from a book of songs. Listening to the song yourself a couple of times (sometimes available for free from websites, including ones where you have to pay for the privilege of actually downloading it to take away) can help you prepare for this.
For most people, taking in a CD or cassette of songs makes you much less self-conscious, gets the students’ attention more easily, makes it clear that you want them to sing along if they can, and gives your voice more of a rest (sometimes a real issue in very young learner classes). Songs originally for native speaker kids and ones especially written for foreign kids to learn English with are both available. The ones for native speakers tend to be cheaper to buy (or even free to download), catchier, and more memorable. The ones for non-native speakers are often more relevant in terms of language included in them, simpler to understand, and with clearer actions for you and the children to do while singing. All of these six factors are the things you should look for when selecting songs for your “portfolio”.
Sources for songs include the internet, bookshops, music shops, the radio, video and TV, magazines about for the parents or teachers of pre-school children, and ESL kindergarten textbooks (sometimes available as a trial copy for free from the publishers, though this often comes without the CD).
Collecting picture books and storybooks
Just like for songs, the books available to tell stories and teach vocabulary and reading to native and non-native English speakers can vary a lot. In this case the variations are in the quality of the drawings and story telling, the relevance of the language, the possibility of adaptation for miming etc in class, and availability of support materials such as photocopiable worksheets. For students who don’t need to learn to read, I find stories written for native speaker kids go down best, but no more than five to ten percent of all the titles available in a bookshop will work as a way of teaching useful language to very young ESL students. As the qualities needed for this are different from those needed with books for native speaker kids (although cute characters and surprise endings work for everyone), reviews of books based on their use with native speakers are not much use, and you are just as likely to find a bashed up bargain book to be useful as the latest bestseller pop up luxury edition. Some of the books for ESL learners can be good as well, but the ones designed to develop reading skills don’t usually work well in a whole class storytelling session.
Flashcards can be bought in various sizes and with the words written under the picture, written on the other side or left out. You can also print out flashcards downloaded from the internet, but with the cost of colour ink and the time involved in laminating them, as well as the dodgy picture quality, it is usually better just to buy some. An alternative that cuts down on the presentation value a bit but makes the cards cheaper and easier to find is to use a set with the local language written on them and remove the words. This can be achieved by cutting the words off, folding the cards so the words can’t be seen from the front, covering the words with bits of blank paper or Post Its over the top, or photocopying the cards with the words blanked out. The final two options (and the lowest budget ones) are to cut pictures out of magazines and to draw flashcards yourself.
Also having 3D objects adds a bit of flexibility to what games you can play and makes everything much more memorable for small children, as they learn best by physically interacting with things. Possibilities for cheap and safe objects to represent the kind of vocabulary you will be teaching them include:
- Plastic toys (e.g. fruit, animals, tea sets, cars)
- Empty bottles, cans and packets (to teach “cereal”, “cola” etc, or shapes)
- Craft versions of things you want to teach that you have made yourself (e.g. a crocodile made of egg boxes)
- Hand and finger puppets
Worksheets can range from simple shapes for two or three year olds to colour in to basic writing worksheets. Sources include educational books (including ones in other languages if you tippex out the non-English writing), the internet, and your own worksheets made with Word and ClipArt.
Collecting craft materials
As with the other things mentioned here, you have the option of buying stuff (like coloured card and stick on stars) or collecting stuff for free (such as empty washing up bottles and egg boxes).
2) Trying things out/ teaching techniques
As reassuring as a file and cupboard full of materials can be, there is no substitute for going into class knowing that you have done it all before. This can be difficult if you don’t have any classes close in age to the pre-school kids you will be teaching as things that work best vary so much by age. All is not lost, though, because you can do some things that are similar to what you will need to do with little kids. Even when it is not that close to your classroom routine with under-5s, trying to do something different like the things suggested below will help you think about the skills you will need and your teaching more generally.
Dealing with the age group
If you know anyone who has kids of the same age as you will be teaching, maybe your nieces or nephews, spending time with them is great practice for teaching that age group even if the kids you know are native English speakers and you are just taking them to the park. Although you’ll probably pick useful things up without needing to consciously think about them, things you can look for include what things they enjoy and don’t enjoy, how to get all the kids involved in the same thing, what their attention spans are, how you can see if they are losing attention, and how their energy levels go up and down.
Dealing with beginners
Just teaching very low level students of whatever age is great practice for teaching pre-school kids. Things you can try out that will be particularly helpful when you step into that first kindergarten class include teaching a class with the absolute minimum of words from the teacher (e.g. eliciting a whole story from mimes or showing them how to play a game without much speaking from the teacher), concentrating on vocabulary rather than grammar, getting the students miming and using body language, using storytelling, doing lots of revision, and playing lots of games. Most of these ways of approaching a lesson are possible to practice with higher level classes too.
Things you can try out on your other kids’ classes
As well as the things above you can do even if you have no kids’ classes, there are some things which are useful for preschoolers that you can try beforehand if you classes of kids of up to 9 or 10 years old. This includes some kindergarten songs (generally the more boisterous ones like Head Shoulders Knees and Toes and Hokey Cokey), some stories for small kids (generally the ones with a clear story, more complex language and maybe use of rhyme like “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt”), some games (race to run and touch things, flashcard guessing, etc), some crafts, and some classroom control techniques (alternating lively stand up activities and quieter sit down ones, waiting in silence until everyone quietens down etc).