Does that sound familiar? You child has been learning English at school for quite a while now, but how are their conversational skills?… And how soon should they start speaking after they start learning a foreign language?
First, learning a language and learning to speak a language are two different things. Most languages in the world exist in two forms – oral and written. The main difficulty when learning a language, even if it’s your mother tongue, is learning how to write it. It’s not just about phonetics and grammar, it’s punctuation and morphology… When you start writing, you make mistakes that are not detectable when you speak. Written speech deals with the “here and now”, there is no additional explanation you can give so that the reader can better understand what you wrote.
When you speak though, you can correct your own mistakes as you make them. And it’s not just about using language tools. You can use your body language, facial expressions, gestures, surroundings, answer the questions in a dialogue. The main thing is not to be scared and try to say what you want to say.
You can speak English even if you have limited vocabulary and don’t know many expressions.
Try to remember how kids start speaking their mother tongue! They cannot formulate sentences, at first, they can’t even string two words together. But they manage to explain themselves to parents and other kids. New words appear in their speech gradually, but they never stay silent, they express their requests and needs using the words they know and they memorize more words when adults reply to them. In other words, a child’s speech develops during live communication, everyday conversations with questions and answers. Kids are not scared of making a mistake, they are not scared to repeat what they said if someone did not understand them the first time. They are persistent and they are successful in the end.
What about learning a foreign language?
It’s the same thing! If your goal is to learn how to talk, then you need to learn via communication. You need to repeat the same phrases and expressions every day, to listen and memorise. It is impossible to learn how to swim if you don’t train in water. You can’t learn to ride a bike or ice skate by watching others do it. To learn a skill you need to practice and learn by doing. Learning to speak English is the same, you need to practice it.
So why is my child learning English but can’t speak it?
Possible reason #1. This is the most common one. Children learn to read and write in English, but they are not taught to communicate. Communication is not something they pay attention to in English classes at school. You need to create the right environment for the child to learn. It’s like trying to tell someone how to ride a bike, what a bike is, where the wheels and pedals are and how they work, without actually putting them on a bike. They might learn a lot about it, but they won’t be able to ride it!
I’ll say it again. Teaching someone a skill requires them to practice it.
Possible reason #2. This one is also quite common. If your child is learning to speak English and they seem to have every opportunity to do so… but the teacher is always correcting the child’s mistakes. What happens then? No one likes to be corrected all the time. This takes away the desire to do anything, especially when it comes to children. They want to try and do everything on their own. They need to try it until they fall or get burned, and warnings from their parents mean very little to them. You need to let them try it, and if they fail, explain what to do to get a better result. A position of an observer means always supporting your child, not overcomplicating things by unloading a bunch of theoretical knowledge on them. Use as few words as possible! Kids don’t like to listen. Listening is tiring and creates an illusion of the subject in question being too complicated.
Let’s get back to English. If the teacher doesn’t encourage children’s efforts to speak English and only corrects their mistakes, this will make them stop trying to speak. They will have this misconception that speaking is difficult, “I always make mistakes”, “No one understands me…” There is a whole bunch of recommendations about how to correct the mistakes children make without doing any harm. If a child is trying to take a first step to learn a foreign language, it is important to try not to scare them away. And this means no interruptions. You can repeat what they said without the mistakes they made so that they can see how to say it correctly. But if kids are trying to create a dialogue between each other, it is better to just listen.
Possible reason #3. The child is very shy and quiet, it’s hard to hear them among the loud voices of their classmates, and after making a few attempts to talk they have given up. So, the main condition is not being met, they are not practicing speaking. You need to make sure to create the right environment for each child in the group to participate in the lesson. An individual approach is needed, so that everyone can take part in the interaction.
Possible reason #4. The child is not interested in the topic being discussed, so they don’t want to participate in the conversation. Maybe the topic of the lesson or a particular task at hand is not suitable for the child’s age. It’s like teaching someone to ride a bike when their feet can’t reach the pedals. Or teaching someone to swim before they learn to float in the water. Anyone would be confused in a situation like that…
All the tasks have to be suitable for the child’s age, they need to be interesting and relevant to children and their daily life. Asking for strawberry ice cream is relevant for 4, 6 or even 12-year-olds. But the language tools used will differ depending on age. At 4, it’s enough to say “strawberry ice cream?” At 6, kids can use the full sentence “Can I have some strawberry ice cream, please?” And at 12, you can learn difficult constructions, such as “Is there any strawberry ice cream?” But booking a hotel room, on the other hand, is not a relevant topic for kids of any age. It does not make them want to participate in the conversation and does not correspond to their individual needs. In everyday life it’s parents who deal with matters like that.
So, what’s the right way to teach kids to speak English?
First, you need to create the right environment. As you probably now know, learning English should begin from learning how to say simple words and phrases. A child’s brain is very flexible, and it can learn language patterns from hearing someone speak! They do not need any additional comments or explanations. The more English they hear, the more they learn and understand the rules of the language. They try to mimic what they are hearing, especially if it is followed by gestures and facial expressions. This helps them learn and understand the language more naturally.
On the other hand, kids have to reply to teachers in English as well. It doesn’t matter if it’s just one word and a bunch of hand gestures. But it must be in English! Requests, questions, comments – everything has to be in English. You also have to simultaneously address the discipline – if you don’t know how to say something, stay quiet and listen to the others talk.
Second, the syllabus needs to be appropriate and engage children in the process of conversation. In order to do this, teachers use Q&A type exercises, guessing exercises that pique children’s interest and prompt them to make guesses in English.
Teachers also use competitive exercises and gamified tasks, in which you have to speak and give answers to quests and quizzes in order to win. Switching between different activities is also a good idea: working with cards in a circle, playing an active game, throwing a ball around and answering questions, dividing into two teams and competing etc. The same goes for visuals. They have to be diverse, these could be pictures, toys, objects from everyday life, crafts and drawings made by kids during lessons.
Third, you need to imitate an English language environment. Kids have to learn to understand various types of speech. They get used to the teacher’s voice very quickly, but different people talk differently, and they have to be able to understand various accents and pronunciations. That’s why it’s important to include videos into the lessons:
- First, it adds another type of activity to the lesson.
- Second, visual memory in kids is very well developed, and they love watching videos.
- Third, this gives the kids and the teacher a chance to have a little break,
- Fourth, and most importantly, working with videos helps engage kids in conversation even more, if you use this tool correctly.
There are a lot of options for how to engage them: you could discuss the main characters, or ask them to voice the video. It depends on their skills. Small children love cartoons, and older children can watch movie clips or original recordings with kids of their age, it can help make them more interested in learning the language.
Speaking English is a good idea even if you have very little knowledge. The most important thing is not to be scared! Kids will talk if you engage them in conversation and interact with them in English. Such “practice” lessons don’t have to be long, but they do have to be regular. The teacher’s job is to encourage, praise and engage kids in conversation in every possible way.
This is exactly what English lessons are like at the Novakid online English school for kids aged 4-12. Our teachers are native speakers, and they help immerse kids into the English-speaking environment and adapt their brain to understanding English. The lessons are fun and that’s why kids start talking very quickly. The first lesson is free, try it!