Each new school year begins with the same questions: what clubs and extra-curricular activities should my child enrol in? And if you pick English, you are presented with a lot of options… The fact is that every year English is taught at a younger age. Until recently, school students enrolled in language courses to improve their conversational skills, catch up with schoolwork, prepare for exams, and pass their international tests of language proficiency. Now, they start learning English long before school. The so-called early English has become extremely popular over the past decade. Children as young as 3-4 years old are doing courses, and in some places there are groups for one-year-olds – “English with Mom”.
It’s solely up to parents to decide what age their kid should start learning English! There are many points of view, and no negative side effects have been observed. If the child does not have any severe developmental issues and is in normal health, then they can start learning a foreign language in their first year of life. However, it is worth considering a number of significant concerns.
First of all, every age group is different
Each age group has its own priorities in terms of the taught English content. For the youngest students, learning English occurs, first of all, through developmental activities. The child masters the language through experiencing and exploring the world around them – by learning the names of flowers, counting, finding out the names of animals, items of clothing and food, basic actions (jumping, running, drinking, eating). At this age, a toddler learns to understand the speech addressed to them and react to it. They cannot yet learn phrases and full sentences, but rather separate words, or even just gestures, movements.
Interest, and for some, a true love of English, sparks up at an older preschool age. During this period, full-fledged verbal communication is already possible, and role-playing games can be included in the learning process in order to play out everyday situations. At this age, it is necessary to encourage the child’s attempts to express themselves in English, without taking into account the grammatical correctness of their statements. Teaching is based on the principle of “situational repetition” – children recreate and repeat the words of a teacher in a repetitive situation, and that way a whole image of the situation and the related phrase can remain in their memory.
The ability to consciously vary and combine these phrases comes later, at the age of 10-12 years (it does vary, however). At this age, enough speech patterns have already been accumulated to be able to choose the correct one.
Second, the regularity of classes
The language is formed in the course of constant speech interaction, through which speech patterns (colloquial phrases) are memorized and an involuntary mastery of grammar occurs (each speech situation has its own grammatical phenomenon, otherwise children cannot understand anything and the communicative goal is not achieved). Children have a good memory, especially the emotional memory. If their interest is piqued, they can memorise large blocks of information quickly and with ease. But… they forget it just as easily and quickly… Therefore, effective classes should last 30 minutes and be regular, 2-3 times a week.
Third, active interaction
Short-term memory in children is not the same as in adults, they get tired quickly and their voluntary attention develops only at school age, and even then it is impossible to keep it for a long period of time. Therefore, the standard practice of conducting English lessons for children is to have fast-paced lessons and frequent changes of activities, the use of body language is also important since it elicits a Total Physical Response (TPR) – in other words, memorizing things with the whole body. Games, dancing, and singing songs involve different emotions and types of memory, which altogether contribute to better assimilation. The language is absorbed by the whole body.
Fourth, game format
Nowadays, adults and children alike love to play. Playing is the main form of learning for preschool children. All developmental activities in pre-school take place in the form of a game. The child learns their native language while playing. It’s always fun to play. Therefore, games and play techniques must be included in English classes. Pre-schoolers do not learn the language, they “play English” – and this is normal. Younger kids stop being so afraid of English if it is presented in a game format, they stop thinking that learning a language is boring and difficult. Schoolchildren at the age of 10-12 years can spontaneously use English in speech all thanks to games.
- The main goal of the game is to win, and you can’t win if you don’t speak English.
- During the game, a special atmosphere of trust is created, so it’s not scary to speak.
- During the game, phrases are repeated so that they are remembered more easily.
- The game is fun, which motivates children to learn English.
So, the above points are indicators of good quality English lessons for children. But, of course, only a specialist and not an ordinary parent can assess whether the classes are being conducted at the proper level. What should you look for when choosing English courses? Advertised English courses always try to make it look as good as possible. Reviews can also be extremely controversial. And the thing with English is that you need your child to like it straight away, because they might not be willing to give it a second chance.
Remember that you are choosing courses for your child, not for yourself. So, you need to take their opinion into account. Go to an open house day with your child, attend the open classes, or just stop by to find out more about the place and the teachers. Ask about the available programs, the age groups, classes, methodology and teaching aids. Let the child see other children, look to see whether they are excited for the class and the general vibe in the lessons. Find out what the learning goals are, and what other activities they organize (contests, celebrations, workshops). This is important, as it forms the learning environment and interpersonal communication between the children and the teachers.
If you can’t be there in person or you opt for online courses, try to “fish out” all this information from the official website or from the reviews.
- See them “in action”
Always sign up for a trial lesson and then ask your child to tell you about it in detail. Better yet, ask permission to attend the class in person. Observe how the teacher interacts with the children, how the lesson starts, how the teacher engages children and gets their reaction. See whether all children get attention from the teacher and what happens in situations if someone gets distracted and does not participate. The lesson should be taught in the target language – English in our case, and that means English speech should significantly prevail during the lesson. See how children participate in assignments, what visuals are used, how often assignments change.
Whether or not your child is interested in English is 60% dependent on the teacher. Until high school, children do not really think about why they need to learn English. But if they like the teacher, they will do whatever is asked of them and play whatever the teacher decides to play. If your child attended the trial session on their own, be sure to ask what they liked about the lesson and what they did not. If you don’t like the teacher, ask for another one for other courses.
- Who is talking?
Usually, the goal of learning English is to develop conversational skills, so the focus of the lessons should be on speaking. And the teacher should not be the only one speaking. The communicative method, which is dominant nowadays, means that the classes are organized in a way that allows the students to use their conversational skills starting from the very first lesson. Of course, at first, they will just be repeating what the teacher says. But with each lesson, the child will begin to acquire more conversational skills and will be able to speak without much aid from the teacher.
When teaching children, a direct method is also used along with the communicative one. This is when the teacher immediately speaks only English with the child and does not switch back to their native tongue. In this case, the child’s brain gets used to the perceiving English speech after a period of adaptation, which, by the way, is very short for children. This means that kids learn to react to the situations they are in quicker in English.
You should make sure to monitor your child’s progress. If your child happily goes to classes, but then messes around the whole time, parents will hardly like it. Usually, kids involuntarily repeat what they did or learned in the lesson at home. They might start singing a song, or counting in English, or saying English words. Older pre-schoolers are more restrained, but you can ask the teacher or ask for a lesson again.
- Why are you learning English?
It is important that the expectations of the parents coincide with the objectives of the educational programs in the courses. If a child has big problems with academic performance at school, and the priority of the chosen language courses is teaching conversational skills, then it will definitely not be possible to help the child improve their grades. But if the parents get to the root of the matter and understand that the child’s problems are related to the fact that they simply don’t like English at school (for various reasons), then it’s possible to spark their interest with extra-curricular classes!
When the child’s attitude to the language changes and they become interested, they will rethink their values and even take a new look at the English lessons at school. But this takes time! It is also worth remembering that if the purpose of the additional classes is to prepare for exams and language tests, then you will require specialised courses. Their program consists of all 4 aspects – speaking, listening, writing and reading, and not just teaching conversational skills.
Therefore, if you are pursuing specific goals, it makes sense to think about getting private lessons. All of the above tips also apply in this case, along with one more: an individual approach. There are children who cannot study in a group, but there are no “unteachable” children: it’s possible to find an approach for any child, it solely depends on the professional competence of the teacher. What does this mean?
First of all, the lessons must be properly paced
Individual lessons are called individual for a reason, because they take into account the fact that each child is an individual. Achievement of any goal implies systematic improvement, not rushing through all the topics. The rate of absorption of the material is determined by the psychophysiological characteristics of each child. When it’s necessary to revise, the teacher must repeat, provide more explanation, or consolidate. Or, vice versa, move forward, instead of revising the material the child has already learned. The same applies to the duration of the session. If a child can adequately absorb information only for 30 minutes, they can be productive 3-4 times a week for only 30 minutes at a time, and not once or twice a week for an hour. The main thing is that the child is comfortable.
Second, their personal interests must be considered
Each person has a natural desire to find out more about the object of their interest. This is a rule applicable to all the children. A child who is fond of dinosaurs knows all their names by heart, as well as their habitats, biology, and distinctive features. They know it even if they cannot read yet! Children immediately remember all the information they hear and see if it has something to do with their hobbies. The same goes for learning English. During individual lessons, language learning can be built around the interests of the child. For example, a child is fond of football. This means that the teacher can find texts in English about football, discuss the daily routine of their favourite football players, talk about the hobbies of these football players, describe their place of residence, favourite food and so on and so forth. This will make children look forward to English lessons!
Finally, the individual particularities of perception of information should be taken into account
It is well known that there are auditory, visual, kinaesthetic learners, etc. Some people memorise with their ears, others with their eyes, or through touch, etc. Nowadays, children are mostly visual learners, as an impact of the digitalization of our society. Perception of the new information should apply through visual images. Therefore, language classes should adopt this approach. But visual aids can be different – they can come in the form of pictures or in the form of diagrams. Most children are either born as humanitarian, tech-savvy or analysts. And this is an important aspect to take into account when teaching, especially during individual lessons. Tech-savvy children will be laconic and inclined to better perceive the material in diagrams and tables. Humanitarians on the other hand, like to chat, even if they make mistakes. And analysts always need to see an example with their own eyes.
Also, children are divided into those who like to read, and those who do not read at all. Unfortunately, the latter are in the majority. Therefore, teachers must resort to edutainment techniques that are being actively developed and allow them to be engaged in the learning process.
The best way to understand it is to go through it. You can, for example, try the Novakid English school for 4–12-year-old children. The first lesson is free, and it gives you the opportunity to get a first impression of the video lessons, the teacher, and the teaching methodology. You can sign up right now!