Teaching ESL Preschool
Ideas and Tips
looking for ideas for your ESL preschool class? Anyone who
has taught preschoolers will tell you that it is a challenge.
While they are cute, funny and often eager to learn, preschoolers are
also energetic, active and often difficult to keep on any particular
task for more than a few minutes at a time. That is why it
takes a special kind of teacher and special ideas for your ESL
preschool class to work. Games, stories and songs are the
perfect answer to the challenge of teaching preschool ESL classes.
Why Games and Stories Work
beginning to show that preschoolers (and other young learners) actually
do learn better through games. There are many reasons for
this, including the theory of intrinsic motivation.
Intrinsic motivation is the idea that people are motivated to do things
because of internal factors. Preschool children are not going
to understand the advantages that knowing a second language will give
them. They are probably also not thinking that they want to
go to school to learn a second language - especially because they are
still trying to grasp their first language.
is why it is important to motivate them to want to do the
class activities and children will be more likely to join in and enjoy
themselves when given the option to participate in activities that
incorporate play and physical movements.
Other research includes the theory of activity-based learning or total
physical response. This theory states that movement
stimulates neural networks and activates mental capacities, which are
not activated when sitting at a desk. Children are
more likely to be curious when presented with music, games and total
physical response activities, and therefore are more likely to learn
and retain knowledge.
An example of a total physical response activity would be making the
shapes of the alphabet with your body, or using your body and props to
imitate different types of weather, or using your voice, body, a prop
or make believe to represent vocabulary or meaning. For
example a dull vocabulary idea is to ask children to pick up pictures
off the floor and name them. To turn this into a total
physical response activity and fun game tell your children they are
pirates who have lost their treasure overboard and they must dive down
and retrieve it. Demonstrate by taking in a big breath, hold
your breath and dive down and pick up one of the cards, then come up
for air and ask the children to name the card, or you name it,
depending on whether you are doing a speaking or listening
activity. Then tell the children which pictures to dive down
and collect. You could make it even more dramatic by dimming
the lights when the children dive down and turning them up when they
There are other theories that explain why play works in the preschool
ESL classroom. When you use games, songs and stories to teach
ESL to your preschool students, you are relying on absorption by
repetition. The more they hear and experience the vocabulary
that you are teaching them, the more likely they will learn
it. But who wants to sit in a class simply repeating words
and what they mean? Certainly not three to five year
olds. You will soon have a classroom of unruly children who
are not learning a thing. If you engage them in a game or
song or story that uses the language you are teaching, however, they
will understand and use the language simply from the
By using games, play, movement and song, all things that most
preschoolers enjoy, learning language will be a fun and positive
experience. The environment of play and games is a relaxed
environment (as long as you do not use competition at this age) and
allows the students to learn without the stress or fear of possible
A final thought on learning through games stems from Dr. Howard
Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences. In this theory,
Gardner has defined several different areas of learning and also has
explained that not everyone learns in the same ways. The
intelligences include the following:
intelligence: Learning and using spoken and written
intelligence: Logically analyzing problems,
detecting patterns, reasoning.
intelligence: Performing, composing, and appreciating musical
intelligence: Using the whole body or parts of the
body to solve problems.
intelligence: Recognizing patterns of wide space and confined
intelligence: Effectively working with others.
intelligence: Understanding self and feelings.
for games in your ESL preschool classroom to teach
vocabulary will allow you to reach students in whatever way they best
learn. Traditional ESL preschool classrooms will focus on
linguistic-type lessons, but with a little creativity and variety in
the types of games used in the classroom, teachers can begin to appeal
to all students by tapping into their different learning styles.
If you are still not convinced that games, stories and music are the
best way to teach language to preschool ESL students, then spend some
time observing children of this age. They can learn numbers
when building a block tower and counting to see how high they can build
it. They can learn colors when using crayons to color a
picture. They can learn vocabulary (in their own language) by
playing make-believe with other children or adults. Their
minds are like sponges that absorb so much when they are engaged in
activities they enjoy.
Tips for Teaching
Young ESL Students
If you don't have a lot of experience or ideas for teaching ESL
preschool, here are some tips and tricks to help you enjoy your
students more. The more smoothly you can make the class
period go, the more likely you will be successful in teaching
vocabulary and language to your ESL preschool students.
- Remember that
preschool students have small attention
spans. You'll want to change up your activities every five to
ten minutes or so because if they go longer than that, the children can
become restless and you will spend more time trying to keep their
attention than actually doing the activity.
- Teach a small
amount of language in any given session. For
this age group, try to introduce three words at a time and then add to
the list as you see they understand the meaning of the words you've
- Engage your
students on multiple levels. This includes
using fine and large motor movement, singing, talking, listening and
looking. For example, you could have a game where the
students need to move around the room to stand next to a picture or
object of the word they heard you say in engage them through listening,
looking and moving.
students can get very excitable. Vary excitable
games with quiet ones to balance out the energy level in the classroom.
in the preschool classroom causes undo stress on the
students. Avoid playing games or doing activities that have
winners and losers. Either have the class work together to
"win" as a group or do not distinguish between winning and
losing. On the same note, be sure to be supportive and
encouraging to all of the learners in your class.
are very visual. Bring in real objects
whenever possible. When it is not possible, find colorful and
vivid pictures to use in place of the actual object.
students usually are not yet reading and writing (at least
not to a large extent) in their own language, so don't expect them to
do it in a second language. At this age, you can expect them
to listen and understand first. After a while, they will
begin speaking individual words and short phrases.
- Themes work
well in the preschool classroom. Focus your
vocabulary learning on groups of similar types of words such as foods,
colours, numbers, animals, families and body parts. You can
work in short phrases that are relevant to your theme.
- Because the
activities are short and you don't want to give preschool
students too much "down time" between activities, make sure you have
all of your supplies and activities ready to go before the children
enter the classroom. On the same note, plan more than you
think you'll use. Sometimes an activity will not go over well
and other times they will go faster than you had planned.
- If you have a
particularly naughty or rough student in the class,
keep him or her close to you. Ask him or her to be your
special helper and be sure to give a lot of praise when you see him or
her behaving appropriately.
review and revise. You need to periodically review
the vocabulary that you have previously taught or the children will
quickly forget it.
- Don't use the
same game over and over again, or let a game go on too
long. You'll get bored and so will the students!
That said, don't be afraid to have a few "star" games that are
favorites of the students that you know will always be a hit.
The best ones are the ones that are easily adaptable to whatever topic
or theme you're currently covering.
- If you use a
game and it doesn't go over well, examine what went
wrong, put it away for a while and then give it another try.
- Don't expect
preschool children to actually speak the words right
away. It will take a while. Just keep going and
keep playing the games so that they at least understand the words
you're teaching. The speaking will come.
above all to have fun with your preschoolers. If you
and the children are enjoying yourselves while engaged in English games
and stories, then the chances are the children will be
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