Teaching ESL Preschool

Ideas and Tips for Successful Classes


Are you 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.


Background: Why Games and Stories Work



Research is 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.




That 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 surface.



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 exposure.



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 failure.



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:



  1. Linguistic intelligence: Learning and using spoken and written language
  2. Logical-mathematical intelligence: Logically analyzing problems, detecting patterns, reasoning.
  3. Musical intelligence: Performing, composing, and appreciating musical patterns.
  4. Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence: Using the whole body or parts of the body to solve problems.
  5. Spatial intelligence: Recognizing patterns of wide space and confined areas.>
  6. Interpersonal intelligence: Effectively working with others.
  7. Intrapersonal intelligence: Understanding self and feelings.


Using ideas 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 already introduced.
  • 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.
  • Preschool students can get very excitable.  Vary excitable games with quiet ones to balance out the energy level in the classroom.
  • Competition 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.
  • Preschoolers 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.
  • Preschool 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.
  • Repeat, 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.


Remember 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 learning.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Shelley Vernon has inspired thousands of esl teachers with her games. Try her free games and receive a free story with activities written especially for 3-6 year old preschoolers learning English.  Receive the free materials here ! Preschool Games and Stories for children aged 3-6