Young children learn English differently from adults. Here are some practical tips for a range of activities you can do with children at home.
By Opal Dunn, educational consultant and author
Young children learn a second language (SL) differently from most adults. Most have an innate ability to pick up an SL while taking part in activities, by making sense of what they are doing and picking up the adult’s language that accompanies the activity.
Planned SL sessions
You can plan regular sessions which will usually take place:
- at home
- on regular days
- for about ten to twenty minutes adjusted to fit your child’s increasing SL ability and ability to concentrate
- as a planned programme that reviews and builds on known activities and introduces new ones.
Short SL sessions
These are more informal and can take place:
- any place – in the car, at bathtime, in a supermarket queue
- any time
- in response to a mood or special experience.
As your child’s SL ability increases, short SL sessions tend to occur more frequently. Once your child understands more SL, you may include an SL phrase in a home language conversation.
Planning SL sessions
Programmes should follow the same structure each time, as knowing what to expect lightens stress and enables children to concentrate their efforts on picking up SL.
- Warm up – rhymes, counting or singing to get used to hearing SL and making the different sounds.
- New language presentation – re-present and add to the previous language and then introduce new language.
- Activities – game, craft, family activity.
- Ending – sharing picture books.
- Follow-up – such as adding a drawing to the SL corner.
- Involving the family – showing work, singing a new song, saying a new rhyme or playing a game together, if there is time
Introducing new materials or games
The effectiveness of materials depends on how you bring them to life. Adapt them and personalize them to match your child’s needs and interests, which makes it easier for your child to absorb the new language.
Home-made or customized materials are often more effective as they fit language needs better, especially in the early stages of learning. Making materials together at home adds something special, including a feeling of achievement.
Keep a written record of your sessions together, as it helps you to see what you have done, what you can plan for the next one and evaluate what you have done over a period of time.
Keeping it going
If your child says ‘it’s too difficult, I don’t want to do it’, don’t give in and don’t switch into the home language. Quietly change to an easy-to-play game you know they have enjoyed. Have fun and if possible make sure your child wins. It is important that the SL session ends with your child ‘feeling good’ about him or herself and learning SL.
Later, it may be good to discuss with your child why they found it difficult. Consider what you could change next time, such as the amount of new material or how it was presented. In the meantime, go back to using easier materials for several sessions to help them regain their confidence.
An SL corner (or table) provides a focus for anything related to SL sessions. It is the display and storage place for:
- a mini-library of picture books
- displays of SL culture such as pictures, flags, etc.
- displays of drawings, home-made books or craft work.
Ideas for activities
Craft activities tend to be best when they have a purpose:
- Celebrating family birthdays and festivals - Making birthday cards is a fun activity. Birthdays and family festivals are good occasions to give small shows and to play games with family and friends who also speak SL.
- Collage pictures - Cut out photos relating to themes such as ‘five blue things’, ‘where I want to go on holiday’ or ‘what I would like for my birthday’, sport, and weather. You can personalize these pictures by getting your child to add a drawing of him or herself or the family hidden in the picture.
- Simple puppets - Speaking through a puppet helps if your child is a little shy speaking SL. Make simple puppets from an oval-shaped piece of card and a stick secured by tape. Make the puppet come alive: ‘My name is ...I am six’. This can lead on to making puppet shows with invitations, programmes, and tickets.
Switching to use SL for family activities works well if your child feels there is a reason to use SL- packing a bag for a holiday or making a typical SL dish copying a recipe from an SL cookbook. Try decorating some biscuits with different faces.
Rhymes and songs
Rhymes exist in most cultures and from a very young age, most children seem to be able to pick them up and enjoy saying them aloud, especially when they are supported and encouraged.
You can use rhymes within your SL sessions:
- warm up by saying one or two rhymes your child knows
- introduce a new rhyme, once you feel your child has warmed up – explain it and then repeat it
- at the next SL session, say the new rhyme and let your child if they seem ready, join in with the actions or say some words or phrases
- over the next few sessions build up your child’s confidence, step-by-step, to say the rhyme themselves by encouraging them to add:
- the final word to a line
- then the final phrase
- then a line
- then another line until they can say a complete simple rhyme with a little prompting from you.
- end every rhyme session by saying a well-known favorite rhyme.
In the early stages of learning it is fun to make rhyme cards of rhymes your child knows. Write out or print out the rhyme on a card and let your child decorate it. Store it in the SL corner so that, in their own time, they can take it out and look at it as they say the rhyme aloud to themselves.
When you have made five or six rhyme cards, photocopy them to make a book of rhymes for your child. A book is easy to carry around and they may want to take it in the car, to school, to bed or to show it to others.
Introduce new songs in SL sessions. You can gradually build up a selection of songs you can sing together, along with an audio player.
Many traditional songs can be adapted to fit different activities and circumstances. Adapting is fairly easy to do once children know the tune. For example, ‘If you’re happy and you know it’ can be changed to ‘If you’re hungry and you know it, eat an apple’ or ‘If you’re dirty and you know it, wash your hands’. Adaptations like these can add fun to daily home routines. You can also use actions or props to help bring a song to life.
When selecting picture books to share with your child, focus on those with limited, clear text that are engaging and fun to read.
When you are selecting books, ask yourself:
- Is the text short – about five or six double pages? If more, you need to introduce the story over a number of SL sessions.
- Is the print clear?
- Are the illustrations interesting and easy to understand?
- Does the book have some interaction in the text (e.g. a refrain) or novelty interaction through flaps, etc?
- Do you like it and can you transfer your enjoyment to your child?
- Look out for videos of storybook characters. They can be useful but are most effective if you watch them together at first, making the experience interactive.
- Practice reading the picture book aloud and decide how you are going to bring the story to life.
- Introduce some of the new words before reading the book.
- The first time you introduce a new book, be ready to whisper a translation of any word that your child does not already know or cannot work out from the pictures.
- As you read, point to each word in turn so your child begins to get used to looking at the shape of the words.
- Try to read books the same way each time, as this will make picking up the English easier.
- Try not to introduce a book you don’t like. Your child will soon detect how you feel and reflect your attitudes.
- When your child becomes familiar with a story, encourage them to join in by pausing to let them finish off phrases or sentences.
- Try to avoid asking too many questions; you might spoil the magic of the book.
Making your own storybooks
After your child has shared many books with you, they might like to make their own storybook:
- Staple together some paper to make a short blank book.
- Discuss the possible content – theme, characters, location, etc, but ensure that the book is created from their ideas.
- Ask them to draw some pictures and tell you the story and you can then write the text if they are not confident doing this.
- Add their book to your collection and read and enjoy it together.
Playing games adds excitement and fun to learning SL and supports children’s holistic learning and development. Playing games may even change the attitudes of some children who find learning SL difficult as it gives them a chance to win. In playing games, unlike in many other activities in SL, success is not only measured by how well you can speak SL.
Types of games
Games can be loosely grouped into:
- starting games – quick games used to select one person for a leader or chaser
- physical games that involve movement and space
- card games
- board games
These are quick to organize and get a result. They may need no equipment and can be played almost anywhere. Rhyme games help with saying sounds and gaining fluency.
Rhyme starting games
Counting between two people or around the circle. One count to each word. The last person counted wins:
Red, white and blue.
All out but YOU!
Counting out around the circle using one count to each word. The last child counted is out and it begins again from the next person. The remaining person wins:
Acker backer soda cracker
Acker backer boo!
Acker backer soda cracker
Out goes YOU!
Alphabet starting games
Counting between two people or around the circle. One count to each word. The last person counted wins:
A E I O U YOU!
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U YOU are it.
Make sure your child knows the names of parts of the face and later the parts of the body.
You are Simon and you give instructions. Your child has to listen and do exactly what ‘Simon says’.
- If you say ‘Simon says touch your nose’, your child touches his nose.
- If you say ‘Simon says don’t touch your mouth’, your child freezes where they are and does not touch their mouth.
- If your child makes a mistake and touches their mouth, they lose one of their three points.
- When they have lost all three points, they are out and the game finishes.
Where’s the bear?
Introduce a soft toy like a teddy bear or similar. Make sure your child knows ‘on’, ‘in’, ‘behind’ and the names of some furniture.
- While your child shuts his eyes and you both count to five or ten, you hide the bear under a chair.
- After counting, say ‘Open your eyes. Where’s the bear?’
- You can then talk to your child as they look for the bear using words such as ‘on’, ‘under’ and ‘behind’ and name furniture in the room.
- When the bear is found, you can swap roles.
Farmer, farmer, can I cross the water?
- Players ask this question while standing on a pretend river bank, wanting to cross the river to the other side.
- The farmer replies ‘Yes, if you have got something yellow.’
- Anyone with something yellow replies ‘Yes, I have got something yellow’ and walks across the river.
- Anyone who has not got something of the right color, races across trying not to be caught.
- Anyone caught has to drop out and wait until the farmer has caught everyone.
- The game resumes and each time the farmer selects another color.
- When everyone has been caught the farmer then selects the next farmer and the game restarts.
What’s the time Mr. Wolf?
- Mr. Wolf stands in his house in a marked corner.
- The players, who are sheep, approach Mr. Wolf and ask him ‘What’s the time Mr. Wolf?’
- Mr. Wolf replies ‘One o’clock.’
- The sheep get a little closer to Mr. Wolf’s house and ask again ‘What’s the time Mr. Wolf?’
- Mr. Wolf replies ‘Two o’clock.’
- The game continues until the sheep are quite close and then Mr. Wolf replies ‘dinner time,’ and chases the sheep.
- Any sheep caught stay in Mr. Wolf’s house for one turn.
You can make cards for these games or you can download picture cards from a website.
I went on safari
Make 12 cards featuring animals you might see on safari – or any other animals.
- Each person, in turn, has to say ‘I went on Safari and I saw [they turn over a card and say what is on the card, e.g.:] an elephant.’
- They put the card, picture down, on another pile.
- The next player says ‘I went on Safari and I saw an elephant and [turns a card and adds the name of the next animal, e.g] a parrot.’
- Each player, in turn, adds the name of an animal.
- If they forget any of the animals in the list, they are out of the game.
- If the list grows to more than 12 animals, the game begins again and anyone, who is already out, can rejoin.
Make 12 pairs of identical picture cards of the same items and place them face-down on a flat surface.
- The first player turns over a card and says ‘a bus’, then turns a second card.
- If it is the same they say and ‘a bus, two buses’ and keeps the two cards.
- If the card is different they replace both cards from where they took them.
- The aim is to find two cards (a pair) with the same picture.
- When no more cards are left, count the pairs.
- Add more items to these cards, once your child knows the names and plurals of the first 12 cards.
- Later change the theme of the cards; for example, to clothing (a pair of socks, a red T-shirt, etc.).
Board games such as snakes and ladders or ludo are easy to make and provide lots of opportunities for sharing SL together. You can make them match your child’s ability and needs.
We hope you found the tips in this article useful and that you and your child continue to have fun while learning a SL together!