A few hints for teaching a foreign language to children

By | January 4, 2019

In the last year or so I’ve had the opportunity to tutor a few young children in Japanese. It’s been a really enjoyable and educational experience, so I wanted to make a list of suggestions for those in a position to teach a foreign language to other children.

In my case, the teaching was somewhat informal and not done at a school, and the children could choose to participate or not. I think this will influence some of the suggestions. However, others will perhaps apply more broadly to school and other teaching forums.

My experiences have also been with a small group (roughy 5 of less students at any one time), and some of these hints may less relevant for larger classes.

1. Make it fun

The older a child is, the more they can force themselves to endure a boring or otherwise unpleasant situation. Younger children, on the other hand, will have a much harder time of this and may bore easily and lose focus.

No matter a student’s ability level and goals, becoming fluent in a foreign language will take years, even for children. The only way they will stick it out for that long is if they really enjoy it most, if not all of the time.

2. Know your students’ desires

Whenever possible, try to understand why each of your students is interested in learning the foreign language in question. In the case of Japanese, many people become interested in learning the language as a result of anime or manga, but there are some who are less interested and may have other motivations, like being interested in the history or culture of Japan.

It is not uncommon for parents to have some sway in what language(s) their children are learning, so it’s good to know their reasons as well. Maybe they think the language will be a valuable career asset.

3. Know your students’ language goals

This is strongly related to the above point, but not exactly the same. Using Japanese again as an example, they may enjoy anime but also have dreams to live in Japan.

On the other hand, they may not really have any specific goals, and that is OK too.

4. Choose activities based on students’ desires and goals

While I think it’s tempting to try and thoroughly teach all important aspects of a language, in practice you will have limited time so it’s best to pick a few areas to focus on, and once those are strong you can move on. These areas should also reflect the desires and goals of your students.

For example, if your students were going to live in Japan in a month, it wouldn’t make that much sense spending all of your time together on learning kanji. Focusing on words and expressions relevant to daily life and important cultural matters would be more wise.

Similarly, if you have a student who loves comic books but has no interest in speaking Japanese at the moment, you would want to spend more time on hiragana, katakana, and then Kanji (though hopefully you can gradully get them interested in speaking)

Of course, if you have several students with conflicting goals, you will have to do your best to compromise.

The one exception to this––I think no matter what your students’ desires and goals are, I would always spend at least 25% of your time together studying grammar. That’s because it is tightly connected so many areas (reading, writing, speaking, listening, etc…)

5. Choose a mix of activities to match your students’ attention span

I’ve tried teaching Japanese both with worksheets that I create myself on a weekly basis, and a professionally made textbook (Genki). Both of these have been somewhat successful, but I’ve noticed in both cases doing any one exercise, especially a serious one that involves a lot of thought, can get quickly tiring for children.

Even for students who are very motivated, I think it’s best to alternate between activities that exercise different parts of the mind, and require different levels of effort.

For example, in one of my lessons I might start off with reviewing assigned homework for 10 minutes, then do flashcards, followed by a 15-20 minute segment of work in a textbook. For children, I’ve found that games that involve language are especially fun and productive.

Depending on your experience level as a teacher, it will take you some time to gauge your students’ emotions, so it’s OK to make some rough guesses for activity lengths and adjust on the fly. Generally I wouldn’t spend more than 10-20 minutes on a specific activity, however.

6. (Infinite) patience and over-expectations

In any teaching setting, I feel that a teacher who is under control of their emotions will be the most effective. Getting upset will not only anger your students, but possibly their parents also (if they are listening).

Having lots of patience goes a long way to avoiding getting upset. Also, it’s good to not respond negatively when students make mistakes. Before I began to observe my own child (and other like-aged children) I had misconceptions about children’s abilities, especially regarding memory. Now it is clear to me that the average child does forget things (just like adults).

Not having overly-high expectations will also help you plan your activities. For example, don’t assume your students mastered something just because you went over it once, even they seemed to be getting it the time. It’s safer to assume students will forget and review important material one or more times. It’s better to err on the safe side, and even if your students breeze through the review sessions, giving right answers is generally a good self-confidence booster.

If it’s a situation where a student just isn’t understanding something, rather than persistently attacking it, I’d consider changing topics or activities and returning to it in the next class, after the child has time to think about it on their own. Even for adults, it’s amazing what a good night of sleep can do.

Speaking of sleep, if you have control over when the classes are, it’s best to choose a time when both you and the students will be well rested. I generally recommend the middle of the day.

7. Make sure content is student-appropriate

Whether you are making up the educational materials or using professionally-produced materials, you need to make sure the content is appropriate for the ages and backgrounds of the students in your class. If you are open to adding new students at any time, make sure your chosen materials would be safe even for new students.

Some of this is common sense: of course things like sex, drugs, and curse words would not be appropriate to teach with early-elementary school students (and possibly even after that, depending on your value system). I would also not recommend directly touching on religious matters (like purposefully teaching words that go along with your own religious beliefs).

However, there are some gray areas that aren’t as clean-cut as the above examples. It is safe to teach the word for “God”? Some people may believe in no God, or even a set of Gods, so you have to be prepared. How about the word for “to get drunk?”

Make sure you review whatever materials you are going to use before you actually try them (this is especially important if you didn’t create them yourself), and don’t be afraid to ask your students’ parents if you are not sure.

8. Don’t flaunt your ability 

While you want to make sure that your students (and, more importantly, their parents) have some level of confidence in your skill in the foreign language you are teaching, try to be modest about your experience. During class, try to get your students to speak more than you do, though in cases where pronunciation matters make sure you give them a proper sample of correct pronunciation.

One thing I like to do is narrate children’s books in Japanese during my lessons. However, while this can be a very educational activity (which I happen to enjoy), I always try to make sure the students are following along and ask questions to make them think.

9. Be aware of learning and attitude differences between age groups

I already touched on this earlier, but on average children within each age group (elementary, middle, high school, etc.) are likely to have similar attitudes, interests, and styles of learning. I think it’s important to be cognizant of this to help set expectations for a set of students.

In my case, I have several years of experience as a teaching assistant for college-age students (in a technical field not related to language). When I started teaching younger children––middle school age or below––I’m glad I didn’t assume they would act or think the same, and I’ve found that in fact they do act and think at a very different level.

10. (Good) teachers are always learning

Finally, I think it’s good to remember that good teachers are always learning as they teach. This applies at different levels: learning how to teach more effectively, learning how your students think, or even learning new things about the material itself.

That’s why if you ever get a really difficult question from a student, it’s safe to say, “To be honest, I’m not sure. But let’s talk about that again next class.”

Also, just as teachers should continue learning, teachers will continue to make mistakes. Keeping this in mind should help you to be more patient and understanding towards your students.

Good luck with your teaching in 2019!

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