There are some teachers who seem to be genetically designed for teaching children successfully. They enjoy cutting and coloring, make pretty child-friendly classroom material, create snappy songs at a moment's notice, and write awesome phonically grounded stories about smiling pumpkins. The children adore them.
I like working with children, but it doesn't come easily. I have to prepare diligently before the class, and be actively flexible while the lesson unfolds. With teens and adults you can get activities going and coast a little while you monitor. Not so with the kids - they have boundless energy and demand constant attention. Full on, man!
In almost every lesson with them, there is that dreaded moment that goes something like this: I'm explaining new language/the steps of a new activity/the equivalence values of decimals and fraction, and there is a palpable loss of attention. The boys start chattering, the girls begin to fidget.
Feeling the loss of focus, I am pulled towards a remonstration of sorts: "Boys are you listening?" It doesn't work, and a sense of hopelessness overwhelms me. I can analyze what's wrong - I'm talking too much, I shouldn't explain, I'm not asking enough questions, I haven't changed activities quickly enough.
As an experienced teacher, I get that, and I can act on it. But new teachers are at a disadvantage because they can't so easily think on their feet, their repertoire is still limited, and their analysis of the situation is not yet intuitive.
In our training program, we have a trainer dedicated to getting teachers ready for the demands of the young learners' classroom. Meet Sunee: she loves cutting and coloring. If you don't like working with kids, come see her and she will help you see the light. She argues that despite the potential problems, teaching children is fun and rewarding. They are predictably motivated by curiosity and interaction, and learn easily through opportunities to 'do' through games and play.
A key word is 'game'. Try saying it with a class of young learners, and see how they perk up. With a repertoire of 'fun' activities that are easily executed, new teachers can more easily build a working relationship with their classes. These games are not just a matter of filling time; they help re-engage a distracted class, they recycle vocabulary, get students using the language.
Sunee has a list of tried and tested ‘go-to games' that teachers can pick and choose from as the lesson develops to keep things on track. Not just any game will work, though. To be effective, a successful go-to game needs to fulfill three criteria.
Firstly, because these games must be available at any moment during the lesson, go-to games need to be executed with minimal preparation.
Secondly, the games need to be easy to explain, so less time is spent on instructions.
Finally, go-to games should work in all conditions, and so are independent of factors such as class size or the learners' level and age. It must also be adaptability enough to fit in at almost any point of the lesson: as a warm-up at the start of the lesson, as a transitions between tasks, or even as fillers when the teacher has run out of planned activities.
Here, then, are Sunee's top ten go-to games that have been tested by various teachers, in numerous classes, and with multiple topics.
1) HOT POTATO:
You need an object or flashcard to circulate from one learner to the next. The learners pass the object around until the teacher calls stop (or music stops). The learner with the object then stands and answers a question.
2) FRUIT SALAD:
You need flashcards with the target language (enough for each learner). Number the flashcards and the learners. Call out a number that matches one of the flashcards and the learners with that number jump up, call out the word and change places with other learners with the same number. If you call out ‘fruit salad' then all the learners jump up and change places.
You need flashcards and four markers. Divide the class into four groups and choose one member from each group. Show the four learners a flashcard. They run up to the whiteboard and draw the picture shown. The first group to guess what is drawn gets a point for their team.
4) SLAP THE BOARD:
You need 4 fly-swatters and flashcards that match the target language. Divide the class into four groups and choose one member of each group. Each of these four learners get a fly-swatter. The teacher calls out a question that matches the flashcards on the board. The learners run and slap the correct flashcard. The first learner to answer correctly scores a point for their team.
5) WHERE'S THE BALL?:
Let's say you have 10 words. You need 10 cups and a ping-pong ball. Place the flashcards on the board and number them from 1 to 10. Place the cups on a table and number them from 1 - 10 and have the learners close their eyes. Hide the ping-pong ball under one of the cups. The learners open their eyes and guess the cup number where the ball is hidden. The learner who guesses correctly says the flashcard that matches the cup.
6) WHAT'S MISSING?:
You need flashcards to match the target language. Place the flashcards on the board. The learners close their eyes while a flashcard is removed and hidden. The learners open their eyes and call out which flashcard is missing.
You need an A5 page per pair of learners and your flashcards. The learners draw a grid of nine blocks and fill each block with a picture or word of the target language. Shuffle and call out a random card. If the pair has the word to match your flashcard, then that block may be crossed. The first pair to cross out all their blocks are the ‘winners'.
Divide the learners into small groups. One member of each group comes to the board, looks at a flashcard and acts it out. The first group to guess what the learners are acting out score a point.
9) GO FISH!:
You need four small cards per learner and flashcards to match the target language. Place the flashcards on the board and the learners draw one word (or write) on each card. The learners walk around the class and ask their peers for a card matching one of their own. If the peer has a similar card, then the peer gives it to the friend, if not then they move to the next peer. The purpose of the game is to collect pairs for all their cards.
10) HOT SEAT:
One learner sits on a chair at the front of the class and faces the class. Place a flashcard on the board behind the learner. The class takes turns explaining what is on the flashcard without using that picture's name. The learner on the chair has to guess what the others are explaining.
Sunee says, "These games are a useful start for teachers to build on and refer to when they have to think on their feet or when their planning fails them." Once these games are working well, experiment with others and get your little ones class motivated and active!
For those of us not endowed with the genes needed to work with kids, there is hope. There are tips and tricks that actually do make teaching younger learners easier. Now, obviously teaching kids is not all just about games - I'll see if I can get her to share her thoughts with us on using triggers. Watch this space.
Steve has been a teacher and teacher trainer for over 30 years, and is currently a lecturer on the Master’s in TESOL program at King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi in Bangkok.