Someone has asked you to take over a class to teach English to children. You have agreed. It is hard to turn people down, and anyway, what could go wrong? You still have a month to prepare, and it can’t be that difficult to go into a room with a few kids, jump around for a while and earn a little pocket money.
In idle moments you think of how useful that extra cash will be, and soon it is factored into your financial calculations for the next six months. A benevolent smile is often observed playing about your face; friends remark upon how well you look; you can at last nod collegially when private lessons are mentioned, and at Lawsons you now select from a higher class of rice balls.
But one week out from the first lesson you experience an odd tightness in your chest, as if a large demon were sitting on you. Two days later the facts smack you in the face: people are paying me to teach these kids English? What am I going to do?
Well, there are four broad areas that you want to treat. These, for the sake of completeness, are writing, reading, speaking and listening. Hint: it’s best not to neglect any of these or – believe me – you will regret it bitterly later!
Writing and reading are naturally interrelated, so begin by remembering the alphabet, letter recognition, and associating the letters with their respective sounds (A ‘a’ apple; B ‘b’ bear, etc). For this you will require a system of letter and picture cards that also allows for first tracing and later drawing the letter shapes. You can either make up your own materials on the computer or buy readymade sets and alphabet workbooks from suppliers. Use a variety of exercises to help build awareness and keep things fresh.
As students’ letter and sound recognition develops you will want a program involving the reading and writing of short-vowel three letter words that progressively introduces long-vowel sounds and more phonetic complexity. As skills improve, more challenging reading and writing exercises will need to be brought in.
While you are doing this you will also want to be practicing speaking and listening. As speaking and listening also form a natural pair, a combined program is going to make sense here, too.
Most commercial textbooks cater for this approach by employing a syllabus consisting of units that marry a set of themed words with a target sentence or question and answer set. “This is a puzzle”. “What is it?” “It’s an apple”. “Do you like sports?” and so on.
In class, teachers will model these sentences – often using gestures to illustrate meaning and chants or songs for rhythm and retention – and have students show their comprehension by pointing at a card or performing an action. Students are then encouraged to use the vocabulary themselves, usually with cards or gestures as cues, and often as part of a game to keep interest up.
Over time, the vocabulary and target structures become more complex and short conversations more prevalent.
In addition to setting the listening and speaking framework, a textbook should also complement the reading and writing you are doing with your phonics material by helping students to recognize high frequency sight words (i.e., common words that do not always follow standard phonics rules) and common sentence patterns.
The upshot of all this information is that going into your first kids’ class you have two major decisions to make: what materials will you use for reading and writing, and what textbook for listening and speaking?
Before making those calls, it is vital to assess your students’ levels in the various disciplines. Take in alphabet cards, phonics cards, paper, crayons and/or pencils. Do they possess the fine motor skills required for writing or do you need to begin with coloring and tracing? Can they recognize any letters? Do they know the ABC song? Can they write anything at all? Do they know any letter sounds? If they have studied before, what is the group reading level like?
Similarly, you need to assess their speaking and listening levels. Take in dice or standard playing cards, crayons or colored pencils, a picture dictionary or some picture card sets. Can they point out the colors or numbers to you? What about food, animals and classroom objects? Can they say any words themselves? Can they ask or answer basic questions? Can they make any full sentences? If they have studied before, at what point did they stop? If possible, can you look at the text they used?
Use the first few lessons to assess the students’ ability, level and confidence. From this look to set a reading and writing program that consolidates their existing phonics knowledge before extending into new areas. For speaking and listening, choose a textbook and accompanying workbook that errs on the side of underestimating rather than overestimating their ability. You can always extend lessons that are too easy, but trying to dumb down a textbook that is beyond the students’ capabilities is almost impossible. Success builds confidence, so ensure that they will have success.
Your local bookshop and the Longman, Oxford and Macmillan websites are all good places to start when you are looking for commercial texts. You can peruse or download samples and syllabi and use these to help select which is the best fit for your kids. You can either order direct or from online suppliers (google is your friend) or buy from bookshops.
For phonics materials, there are too many options to list here, but some research will help you to see what is around and whether you want to use a commercial system, use something online, or develop a reading and writing program of your own.
So there we are: teaching kids for the first time is daunting, but it doesn’t have to be terrifying. With a bit of time and preparation you might even relax enough to like it!
And of course, there is that extra pocket money to look forward to…