Teaching English, part 2, tips and tricks

< Read part 1 of my teaching adventures

Kids are harder to teach than adults.  Their attention spans are shorter, they are not very obedient, and often times they’re forced to be there by their parents to sit in a dreary classroom instead of playing outside with their friends.  It is one of the toughest things I’ve had to do.

But, despite my rants on how tough it is to teach little kids, I hope you can tell that I actually love it.  Sure you’re drained by the end of the class, but afterwards it feels so rewarding you wouldn’t mind doing it all over again.

Recently I picked up two tutoring gigs from a school call Tomi’s English, a one-on-one tutoring school by day and a bar by night.  I don’t make much money from these gigs since I only teach one hour a day, four days a week, but I wanted the experience and figured it would be fun.  Also, the knowledge I gain from teaching these kids will help us make our English learning website better.  Hey!  Free beta testers!

One of my students is a five-year-old girl who is extremely shy but extremely intelligent.  She is also very obedient and enthusiastic about learning English.  I have a blast teaching her every time, because of how quickly she learns and how easy going the classes are.  Right now her English is probably better than all the first-graders in all of Xi’an, and she’s still only in Kindergarten.

Now compare that with my other student, a 6-year-old boy spoiled by his rich parents, who has his own study room and his own iPad and countless toys and distractions vying for his attention, I learned that the teaching experience varies widely from kid to kid.  This boy is a hyperactive machine on legs.  His attention span is less than five minutes, and to top it off he isn’t very obedient at all.  I can’t get him to sit still long enough to go through a proper lesson.  But he is also extremely intelligent, and I think he gets bored easily because of it.  Sometimes short attention spans doesn’t indicate ADHD, it just means the kid is bored with what you’re teaching him.  So I’d had to invent quite a few tricks to get him to learn.

Make learning fun, use games and activities to hold their attention

Kids get bored easily, you can’t just go through a lesson in a book and expect them to stay focused.  Best way to keep their attention is when you’re doing something fun together.  Here are some activities we’ve done.

1. Hands-on activities.  Kids love making stuff and doing stuff, such as drawing and coloring and cutting shapes out of construction paper.  I bring a set of “tools” that includes construction paper, color pencils and crayons, safe plastic scissors, glue-sticks, and masking tape.

Have them learn their shapes and colors by cutting them out of construction paper.  All kids like to draw, so do some drawing activities with them.  They also love being to choose what they like, so ask them to pick their favorite colors and ask them to draw their favorite animal or some other objects.  You can write the English word on the page after they’ve drawn it, teaching them the written version of the word.

2. Play games with them.  For example, I teach numbers by playing Bingo with my students.  I have an iPad app that chooses and calls out the numbers, but you can easily make them out of construction paper.  There are free bingo card generators online you can use to print out your game cards.  If the kid’s number knowledge is only up to ten, read out the numbers higher than ten individually, say two, one instead of twenty-one until they start to get the concept of the higher numbers.

3. Reading is essential.  If you want the kid to retain their English vocabulary, you have to teach them the written version of the word.  Just being able to hear it and say it isn’t enough.  The best way to teach the written language is to read story books to them.  My favorite books are Dr. Seuss books, because they’re fun, simple, and they rhyme!  Kids love rhyming stuff!

But don’t just read to them straight out, have them interact with you as you go through the book.  Ask them questions, make them repeat a particularly fun sentence in a funny voice.  The key is to keep them engaged.  You can pick a random word and ask them to spell out each letters, saying the sound equivalent of each letter at the same time.  Huh-H!  Aah-A!  Tuh-T.  Hat!  Once you’ve done it enough they’ll start to get the concept of reading and recognizing the printed words.

4. Sing!  Most kids love singing.  Some kids are too shy to sing, but they almost always love to hear it.  The human brain is just naturally drawn to music, and singing is the best trick to help them learn new words.  I like to teach The Itsy-Bitsy Spider and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.  You can write the lyrics down in huge letters on pieces of paper and point to the words as you sing with them.  You can also make it fun by doing the corresponding dance with each song.  Make up your own if the song doesn’t have a traditional dance associated with it.  🙂

5. Cater to the kid.  The personalities of each of your student varies greatly, but if you can afford to teach them one-on-one, or spend a little bit of individual time with them in a classroom setting, you can use what they like to gain their enthusiasm.

The boy student likes Thomas the Engine, so I read Thomas the Engine books to him and show him Thomas the Engine videos on my iPad.  The girl student likes Disney princesses, so I teach her Disney songs like Part of Your World from The Little Mermaid and A Whole New World from Aladin.

6. Everyone loves taking pictures and videos.  One trick I learned is to use my iPhone to get them to act out the lessons I want them to learn.  This particular video I’m particularly proud of, because I didn’t think the kid learned anything at all from our lesson.  He was always running to his computer trying to play video games or play with his toys as I tried to teach him the words.  But then he surprised me by showing me how much he learned.

There are a million ways to teach a kid.  Just experiment with different methods until you find the ones that work for your students.  And remember to keep learning fun!







4 responses to “Teaching English, part 2, tips and tricks”

  1. Leo Avatar

    very very very nice, Huey! =)

  2. Wenjie Avatar

    李老师好 :P

  3. Vinny Ly Avatar
    Vinny Ly

    Man, I can tell you’re just having tons of fun and doing very meaningful stuff over there bro! I’d bet money right now you’re intensely happy just thinking about what you’re doing and your current life is like from the outside/big picture 🙂

    Just hold on to those thoughts whenever you start missing the niceties of western civilization, you know, like easy to obtain coffee filter and new novels and shiney shopping mall, hehe 😉

  4. Lena Schardt Avatar
    Lena Schardt


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