Understanding ESL in the Early, Early Years

Learning English is super popular right now. Since it is becoming the 'universal tongue', there is plenty of incentive around the world to learn it. This means that loads of people are learning English as their second language.

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For native speakers, this opens up about a billion doors of opportunity to teach English. Awesome, right? Absolutely! For teachers or those who studied English/literature at university (seriously, where else is that major going to take you?!) (kidding, you can do anything with it!), teaching English is a prosperous chance.


Now, something we ESL teachers of the world need to be aware of: learning English is POPULAR. I know I already said that. But here is just how popular learning English is...EVERYONE wants a piece of it. And by everyone, I mean everyone of ANY age.

You've heard of teaching adults. Now, welcome to teaching toddlers. And babies. Yep, the world of ESL for the early years is becoming a thing.


I, along with many other tech-savvy teachers, are teaching English online. This is in high demand in China where parents love the concept of in-home (or in-car/in-restaurant/in-toilet...you name it...) English lessons over a screen. They love it so much that some parents are signing their babies, toddlers, and preschoolers up.

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One of my regular students is 2 years old. His attention span is about 2 seconds. It's a challenging 30 minute lesson, to say the least!

Before you panic, rest assured that there are loads of things you CAN do with early years students in these classes. Forget the courseware...on average they're about 7 slides long and include vocab not really suitable for a little nugget brain. Get creative with these classes!

First, let's think about what early years students actually want to get out of English. Their brains are still developing in their first language, let alone a second. This means they don't want 'free talk' and sentence building or grammar explanations.

Here are some key focal points for your early years students. These concepts can help to give you some direction in 'lesson planning' - I use that term loosely!

Bear in mind, with early years students, they don't have a large awareness development. They get BORED easily. This isn't anything personal! There are so many distractions and stimuli physically around them that it can be overwhelming to focus just on a screen (no matter how animated and awesome you are!).


On that note, don't expect your early years student to focus for more than 5 minutes on one given task. You need to think quick, be flexible, and always have another thing at the ready. That being said, young learners love repetition and learn well from it, so don't be afraid to do a few of the things you did last lesson in your next lesson.

So, here are some ideas to help you brainstorm. I also have an eBook available with more in-depth activities and resources. It costs $2.99, but the ideas below are free for you now!


- Phonics and sounds - hearing words

- Alphabet letters (the name and sound of each letter)

- Visual cues like pictures and flashcards

- Aural cues like songs (if you can sing well, great!) (if you play an instrument, even better!)

- Where possible, Youtube videos with songs and cartoons

- Props, toys, and puppets

- TPR words and songs like heads, shoulders, knees, and toes

- Counting songs and games

- Nursery rhymes

- Human figure dolls for body parts (young learners respond better to something that looks like them and they can relate to)

- Facial expressions

- Colours, colours, colours

- Story books

- Animals (think zoo animals and farm animals)

- Animal sounds and actions

- Action verbs like jump, run, eat

- Drawing a picture and describing it as you draw

Hopefully these ideas will get your brain juices flowing and inspire you to have some fun if you land an early learner. The more fun you have, the easier these types of lessons will be. It is a whole new way to break out of your comfort zone!