How to Teach Kids English: Everything You Need to Know About ESL for Young Learners

March 4, 2019
Anna, Teaching Kids English in Vietnam

Kids, children, and teens, collectively referred to as “young learners,” make up one of the most common student demographics within the TEFL industry, and teaching this group, which is common in Asia, Europe, and online, poses unique challenges and rewards for English teachers. As more countries around the globe and school systems within them increasingly put a greater emphasis on English language learning, teachers who are equipped to teach English to young learners and teenagers are in increasingly high demand. Learn more about how to teach kids English!

What is a young learner? Teaching kids vs. teaching teenagers

Technically, a “young learner” is considered any student under the age of 18, though some schools may even include young adults beyond 18 in this category. Within this broad group, you will find smaller subgroups, including very young learners (pre-K and kindergarteners), children/young learners (usually referring to school-aged kids under 12), and teenagers (around 13 to 18). Like all learners, these subgroups each have their own distinct characteristics related to their stage of development. Knowing how to teach English to these students, and having certification in teaching young learners to demonstrate that, can be a great boost to your professional TEFL prospects.

Where will I teach kids?

Children and teenagers learning English can be found around the globe. In some regions, it’s common for foreign TEFL teachers to either teach or assistant-teach in a K-12 setting (either in public or private schools), while in other regions, TEFL teachers work with students after school and on weekends at language centers. Regardless of the classroom setting, these are the regions where it’s most common to teach kids.

Teaching kids in Europe

One region where it’s popular to teach kids is Europe. Standard teaching positions exist at language institutes working with a wide range of ages. Another popular type of opportunity in Europe is working with kids at English summer camps. These camps are short-term and 100% English-focused, making the experience fun and immersive. Many European countries have government programs, such as France’s TAPIF program, that allow you to teach in public schools on a renewable annual contract. Some may even help you find housing or offer options to live with local families while you work.

Teaching kids in Asia

Another region where it’s extremely common to teach kids is Asia. Asian countries have put an increasing emphasis on English language instruction in recent years, leading to a huge number of TEFL jobs. Within the public school systems, the EPIK teacher recruitment program in South Korea and the JET program in Japan are examples of this push. China is also a particularly prominent market in this field of teaching English to children, with placements available both in the classroom and online.

Teaching kids online

The market and salary

The online teaching market, in general, is another place you’ll find plenty of opportunities to teach English to young learners, as this is what the majority of positions involve. This is a great option for those who love traveling and want to have a steady source of income while moving around frequently or for parents who prefer to work from home so they can stay with their kids. On average, online companies pay anywhere from $9-$26/hour and allow you to maintain a flexible schedule. All you need is a steady internet connection and some basic equipment and you can teach kids from anywhere in the world!

Online companies and students you’ll teach

Many online teaching companies are based in China and include employers such as VIPKID, Magic Ears, and Qkids. Although there are online companies that cater to learners all over the globe, Chinese students account for a significant portion of all online English language learners. For ESL teachers who live in the Americas, teaching online for a Chinese company means teaching either very early in the morning or very late at night because of the extreme time difference. This can either be a positive—you can work a second job during the day—or a negative if you’re someone who doesn’t work well during early or late hours.

Teaching online vs. in the classroom

Teaching online and teaching at a B&M (brick and mortar) school are quite different. Most online teaching jobs focus on either one-on-one tutoring or smaller virtual classrooms with around four students. B&M schools, on the other hand, will consist of larger classrooms with around 15-25 students on average.

Teaching in person and teaching online also allows for completely different types of activities. For example, online teachers may frequently use videos, music clips, online games and platforms with new technology while B&M teachers may use tasks that incorporate more movement or that can be done in groups.

Another difference is that while some online companies allow you to teach the same students repeatedly, others are set up so that your students are different each time, resulting in a very different type of student-teacher relationship than what you would experience teaching the same students at a B&M for an entire year.

Qualifying for online teaching jobs

There’s a lot of competition to teach online, but luckily the industry is growing every day. If you think teaching online is a good fit for you, consider earning a TEFL certificate in teaching English online to fully prepare yourself for these positions and stand out from other applicants. (Check out this article if you’re thinking of teaching English online, for everything you should know!)

What certificate do I need to teach kids?

Most of the TEFL jobs around the globe will specifically require teachers to have at least 100 hours of general TEFL certification. General courses like these introduce TEFL theory and methodology, along with English grammar, and may also include basic introductions to teaching specific groups, such as Young Learners and Business English (another common demographic of TEFL students).

However, do you need a special certificate to teach English to kids? Teachers who wish to be more competitive when applying for jobs to teach kids, or who want to advance at their current teaching job, should definitely consider taking their certification to the next level with a Specialized Certificate in Teaching English to Young Learners. Topics covered in this specialized course include how to properly prepare lesson plans, manage your classroom, and evaluate progress for classes in these age groups.

Trainees who add this kind of targeted training will also complete more total hours of TEFL certification, thus surpassing the minimum hours required to qualify for most jobs and becoming a more attractive candidate!

How do I start teaching English for beginners?

You may be wondering how you can teach English to children if they are total beginners and don’t speak any English. This can be an intimidating idea for new teachers! However, it’s important to note that for most jobs at language schools, TEFL teachers are unlikely to be assigned to work with complete beginners if the teacher has limited knowledge of the local language. Likewise, in K-12 classrooms of true beginner-level students, teachers who don’t speak the students’ first language (L1) typically work alongside a local teacher, as an assistant. This can be a great way to learn from an experienced teacher and watch their tried-and-true techniques.

However, in some instances, such as when teaching in a classroom of students with multiple native languages or when teaching for a school who uses immersion learning, you may be assigned to beginners despite having no knowledge of their L1. Though that thought may seem scary at first, it’s actually easier than you think if you use appropriate teaching techniques such as TPR (total physical response), props, regalia, photographs, and illustrations. You’d be surprised how much you can get students to understand just by acting out what you’re saying and keeping phrases short and simple.

Carolina, Teaching Kids English in China

Carolina, teaching kids English in China

What are the basic techniques for teaching English to young learners?

Young learners present teachers with a number of unique opportunities for creativity and engagement in the classroom. Check out some popular techniques below.

Techniques for teaching children

When working with younger children, it is best to incorporate games, songs, videos, props, and other fun and interactive elements into activities to keep the students moving and engaged. Children love to be active and included!

Kevin, who worked as an English teacher in Portugal, remembers organizing hands-on activities with the children he taught.

“I had my classes draw hand turkeys for American Thanksgiving, and taught them simple holiday songs near Christmas time (like ‘Jingle Bells’ and ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’). This was a way to offer them a fun activity that also taught them cultural lessons.”

Another key technique for teaching children is to maintain predictable and structured classroom routines. It improves student confidence and creates a positive learning environment when children know what to expect every day in class, and you make sure to avoid “downtime” when students aren’t sure what they should be doing.

To hold student interest, be sure to build in a variety of activities that involve different skills and incorporate both quiet and noisy tasks, so that students experience a balance of calm and energetic periods. Building lessons around themes can also help keep students attentive. It creates a sense of cohesion from one activity to the next and reinforces new material through varied learning techniques.

To learn more techniques for working with this age group, earn a Specialized TEFL certificate in Teaching Young Learners.

Techniques for teaching teenagers

Adolescents, meanwhile, can absorb lessons on more advanced elements of the language, like grammar and syntax. They also will have more developed conversational skills and can carry on more structured activities. Teachers can have a course discussion on issues in the news or have their students write and act out a dialogue – these are great ways to teach English in context. Remember that students have different learning styles, so aim for variety in the type of lessons and activities you do, so that you can facilitate all students’ learning.

Another great way to get students engaged in learning is to let them be a part of creating the classroom environment. While you’re ultimately the one in charge, older students will appreciate you involving them in how the classroom should be decorated or voting on which of two games they’d like to play next class. It gives them a sense of involvement and makes them invested in the outcome of the class.

In addition to boosting student engagement, ensure that teens receive adequate and frequent feedback to avoid frustration later on. Have them be a part of the evaluation process by reflecting on their own progress through journal entries or comparing how they performed on a past test with a more recent one on the same material. This ensures a clear line of communication between you and the student at all times and prevents complications from lack of transparency when it comes time to hand out final grades or offer broader feedback.

What are some games for teaching English to kids?

ESL games for young learners

Three of the more common kids’ English teaching games include:

Hangman: One student thinks of a word, and draws short lines to signify spaces for each letter of the word on the board. Classmates have a limited number of chances to guess the letters in the word, and each time they guess incorrectly, an element of the “hanging man” is drawn (such as the head, body, arm, etc.). If they guess a letter correctly, the student writes the letter in the appropriate space. If a student guesses the word, he or she is the winner. If the students guess enough incorrect letters so that all elements of the man are drawn, the man is “hanged” and the students lose.

BINGO: Create BINGO cards and a call sheet (use an online Bingo sheet generator like this one). Cut out the call sheet and put the squares into a box or bag. Give each student a bingo card and something to mark their card with, such as beans or pennies.  Allow each student a turn to be the “caller” who picks one square at a time from the box and calls out what is on the square (if you have been teaching colors and numbers, these can be great bingo topics! For example, if you call out the word “eight,” then your students will have to recognize the number and mark the “8” square). The other students listen for what is called and mark the corresponding image on their card. The first student to fill a complete line of squares on their card, either horizontally, diagonally, or vertically, calls out “BINGO!” and is the winner.

Board Race: Divide the class into two teams and have each team send one student up to the board. Draw a line down the middle of the board and assign one student to each side. Give each student a dry erase marker. Students will race to answer questions of your choosing. For example, you could use this game to review vocabulary by reading a definition aloud and having students race to write down the correct vocabulary word. Or, for spelling practice, call out words and have students race to spell them correctly. You can even practice pronunciation using minimal pairs. For example, students who have been reviewing the difference between sounds like [ʃ] and [ʃt] (as in sheep versus cheap) will have to listen carefully to which word you pronounce and race to write it down correctly. Give the fastest student’s team a point, and begin each new round with different students competing at the board.

For more detail on these games and others, here are some ESL Games and Activities to use with classes of young learners. 

BINGO for teaching kids English


ESL games for teenagers

There are also a number of useful games that prompt students to use the language actively and creatively. These activities work well for teenagers, who typically have a higher level of proficiency and more developed skills. Some classic games include:

Would you rather? Pair your students up. Have them ask each other to make a difficult decision between two funny or thought-provoking scenarios. For example, a student might ask, “Would you rather find your soulmate or find a million dollars?” Then they must explain why they chose the one they did. If you prefer a variation of this activity that incorporates the entire class as opposed to pair work, print out questions or have students write them down, and then mix them up in a bag. Have students draw one at random and take turns answering them in front of the class. If you need ideas for “Would you rather” questions, check out Conversation Starters World, a site that was created by an ESL teacher who wanted to share his ideas for getting students talking!

Two truths and a lie:  Ask students to come up with three statements about themselves, two of which are true and one of which is a lie. Then, each student presents his or her three statements to the class and the other students must guess which one is the lie. Not only does this prompt students to use the language with each other, but it helps them get to know their classmates!

Who Am I?:  Pass out sticky notes and have each student secretly write down the name of a celebrity. Collect the sticky notes and make sure that the celebrities written down are people with whom everyone should be familiar. Call each student up and stick one of the notes to their forehead or back without letting them see it. Once everyone has received a sticky note, have students walk around the room and ask their classmates questions to try and figure out which celebrity they have. The only rule is that they aren’t allowed to ask, “What’s my name?” This is a great activity for practicing how to ask questions and for incorporating a wide range of vocabulary.

For more ideas, check out Top 5 Icebreakers for the TEFL Classroom.

How do I manage a class of kids or teenagers?

Managing young learners

When teaching younger children, activity and engagement are very important – remember, language learning is play! Younger learners have shorter attention spans, which means you need to keep the class moving at a decent pace. For very young children, even a brief pause between activities may cause them to become distracted. To retain their focus during transition periods, try having them stand up and stretch or sing and dance to a song while you quickly prepare the next activity. This way, their energy and excitement will be guided.

Of course, it is also important to set structure and direction within these active classes. One way to do that is to have a clear set of class rules from day one, and to always make sure that your discipline tactics are consistent with the local culture and the school’s policies. When the class as a whole gets out of hand, try using a signal such as a clapping pattern or chant to bring everyone’s attention back on you and the lesson. For example, say, “One, two, three, eyes on me,” and have students repeat, “One, two, eyes on you.”

Another important guideline to remember is to always keep your instructions short. Not only will this help younger students remember what you said, but it will make directions easier to understand since students are still learning English.

Don’t forget to reward good behavior and correct answers as well! You can recognize positive behavior with prizes, special privileges, the chance to choose what the class does, or other methods of encouragement such as those outlined on this infographic:

How to Teach Kids English: Rewards for Young Learners

Managing teens

Teenagers, on the other hand, pose a different set of challenges. While they can retain more complex information and work more independently, many students in this age group also tend to be more self-conscious about actively participating in class (in contrast to children, who tend to be very energetic and open!).

Helping to foster a positive classroom environment and assuring that your students feel comfortable participating can go a long way towards getting them to learn the language. This can be done by setting clear rules with your teen classes, such as providing guidelines on respecting classmates when they’re speaking or interacting with the teacher. Putting together a seating arrangement that is conducive to the activities you plan to do with the class and does not encourage too much side talking, is also helpful.

Once again, keep in mind that not every student learns the same way, and it’s important to vary the types of classroom activities you plan. This way, you’ll appeal to more students and encourage different kinds of participation. For example, if you plan a class largely based on group speaking activities, try incorporating some written or listening tasks during the next lesson.

It is also important to be cognizant of your students’ needs and treat them as independent and autonomous learners. Consider having individual tasks that students can complete quietly if they finish the main activity before their classmates. This will help avoid behavioral problems due to boredom. Another common piece of advice is to discuss any problems with students’ behavior or performance privately with them after class; never reprimand them in front of their classmates!

Are you ready to teach English to kids?

When preparing for a new TEFL position, it is important to have an idea of how to best lesson plan and prepare for the specific types of students you’ll be teaching. If you would like to take your training to the next level, check out our TEFL/TESOL certification in Teaching English to Young Learners. Or, contact one of our advisors today!