The first days of school are often stressful for young children (and their teachers too!), but when a school follows a bilingual programme and pupils are introduced to a second language during the first few days, it can make the whole experience even more scary and confusing. Teachers of children who are just beginning school therefore have to proceed carefully during this tricky time, as developing a positive attitude towards the language and culture and towards learning a foreign language is essential to the success of learning a new language.
If you are a teacher working with children who are just beginning their bilingual education, here are a few tips to help you get off to a great start:
- Respect the children’s adaptation to school life and familiarise yourself with their class routines. Spend some time just being in the classroom, talking to and playing with the children before you try to do any more ‘serious’ activities that involve sitting down. If possible you should try to imitate some of the routines that the class teacher establishes as it will help the children feel more secure about what’s going on, even when they don’t understand what you are saying to them.
- Talk to the children in English from the very beginning and don’t resort to using their mother tongue if you can avoid it – you can always ask the class teacher to help you out if there’s a problem. Try not to say anything that requires the children to answer or show understanding before they are ready to do so, and don’t worry if they appear to be ignoring you – they will need some time to get used to the idea. Another tip is to sing instructions and questions rather than saying them.
- Use lots of body language. This is advice for all communicators everywhere, but is especially important for bilingual teachers working with very young children. During the first few weeks, most of the communication with your pupils will take place through gestures and facial expressions and over time they will learn to associate the language they hear with the meanings.
- Get the children used to hearing English just by playing songs in the background, for example when the children the are playing or at snack time. When they have settled in, you can then use the same songs to teach them their first few words in English. Here are some recommendations:
- Use a cute or funny puppet to introduce the children to hearing the new language. A puppet will attract their attention and lower their affective filter, meaning that they are more likely to develop a positive attitude towards the new language which is crucial at this early stage. You could also make similar puppets or finger puppets for the children to play with at home. (Alternatively you can just draw little faces on their fingers – they love it!).
- Choose attractive story books and look at them with the children. Don’t be in too much of a hurry to read the story, but encourage them to look at the pictures while you say some of the words (dog, tree, blue, mummy). Lift the flap books are especially appealing to very young children and help to hold their attention, even when they don’t understand the story. Here are some suggestions of some good books to use with 3 year olds:
- Spot Goes to School (Eric Hill) (video)
- The Very Hungry Caterpillar (Eric Carle) (video)
- Maisy’s Rainbow Dream (Lucy Cousins)
- The Three Little Pigs (Nick Sharratt) (Look at the pictures, and tell the story, but don’t read the text as it is.)
- Dear Zoo (Rod Campbell)
- Brown Bear, Brown Bear ( Eric Carle)
- Charlie the Chicken (Nick Denchfield)
- Hooray for Fish (Lucy Cousins) (video)
- Coordination and collaboration with the other class teachers is always essential in successful bilingual projects, but especially during the first few months of infant school. Find out what projects and topics your class teachers are going to work on and decide how you can contribute in English. Ideally the units of work or projects should be planned by both the class teachers and English teachers together, so make sure you establish a time and place to do this effectively.
- Be fun. To engage and maintain children’s attention your sessions will need to be highly motivating with lots of attractive games and activities. As you cannot engage them with what you are saying (they won’t understand at first) you will have to find other ways of keeping their attention when you are talking to them. To do this you should use plenty of visual aids and realia. You could also use a range of bags, boxes, puppets, props, costumes, masks, soft toys and flash cards to turn simple circle time activities into games. One of my favourites is ‘pass the ball‘. (Please note that it takes a few goes for the children to get the hand of this game!)
If you have tries any of these activities in your classes or you have some more ideas for the first classes with infants, please comment and/or share below. You can also see these links for more ideas: