Breaking Down the Barriers

I frequently have conversations with English teachers who ask me for advice about teaching children who hate English. The fact is, it’s almost impossible to teach anyone who refuses to learn or who doesn’t believe that they are able to learn. The first step is to show them that English isn’t scary, threatening or impossible to understand. In order for children to learn anything they must be convinced that they are capable of learning and that it will be painless.
With young children (pre-K until about 2nd grade) it’s usually much easier. They are natural mimickers and less self-conscious about how they sound, which makes it easier to get them to speak. Even the stubborn pupils at this age are easier to convince. If we speak to them or sing with them in English accompanied by hand gestures or facial expressions, they understand and absorb the language without even being aware that they’re learning. After they respond to a request or answer a question, that’s the time to point out that you spoke English and they understood.
As children get older it becomes more difficult. By the middle of elementary school they begin developing mental blocks. They recognize English immediately and “tune-out” without even trying to understand. Weak pupils develop real gaps in addition to those they imagined. But all is not lost. Use the English words they already know. On Facebook you can see faces. Photoshop is used to edit photos. Cars must pass a test. Men put on aftershave after they shave. All of these are words associations that students suggested.
I also recommend that sometimes you put aside the books and workbooks and try these ideas instead.
Games: Look for simple games appropriate for their age that involve some English. They need to experience success without feeling like the games are too easy or childish. Card games with words and pictures are easy to learn and also teach sentences like “It’s your turn”, “Do you have…”, etc. There are also a lot of fun group games that use repetitive sentences. Take games they enjoy playing in Hebrew and translate them into English. These will be easy to learn and understand. Don’t forget the classics like hangman, charades, Simon says and “When I go to the moon I will bring…”. Praise each achievement with “Very good!”, “Well done!” or “Excellent!”.
Songs: Most of your students, even if they don’t like English lessons, probably listen to songs in English. Ask them what songs they like, make sure the lyrics are appropriate and learn the songs together. Work on pronunciation, talk about the meaning of the lyrics, ask them questions about the song and the singer. Let them stage a clip or choreograph a dance to the song. If you have students who play instruments they may want to bring instruments to class.
Rap: Rhythm is contagious. Setting your lessons to a catchy rhythm improves pronunciation, makes language chunks easier to remember and most important, kids love it. Write a sentence on the board, then elicit similar sentences from students. Start a rhythm by snapping your fingers, tapping on your desk, hitting a small drum, etc. If you don’t feel like a rapper, let your students take over. Invite them to perform for the class.
Find out what interests them: What are their hobbies? What do they like to do? What do they want to talk about today? Go for a walk, cook, dance, draw pictures, play football, it doesn’t matter what you do as long as you do it in English. If they are absorbed in an activity and enjoying themselves they will forget that they don’t understand.
Like in any aspect of education, the most important thing is to encourage them and let them experience success. Show them that they can learn, speak and understand. They may even have fun.

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