On Teaching Kindergarten
Working at a training center, a teacher cannot exactly specialize in the intricacies of one of two classes. We don't even have the benefit of focusing on one or two grade levels. There are adult classes, IELTS training classes, pre-teen classes, primary classes, adult communication classes, teenager classes, and kindergarten classes. They all need to be taught and I teach all of them.
The different age groups have different needs. It is my job to adjust and help them meet those needs. Adults need practical daily English. Teenagers need strategies for taking exams. Primary school students need to learn grammar. Most age groups can be taught similarly. Book work is the focus. The book is taught linearly. Students take exams based off of the book work. That is what they call English language study. All of the levels can follow this model with the exception of kindergarten. Earlier in my career, I would have never guessed that I would love teaching young learners as much as I do.
In the school year of 2011-2012, my school in Yichang was putting together two different programs, a kindergarten class on one hand and an IELTS testing class on the other. I was given the kindergarten classes while the intern, who was a Chinese university student on a year-long hiatus from her studies in Ohio, took on the IELTS class. Here are some pictures from the summer of 2012.
The kindergarten class blossomed and over the next four years, I always had multiple classes of kindergartners at the training center. I even secured a weekday job at one of the local kindergartens where I could really refine some of my techniques and favorite classroom activities.
Below are key elements that a teacher needs to consider when teaching kindergarten-aged students:
Emphasize Exposure to Material Instead of Mastery of the Material
Children this young are not literate in their native language. There are so few expectations put on them in their daily life. A teacher cannot expect them to come into a classroom for 90 minutes on Saturday and then 90 minutes on Sunday and do book work. School is bad enough and strips adventurous minds of their curiosity, inquisitiveness, and beautiful qualities that allow them to learn naturally. Having had taught older students, I have seen the damage. Expose children to beautiful and intelligent things and they will be attentive, receptive, and eager to participate. Then watch as they learn despite any obstacle.
An IELTS student most likely would never come across the word pirouette. There might be an article with this as a keyword and it might be translated in a glossary. And therefore glossed over by the students. It most certainly is not a word useful for daily English. But I would argue that pirouette is a brilliant word that is a key idea in a kindergarten class.
This beautiful video from Sesame Street shows the Feijoo sisters demonstrating to Grover what a pirouette is after he anxiously and wrongly tries to tell us, although it is obvious that he has no idea. The sub-lesson here is that you don't need to pretend that you know something when you clearly have no idea. Grover does this to great comedic delight.
I showed them the video on my Ipad using the Documents app. I wrote about the app (here). I was in such awe at watching how the children reacted to the video that used my phone to record their reaction. The resulting video is here, click the picture:
Some students are less engaged in class. They are withdrawn and cannot be coaxed into participating. By making exposure the goal, I have learned not to worry about such students. A few weeks in class is a very short time and they deserve my patience as they come around in their own time. I trust that they are watching and will be among the bubbly-ness (made up word) in their own time. Videos like this help bring them out of their shells and their enjoyment signals to me that this material is exciting for their level.
Keep Things Spiraling in Control
The schedules for every level look the same. There are a series of lessons moving linearly through the book, followed by a short review, and then an exam. Some schedules are not well thought out and as a result the lesson stagnates. Other lessons move along and everything is completed efficiently. This is no guarantee that the students can use what they learned but everyone pretty much agrees that a series of lessons followed by a review, followed by a test is the best way to do things.
Young learners classes are the exception. Learning doesn't work that way. Watch a kindergarten stagnate and a teacher will come to learn to hate teaching kindergarten. In other words, fail to make the class engaging and suffer the consequences. Children do love routine but rather than moving forward through material, kindergarten classes work best if you have a variety of activities that you can do at any time, in any order, on any day. You do need to introduce the lesson in a fun way but don't feel that there is one perfect way to do that. Your style and your students will determine how best to do that. And because you expect them engage with the activity multiple times, the process of them understanding it is the learning process too.
I always start class the same way. We have a hello song, which is a repeat after me song. Then we have a singing together song with hand movements.
They come to class with a lot of pent up excitement. The singing permits shouting which helps them vent that energy. It also brings us to a similar grounding so that we can communicate. The introduction songs register in their minds that it is now time for learning.
Rather than forcing a lesson to work, I use this time to evaluate them and then decide on what I am going to review with them. It not unlike being a cook and gauging how hungry they are before I open the cupboard and seeing what I have to cook for them today. I good cook preps ingredients so that the cooking time is shortened and a delicious meal can get to the table in no time.
I have seen a teacher leading an SAT class where he is alone with 4 students. He is behind his desk on one side of the room while the four students are in their desks on the other side of the room. He is not standing at the board describing something with excitement. He is not calling on the student to reply. There appears to be a ravine between the teacher and students bridged only by a 5 pound SAT guide.
Even if I taught SAT, I would not interact with students this way. It goes against my nature. And certainly with young learners, this would never work. The students would be sure to let me know such distance doesn't work in the only way that they know how. The result would be that I would not like teaching young learners very much.
Children at this age have such a small circle of adults in their life. The whole concept of a teacher to them is clouded by their world of uncles, aunts, grandparents, and fluffy animals. As a teacher, they see you as some sort of combination of the above. Sitting in a horseshoe makes it easier for them to come up to you. Most students are reticent at first and so it takes an act of bravery. But only one student needs to be brave. The others are carefully watching what happens. If they see a student being propped up on my knee, responding to a question and then being bounced a couple of time before being set down, the class all wants a chance to do the same. Engaging this way gets them talking. They think they are playing.
With a class of sixteen students, I divide them between me and my assistant. Getting them seated around tables is a stressful act of coordination at first. But once they are used to this sort of set up, they even are helpful while getting in position. A wide variety of activities are done in this set up. Playing with clay to make shapes, counting dry beans, etc. are ways to have them practice English. Just understand that interacting with the teacher is what they are more interested in. The English is not really yet a real thing for them yet.
For a long time I have been skeptical of the importance of the ABC song. Do we really need to learn it? Sure the order helps them know how to alphabetize their CD collections or look up library books in the card catalogue. But will saying the letters help them sound out words? It is nothing more than a starting point and shouldn't be over emphasized.
If you have built rapport with the class by engaging with them closely and if you have helped them get used to the chaos of transitioning between activities, then you can easily teach letter formation and sounds through tactile learning.
The two main objects I use to help me do this are dried beans and clay. I will never forget the first time I brought out my tub of clay for the students. The students were shouting out the colors as they wanted me to give them the color of their choice. I pretended that I was not impressed with knowing colors already. Through the assistant, I let them know that this is not the right word to use when I am handing out clay. The correct word is simply, "Thank you."
It is really important for them to use their hands while they are learning. I can tell just by the looks on their faces that they are really happy to use the clay or beans. The joy of learning seems to be lost among older students. This is accepted by everyone involved in education except for kindergarten students. They remind us that we can get lost in time if we are having fun doing it. Sometimes there seems to be so much to learn and that remembering everything is next to impossible. But it will be learned over time. Muscling through it is not a solution. If you focus your attention on one and then repeat your method, you will get through more than if you try to do too much at once.
Kindergarten students are not simply copying the shapes. They are trying to figure out how to reproduce 3D puzzles. Making a letter that I dictate to them, they first have to spin a mental wheel until the image comes into their head. There is nothing boring about that at all. Putting it all together is kind of exhilarating. This is the the most basic parts of the language. They have to engage with it at their pace. The teacher has to introduce the student to materials and then back off so the student can figure things out on their own. They have too use their hands and watch their peers to learn.
Having the World at Your Command
Language is power. You cannot imagine how powerless you are without language until you go to a foreign country without any knowledge of that language. Language proficiency means that you can let someone know what you want and what others want. For students wanting to go abroad, it means opportunity which can be truly life changing. Language can introduce you to new ideas, lifestyles, friends, jobs, etc.
All of this means absolutely nothing to a five year old. For them to understand language's power there has to be a direct link between what they say and something happening. In the beginning there is a lot of Total Physical Response activities. I tell them to stand up and they stand up. A few commands work like this:
These basic commands are not part of some frivolous game. One day the office scheduled my class in the wrong room. They moved my classroom to a larger room. They thought I wanted more space. I arrived to see all of my students shoe-less and sitting down but in the wrong room. To make matters worse, the room was on the other side of the office space. When I protested, they said I could change back. Ha, good luck. So I used the above series of commands with my students to march them across the high traffic office, the tutor, and into my classroom. I had to block off some older students, who are used to pushing their way around the area, so to not crash into my students. This was a test. The students passed with flying colors.
I was extremely pleased with the students and so I tested them to see of they were ready for the next level. The video below shows the results of that:
It is not enough for the students to repeat after the teacher. Saying words is for for about half a minute. Making the movements that correspond with the words is only fun for a bit longer. But for an endless source of amusement, the students say the word and the teacher has to make the movement. That is hilarious for them. Not only does it get them to practice saying the word, but it shows them that the language can make others do things. Getting the teacher to act foolish is not exactly using language to get a need met. That is true unless you are in need of laughing yourself into stitches. But seriously, how often do students get to have such control and choice in their life? This role reversal not only encourages students to speak. It also gives students a sense of how language can be used to make things happen around them. Personal empowerment may sound hokey and belonging in some TED Talk, but our sense of empowerment is formed at an early age. As a kindergarten teacher, I can help build students who believe in their own intelligence, creativity, and their voice. That is no small thing.