With schools and academies all over the world closing due to coronavirus, most of us teachers are turning to the internet as a way to continue giving classes. If you teach adults or teenagers it may take some adjustment, but the transition will probably be fairly easy. However, when you have groups of young children it’s a completely different ball game. It’s a hard enough task to start teaching kids in your native language online, but when it comes to teaching English as a second language to preschoolers and kindergarteners it becomes next-level challenging!
In this article I’ll talk about some of the problems and things to consider when setting up distance learning with young children, and what resources and techniques you can use to help make your online classes a success.
Some of the problems of virtual classes and teaching kids online, particularly 3-5 year olds:
- Preschoolers have short attention spans and don’t do well sitting for long periods
- Preschoolers can’t read, so everything has to be very visual
- A parent may need to accompany them in case there are technical problems (there inevitably will be!)
- Many of the most successful games and activities teachers typically do in face-to-face classes are impossible to recreate in an online setting
There are many companies that specialize in teaching English to young kids via real-time, online classes. However, these programs use their own specially designed interactive platforms and software which include games and animation to support the online teaching. If you’re a normal teacher like me now faced with the task of teaching English to groups of 3 – 7 year olds online, how do you go about it?
The first task is to figure out what kind of online classes you want to transition to:
This is something you need to evaluate based on your particular teaching situation, the age of your students and how tech savvy you (and their parents!) are. If you need help with this first step, I recommend you read my article here in which I review some of the main ways you can set up your classes online.
In this article, however, I want to focus on the actual content of the lessons themselves. How do you engage wiggly little kids and try to teach them a different language when you’re not there with them in person and when you don’t have access to fancy software?
My aim here, then, is to give you some ideas for short games and activities you can do with young children during your online classes. I’ve chosen to include activities that you can use regardless of the format of your classes; whether you are connected with students in real time, or if you are pre- recording a video of yourself to send to parents.
These are actually all games I do in my normal classes when I’m with the kids in person, adapted where necessary for an online setting. I suggest using flashcards as an example, but for many of the activities you could show real objects instead. In fact, if you can use flashcards for some activities and real objects for others it will make it a lot more interesting for your kids!
In my normal, face-to-face, non-quarantine teaching life I have hour long classes once a week with my kids. Based on that, here is how I have decided to run my classes online:
- Create weekly pre-recorded video lessons which I share with children’s parents via Google Classroom. Each lesson is divided into four short 5-10 minute videos.
- Provide parents with a brief outline of what each video lesson contains in PDF format (as many of them will view it on their mobile phones). I include any special instructions so parents can help guide the youngest students through the video, YouTube links to relevant songs we have covered in class, and a summary of any extra tasks my students can complete.
- Provide a follow-up activity sheet for kids that parents can print out if they wish. As I run after-school classes, I don’t set any obligatory homework for my kids. However, in this situation I like to offer some extra support material that they can do if they want. I encourage them to send me a photo or scan of their completed work and make sure to give them feedback on it via email or Whatsapp.
- A selection of props: flashcards, toys, fruit, clothes, stick puppets etc.
- A small whiteboard – if you have an easel or stand to prop it on that would help
- A baking tray
- Picture books
- A shoebox
- Adhesive magnets or Post-It notes
All these games are aimed at children from 3 to 5 years old, but some can be adapted to children up to 8 years old by increasing the difficulty.
Simple Show and Say (3 - 8 years old)
Show a flashcard, say the word and invite children to repeat it. Then say the word again. If relevant, make the sound or action of whatever it is you are showing and invite children to do the same. For 6-8 year olds increase the number and difficulty of the words, or show picture-word cards so they can read the word as well as repeat it.
Yes or No
Show a flashcard and ask a simple question, “What’s this? Is it a cat?” Allow children to reply, then answer “Yes, it is!” or “No, it isn’t!”
Mystery Window (3-8 years old)
Cut some holes or slots from a piece of cardstock. Place a flashcard behind it, so that only some parts of the image are visible. Invite children to guess what it is, and then reveal the card to see if they are correct. Remember, the smaller and fewer the holes, the more difficult it will be for children to guess, so adjust this according to the age of your kids.
Flying Flashcard (3 - 8 years old)
Move a flashcard quickly across screen. Ask child if they know what it is. Move it again more slowly and ask again. Then stop the card and say the word.
Show two flashcards together at the same time – you can simply hold them up, or stick them to a board or baking tray. Say the name of one of them and ask them to point to the correct one. Then remove the incorrect card and say, for example, “It’s this one! This is the cat!”
What’s the sound? (3 - 8 years old)
You could use a mobile app or your voice for this activity. Stick two or more cards to a board or a baking tray. Play or make the sound of one of them. Point to each card in turn, “Is it the cow? Or is it the horse?” Play the sound again and invite the children to guess. For 6 – 8 year olds I recommend using an app for the sounds, as it’s more realistic and less babyish for them than using your voice.
Includes 76 sounds of animals, vehicles, instruments, tools. Although it says it's for toddlers, you can use the sounds for older children too. The only problem is you can't see them all in one window, so to choose a particular sound you have to scroll through to find the one you want.
Pictionary (3 - 8 years old)
It’s best if you have a small white board for this activity. Just draw a picture and ask students to guess what it is! You can make it as easy or difficult as you like, depending on the age of the children.
If you are sending a pre-recorded video you could turn it into a quiz for 6 – 8 year olds: draw several different pictures and ask your students to send you a video or audio message of themselves giving you the answers.
Mystery Box (3 - 6 years old)
I use my mystery box a lot in normal classes with my little ones and they love it! It’s easy to make one out of a shoebox, and you can also use it when teaching kids online – show the box, shake it around so they can hear the sound of whatever is inside and ask if they can guess what it is. I always put in something related to the theme we are learning and that I know they will be able to name. For example, I might put in an apple if we have been doing a fruit theme.
My mystery box also doubles as a feely box; obviously for online classes the children can’t feel for themselves what’s in there, but you could put your hand in and describe the object for them. If your students are too young to understand descriptions in English, you could trace the shape of the object in the air for them to help them guess, or mime using the object (for example, if it’s an apple you could pretend to put it to your mouth and take a bite). Alternatively, act like you’re thinking out loud and say “Hmm…is it an orange? No, I don’t think so!”, etc. Exaggerate actions and facial expressions to really engage them! Once you’ve created the suspense, open the box and show them what’s inside.
Guided Drawing (3 - 8 years old)
Using a small whiteboard, show your students step by step how to draw a picture and invite them to follow along with you at home. You can choose to make the pictures as simple as you like, according to the age of your kids. Ask them to send you a photo of their finished picture afterwards. You could also ask 6 – 8 year old students to describe their picture for homework.
Scavenger Hunt (3 - 8 years old)
This is certainly a fun activity that is great for getting kids moving around. However, for it to be successful you’ll need to figure out a way to manage it properly.
A lot of teachers seem to be recommending Scavenger Hunts for live-stream classes with preschoolers, although I’m not sure how they control the time. I can easily imagine a situation where the kids run off from the computer to find the items and one or two don’t reappear because they are obsessively looking for that one particular teddy to show to everyone else, and it absolutely can’t be any other teddy. Or they get distracted because they find another toy they haven’t played with in ages and completely forget about the class! Especially for 3-6 year olds, you’ll need to ensure parents are right there with them to keep kids on task.
Personally, I can see it working really well as a follow-up activity that children do in their own time. You can show them a list with pictures and words of the objects and ask them (or parents) to send you a photo after class once they have collected them all. For older students you could give them a list with the words only, not pictures, to make it harder.
If you want to do a Scavenger Hunt in a live-stream class I would suggest you manage it differently depending on the age of your students:
3-6 year olds: this age group often find competitive activities stressful, and I can imagine some kids getting upset if they don’t have or can’t find an item on the list when the rest of their classmates can. Setting a time limit may also be stressful for them. For this reason, if you’re doing this in a live-streaming class I would recommend you ask them to find a small number of objects, and that all the items are things you absolutely know they will all have! For example, a sock, a spoon, a book, a toothbrush, etc.
7-8 year olds: kids in this age group generally enjoy competition more, so they are less likely to get upset if they haven’t got one of the items on the list. You can set a time limit, give them more items to find, or ask them to find more obscure items.
Puppets (3 - 6 years old)
Many ESL preschool teachers use puppets in their normal classes to help teach vocabulary and get more timid kids to open up. If you have a puppet, it’s great a tool to use in your online classes too! You can talk to the puppet, make the puppet repeat words, and have the puppet talk and wave to the children.
Read-Aloud Picture Books (3 - 8 years old, depending on the story)
Another activity you can do when teaching kids online is to read picture books. You should be aware, however, that there are copyright issues with live-streaming or recording yourself on video reading certain books aloud and showing the pictures. I’m not sure how it can be enforced if you keep it on a private platform, but it’s something to bear in mind before you start enthusiastically posting videos of yourself on Facebook, for example. Having said that, many publishers have lifted read-aloud restrictions for the duration of the coronavirus crisis, or are allowing it with certain caveats. I suggest you check out this website for information on what different publishers’ rules are at the moment.
Another way of reading books without any worry about infringing copyright is to re-tell traditional stories such as The Three Little Pigs or Goldilocks and the Three Bears using clipart that you print and cut-out. Stick the cut-outs onto a whiteboard or baking tray, re-telling the story in your own words.
The great thing about teaching kids from first grade upwards online is that they are able to read and write by this age, allowing you to play a lot of different word and spelling games with them.
To play these games you need to be able to move the letters or words around on your board. You can make the word cards out of cardstock and place a small piece of adhesive magnet on the back of each, or just write the words onto Post-It notes.
Here are some ideas for games you can try:
Take a whiteboard or baking tray and stick or write the letters of a word to it. Make sure the letters are mixed up, so children have to guess what the word is. Pronounce the letters as you introduce them and invite your students to write them down on a piece of paper. Give them time to guess the word, or ask them to pause the video.
As with pictionary, you could make it into a quiz: write several different anagrams and ask your students to send you a video or audio message of themselves giving you the answers.
You can absolutely play bingo with your students in an online class! Stick at least 10 words on a board. Read each word out loud as you introduce it. Ask kids to divide a piece of paper into 6 squares and write down six different words – one in each square. Give them time to do this (or they can pause the video if you aren’t talking to them live). Remove the cards form the board and put them in a pot or a shoebox. Pull out a word card one by one, saying the name and then showing it. If a child has that word they put a cross in that square. The first one to cross off all the words on their bingo board wins! Don't forget to shout "BINGO!" when you complete the board! The great thing about this “online bingo” is that you or your children’s family members can play too!
For anyone unfamiliar with a rebus story, it is one in which certain words are substituted by pictures to help young children read-along. Rather than a whole story, you can compose rebus sentences for you kids! Stick a mix of word cards and flashcards to your white board or baking tray and ask them to read the sentences back to you. For example:
The (word card) - banana (picture card) – is (word card) - yellow (picture card)
If you are sending a pre-recorded video, you could ask them to write down the sentences in full and send them to you instead, or ask them to record themselves saying the full sentences to send to you.
This is basically the same as anagrams, but with words instead of letters. Write or stick the words of a sentence mixed up onto a whiteboard or baking try and have kids re-order the sentence correctly. Depending on the age and level of your kids, you could mix up word cards and picture cards to make a rebus sentence puzzle.
Secret Code Spelling
This is a great game for revising any vocabulary you want! Invent a secret code where you substitute letters for words. Display the code on your whiteboard – you can write the code in words, or use flashcards. For example:
yellow=a, purple=b, blue=i, green=n, pink=o, red=r, orange=w
Read out the words and ask children to write down the corresponding letters to form the secret word! For example, if you read out “red, yellow, blue, green, purple, pink, orange” the secret word is “rainbow”.